Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A (Very) good artist

(published in the December/January issue of Effingham Magazine)

This particular paining of Norman Blackwell’s isn’t for sale.  He isn’t sure anyone would want it anyway.  It hangs six feet from the door of the home off a dirt road in Clyo that has been in his family for generations – he half-jokingly says “I’ve got the land grant from King George back here somewhere.”   The still-life depicts an ordinary, solid lavender vase on a table next to a multi-colored floral arrangement.  Blackwell was 12 when he painted it.

“I couldn’t do that again,” he says.  Considering that you are completely surrounded by Blackwell’s other paintings when sitting inside his living room, the statement makes as much sense as Beethoven in his prime claiming he couldn’t write another note.  When asked to explain, Blackwell’s reasoning is rooted in youth.  “I was young when I painted it, and I love young people and teaching young people.  They do so many great things because they aren’t old enough to know they can’t do those things yet.”  If that’s the case, Norman Blackwell must be the youngest 77-year-old on the planet.

Board Game

The square is mostly yellow, with bits of black and red in a variety of geometric patterns.  It is part acrylic paint, part fabric.  Blackwell calls it “Board Game” because, well, it looks like a board game, something he might have played in his youth which, despite his family’s Effingham County heritage, did not begin here.

“I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina because my father was a salesman for International Correspondence Schools at the time,” says Blackwell, the youngest of Roy and Ruby Blackwell’s three children.  That was December 9, 1933, the middle of the Depression that would soon send the family back to Georgia.  “We moved back down here when I was two after my father lost his job.”  Norman’s mother soon moved to Savannah when she began working for a florist, coming back to the former plantation on weekends in those pre-commuting days.  Norman and the rest of the family would follow when the U.S. entered World War II and Norman’s father went to work for Savannah’s shipyard.

Pinball Universe

“I love the old movies, all the movies I used to go see two or three times a week when I was young,” Blackwell says.  He liked them so much he started creating costumes for his favorite actresses, “painting them in water color and tempura,” he says.  When he lost interest in costume creation, he decided to cut up the old paintings and turn them into a collage, and that collage reminded Blackwell of another part of his youth.  According to his website,, “When I finished it, I noticed it resembled the pinball machines that were popular when I was a boy.”  Something else that was popular with the young Blackwell was art class at Savannah High School.

Art became Norman’s life calling when he first encountered Savannah High’s art teacher, Margaret Murphy – to this day one of the school’s most popular instructors.  “Miss Murphy was special,” Blackwell says.  “I had her for three years, and she encouraged me so much.  Her encouragement gave me the confidence to want to be an artist.”  That confidence led to his graduating high school two years early in 1950 and enrolling at Armstrong Junior College.  Blackwell then headed west to UCLA, but while there, he was told that he would find a better art department at a well known school much closer to home.

Red and Black

It’s a relatively simple collage; watercolor on strips of paper in vertical patterns of varying width.  The dominant colors are familiar to most folks around here – some white, but mostly the color of the beloved Dawgs of Athens.  Hence the name “Red and Black.”

Blackwell arrived at the University of Georgia in 1952, and pragmatism overcame his desire to do nothing but paint.  “I majored in advertising design because I knew I would need to do something to make money when I got out of school,” though Blackwell quickly adds that he still took every course in painting that was available.  

He became a fan and student of one of Georgia’s foremost artists, Lamar Dodd, who at the time happened to be head of the university’s art department (UGA’s art school is now named for Dodd).  During his senior year, Norman was art editor of The Pandora, the university’s yearbook, and his original drawings for that yearbook are still on display at the UGA museum.  He received his degree in 1956, and Norman was soon off to the capitol city to find work.

Rising Sun

Norman says his inspiration was a blood-red sunset surrounded by golden clouds that he saw as he was walking his dog late one afternoon.  But it’s the canvas of “Rising Sun” that is the color of blood, with pieces of gold lame, all uniquely shaped, surrounding a faint outline of the circular sun.  When the sun rose on Blackwell after he left college, he was not painting as much as he wanted to.  Much of his time was spent at one of the largest department stores in the state.  

“I was an assistant buyer for Macy’s in Atlanta,” a job Blackwell says initially paid him $75 a week.  Not bad money certainly – that’s almost $600 a week in today’s dollars - but Norman says his eyes were opened when a Revlon Cosmetics salesman took him to lunch one day.  “Our lunch bill was $85, which was chump change to this guy.  That’s when I knew I needed to get into sales if I wanted to make some real money and give myself more time to paint.”


The yellow canvas is resplendent with beads of paint, a technique called Pointillist Dots which Norman uses frequently.  There are simple lines of straight beads, but the beaded border is comprised of patterns common to the clothing of Native Americans.  Something resembling a Celtic cross lies inside a purple circle just above the center, other multi-colored symbols splattered beside and below the cross.  Long before “Icon” was a gleam in Norman’s eye, he made his move to sales inside one of America’s iconic companies.  But devotion to his true love would later spawn a prodigal journey to a new institution that would approach iconic status long after Norman left.

The year was 1960, and Blackwell would join the advertising and sales department at Proctor and Gamble’s headquarters in Cincinnati.  It was also the year he would help his new boss begin marketing its new liquid fabric softener; Downy.  “The next year, it was Pampers, which was the first successful disposable diaper.  Then I worked with Tide, with its box design,” Blackwell says.

As Blackwell neared his 20th anniversary with Proctor and Gamble, work began to dry up.  “The company began to farm out more and more of its creative advertising work to agencies in New York,” he says.  He loved P-and-G, but he wanted out.  As luck would have it, a tiny art school would bring Blackwell home and closer to his muse.

Savannah College of Art and Design had seven faculty members teaching 71 students when it opened its doors in 1979.  The school wasn’t much bigger when it made Blackwell its first gallery director the following year.  He was home, working with his beloved artists, and had a dynamic boss in Paula Wallace, SCAD’s co-founder and its president since 2000.  She was the school’s Provost, technically SCAD’s second-in command to her then-husband when she interviewed Norman for the job.  “But you could tell, at least I thought I could, that she was the one in charge from the beginning.  She is the driving force for the success of that school.”

The honeymoon didn’t last.  “They wanted to make recruiting part of my job,” Blackwell says of the reason he left SCAD in 1983.  “I didn’t want to recruit; I wanted to be involved in the art.”  He continued to paint as much as he could while becoming a travelling school supplies salesman for the next dozen years when all of it, his work, his painting, his life, almost ended.


Speaking of icons, Blackwell’s first portrait of Marilyn Monroe is of the legend in the infamous dress that didn’t fit - the dress she was sewn into to impress her lover, the President, when she sang at his 1962 birthday party.  Within a year-and-a-half of the song that infuriated a first lady who knew what had gone on, both Marilyn and John Kennedy would be dead.  Norman is now working on a second portrait of Marilyn on a hexagon-shaped canvas.  He almost didn’t get to.

“I had to retire from selling school supplies because I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease,” Blackwell says, stunning considering he shows virtually no symptoms to the casual observer.  “Oh, it was pretty bad for a time, and I wasn’t sure I would ever get to paint again.”  But Blackwell says he prayed his way through it, and says his prayers brought him an excellent doctor who has helped control the disease.  

In addition to Marilyn, Blackwell has quite a bit of commissioned portrait work ahead of him; millionaires in New York and one of the deans at Notre Dame University among others.  Lately, he has also broken away from the patterns and geometrics that define much of his non-portrait work, opting instead for barns and other scenery.  “My newest fascination is New York storefronts, and I want to do a series of those in addition to a series of barns,” Blackwell says, “but to be honest, I’ve got so many ideas, I ‘d have to live to be 150 to do them all.  I’ll be busy until I just can’t do it anymore.”

Whether it is something for his simple country home, something for an opening in New York or the famous Saatchi Gallery in Europe, for the private collection of a local family or that of the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Blackwell says he will live by the advice of his high school art teacher until he lives no more.  "Miss Murphy told me ‘Norman, if you are a good artist, don't hesitate to say so when you are asked about it. If you do not feel you are a good artist, change the subject, and keep studying and painting until you become one’."  He is still studying and paining, but judging by the demand for his work, there is no doubt that Norman Blackwell is a very good artist.       

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