Norman Courtney Essay by Robin Rice
Fall 2002 Fellow
“It’s too easy to please people with the beauty of the material,” muses Norman Courtney as he contemplates a simple piece of flat cast glass. Nevertheless, the Fall 2002 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America has devoted over two decades and much skill and inventiveness to sharing the beautiful “light and shadow and life” of glass with others.
Courtney has been casting glass for some 20 years. For the last 12 of these, he’s been primarily occupied with public commissions, some of which do not involve glass. In fact, it might be said that today he is more public artist than glass artist. Even as he experimented solo cast glass experiments at CGCA, work moved forward on a recreation center in Columbia Missouri for which he’d designed architecture with sculptural components: a curved wall with a pool and a water slide–all without glass.
Courtney is realistic about the compromises inherent in successful public work. “It’s a fine line to walk: responding to history and the local vernacular.” He meditates on his successes in contrast to the notorious cautionary histories of Richard Serra and Diego Rivera who each, for very different reasons, made public works which were removed because they did not please. “The challenge in public art is to engage people in ways they don’t expect. They don’t come there looking for art.”
Courtney has worked very abstractly and very representationally. He is adept at thinking in terms of areas of light and shadow as a way of structuring architectural experience, though his work is always marked by a satisfying sense of order. “Color is often a problem,” he mentions surprisingly. “Everybody thinks they know about color.” Colored glass and other materials are also difficult to light. Courtney’s solution is often clear glass, backed with mirror when possible. “I’m interested in dealing with light. As you move by that piece all these lights and shadows change.” Nevertheless, in spite of myriad advantages, including an enhanced sense of space, Courtney does not feel married to glass — not because he has lost interest in the material but because the project has to be his primary focus. The reasons for choosing a specific material are specific. A relief wall in a mental hospital, which might have been glass, had to be “attack rated” and, so, was constructed of aluminum.
Although Courtney relishes the task of dealing with new technologies (“Silicone to glaze pieces together; powder coating; engineering: awesome! I’ve taken on jobs before I knew how to do them. That’s what keeps me intrigued by it.”) and working with crews so large he says he sometimes feels like a film producer, he misses the freedom, immediacy and zest of art as play. “I haven’t worked on any discreet objects or gallery work in a long time,” he admits ruefully. He applied to CGCA specifically for the opportunity to be an artist working alone in a studio with only himself to please. Yet, in the midst of his residency, work proceeded on a project he for which he was responsible and some of his experiments concerned techniques which might be applied to large-scale work. He recognized, “Even here, I can’t separate my artistic side from my public art side.”
Still, acknowledging that “Artists are renegades by nature,” he deliberately set himself to break rules and make “a couple of really silly things. I brought my old casting toys. . . .” In striking contrast to the realistic animal and human figures, often athletes, frequently depicted in Courtney’s public relief sculptures, he sand cast real objects from boxes of assorted items he’d brought to CGCA. These included toy models of a brain and of a fetus, belt buckles, meat tenderizers (for texture), a baseball and a croquet ball.
CGCA residents work in the historic Wheaton Village factory side-by-side with glass blowers who demonstrate traditional functional techniques for visitors and make many objects which are sold in the Wheaton Village gift shop. A history of fashions in glass objects could be illustrated through the factory’s collection of dozens of antique but perfectly usable cast-iron molds in all sizes and shapes. They were originally designed to produce items from laboratory equipment to solid figurines of animals and people, but few are employed today.
Courtney was fascinated. “The real treasure here [at the Wheaton Village factory] is in all those molds and presses. American glass is about press molding. I’m going to try to do something about it.” He did experiment with some of Wheaton Village’s huge assortment of old press molds but he also used simple molds of steel which he fabricated himself.
Some pieces he made were mask-like, a conscious reflection of the artist’s Native American heritage (Cherokee and Choctaw). A symmetrical horned profile is based on the traditional buffalo mask. “My alter ego is a buffalo,” he reveals. “The ghost dance was outlawed by the US when the Indians were pretty well beating them. The Indians said it would chase away white people.”
Earlier in his career, Courtney made a series of successful sculptures in which barbed wire, a linear and symbolic element he has used often in gallery work, was partially embedded into the shapes of buffaloes in glass; however, market demand outlasted his interest in this imagery. “I’m not a good gallery artist because I want to move on,” he explains. This desire for change and challenge is surely one key to his success as in the public sphere.
Several sand-cast oval heads made at CGCA were deliberately asymmetrical, again reflecting a type of Native American mask. Long narrow noses divided the face, but only one bulging eye, cast from a croquet ball, was visible. Courtney likes the immediacy of sand casting and the opportunity to make dramatic undercuts. He cast several pieces into aluminum foil layered on sand. Most of the foil peeled away from the glass, leaving behind a glittery speckled surface like a foxed antique mirror. Considering Courtney’s use of mirror backing, this surface may be one he will attempt in a larger project.
“I doubt that I’ll take any of this stuff home,” he murmured, sorting through a pile of glass masks. And, indeed, months later, most remain where he left them: in odd corners or propped against the exterior wall of the casting studio. Most residents come to the CGCA with the intention of producing a lot of finished work to sell or of making the glass components for objects which will be completed later. Courtney worked consistently but without a particularized goal. An open-ended process, a quiet introspective experience without a crew of assistants–a freeing of the imagination was what this artist really wanted from his residency. And that’s exactly what he got.