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interviewing artists:

Norman Kary

Norman Kary several years later - Copyright 2007 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

A Studio Visit by JR Compton and Kathy Stewart
Written + photographed by JR Compton

Norm met us at the front door then led us a winding path through his pristine home, and back across the driveway into a big, converted three car garage. From several crannies of that cluttered expanse, he unearthed three wood boxes and set them up in an ersatz conversation pit near the big door wafting a vague breeze on the coolish Sunday afternoon in late spring. We met his wife and saw his three children along the way. The kids played around the driveway as we talked.

Most of Norman Kary's studio

Kathy noticed that many of Norman's pieces involved flying things, things getting ready to fly, birds and dangling things. Kary nodded, agreeing, saying that one of his latest finds was a number of blue "flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz," which he said were difficult to find now, although he had tracked some down, and was adding them to pieces.

grounded Oz monkeys

As Kathy said, "All those other flying things reference transcendence in an allegorical way. But his astronauts literally transcend the natural worlds." JR thinks Norman Kary is a magician dreamer whose ideas naturally tend toward concepts cosmic, and these guys represent us in the transition from earth to the cosmos. They just naturally fit in.

Framed Astronaut photo awaits the correct
concept before Norman uses it in a piece.

Among the many other things he collects, he showed us a movie prop — a TV remote control from The Grinch that Stole Christmas, odd, detailed little things everywhere. His whole studio was gill full of little and big things that will eventually find their way into his art.

JR thought this collage in the making might give us hints how
Norman Kary's mind and image associating instincts operate

Norm lined up six of his objects for JR to shoot for Norm's Supporting Member page. Actually, Norm had tried to just offer a donation, but JR pressed him into letting us come over to talk and shoot some of his recent work for the official interview that we'd been talking with him about at openings for the last four months.


Norm had also set aside a Self Portrait for DARts' long-running Online Self- Portrait show. On top of the piece is another blue Oz monkey. At the base, a cast terra cotta drooling face cast formed a stationary fountain and, on the upper front, a little boy walks a tight rope over an abyss. JR asked if that was him? "Yes."

To make clear which piece on his DARts Member page was which,
Norm created an illustrated legend with titles, media and sizes.

"Drooling waters of wisdom," JR titled the self-portrait from across the room, where he was listening, but not watching Kathy and Norm talk. JR found — but did not photograph — a wall of dark, though not particularly gloomy pieces. Norm explained the collection was there, because his wife thought they were "too dark to put in the house."


pegboard car wreck on the highway framed
by a small cemetery and a hand crank

Kathy described the gathering of gray and monochromatic dark pieces as "cruder, less finished than his other work, spiritually and conceptually dark, grayer, not refined." JR saw but dismissed shooting them, almost casually. Kathy was drawn to them.

a coiled spring subtended by a boxy
cage and a white guy with a rifle.

Norm drew Kathy's attention to one black and white, multi-level cut-out drawing high up on the wall where the dark work was. It had a rental truck in the foreground that reminded too many people of the Oklahoma City bombing, although he hadn't intended it to. From there, our informal discussion wound to anthrax and other white powders.And, inevitably, to 9-11. He asked if there had yet been a 9-11 show in Dallas, and we briefly and laughingly considered some of the possibilities of a politically incorrect show of inappropriate art.

Twin Trees

Norm asked if we'd seen any art about the twin towers, and while we were answering a decidedly unenthusiastic 'yes' — way too many, he showed us his response, which had been right in front of us, hanging on his wall, simple, direct and pristine, although we never recognized it as The Towers. He pointed to two dark, fiery evergreens on a sloping wall mount. It took us a few seconds to connect the dots.

dark art?

"Norman isn't, at all, afraid of being dark, although his work is hardly always dark," Kathy says. "The thing about Norman is that he's such a happy little elf. He's eternally chipper. And yet he does this fabulous, edgy art."

Magically created Instant Art souvenir

Swiftly upping the beat of the interview, er... conversation, Norm asked if we'd like to see how he makes art. Yes, we nodded, of course.

In a sweeping, widely gesturing, theatrical stage magician manner, he tore an aging National Geographic page into a just small enough, rough piece, carefully slipped it into a flat, black box, snapped the lid closed, flipped it, shook it, then popped it open, revealing Instant Art ( above ), which he handed to us.



We talked about magic, with Norman explaining his fascination with Houdini who, like Norm's wife, was from Wisconsin, and all things magic and magician related. JR told him about the recent US Postage stamp featuring America's most famous magician, and Norm said he'd have to get some.

We examined the thickish, black-backed, slick card stock rectangle that looked like abstract art with a tiny magazine picture of Kip's Big Boy, as Norman explained that it was a souvenir for us to take home. Only after he scanned it for this interview, did JR realize that it was the black surface Norm had placed the torn paper he'd prestidigitated into art before our startled eyes. 

Norman Kary's Portable Museum dispenses tiny art.

Another gift we got from the occasion was what Norm called his Portable Museum. He handed us each a tiny black capsule. They were minutely labeled "Portable Museum" with a number at the top, left corner on one side and "N. Kary" along the long side on the bottom. JR's was number "14."

Norman in his studio explaining

While we were pondering our tiny treasures and showing each other how to open the little, round-cornered plastic capsule, Norman told us he'd painted them black. You can see a speck of the box's original blue in the indented corners above. Each Portable Museum contained a dozen art images, precisely cut from magazines or slick paged art book, with a meticulously placed, identifying label glued to the back of each, citing the artist's name, title and date.

Only much later did JR see the blue capsules in a TV ad for a tiny breath freshener.

Ricky Jay , one of the greatest sleight of hand performers ever,
with "purely found objects" mounted by mutual friend Art Shirer 

Near the Dark Art Galley were a series of what Norman called "purely found objects," unaltered, lined up in front of a series of informally framed portraits of the artists who had most influenced Norman Kary's work — Robert Rauchenberg (above), Jim Dine and Joseph Cornell. Norm especially noted Cornell's games, which Norman said he has long been inspired by.

Ornately carved frame, repeating circles, magazine illustrations and suspension


For many years Norm has worked for IBM as a field technician, which allows him the freedom to haunt galleries and antique shops all over the county. Norm said he's always liked fixing things — typewriters and other machines. And he's even longer been a finder of interesting objects. Since he was a fourth grader in California, Norm recalled, he was finding things and working in wood.


Chinese Checkers board, palm, fir, bird
unfortunately cropped by photographer, not artist

Norm said he'd been making assemblages for "20-plus years." He remembered that in 1978-79, he painted for a year or two. Even then, "there were objects in my paintings." He called his work from that period, "Louise Nevelson with paint."


The last time JR had visited Norman's studio and got to speak with him at some length was to photograph a game Norm made for the Easl Fun & Games auction. Again like Cornell, he loves those games.

A postcard on Norman's wall painted by David McManaway
thanking Art Shirer and Norman Kary for little treasures


While JR wandered around photographing many things and entirely missing others, Norm showed Kathy his newest piece, which he demonstrated, has "sounds incorporate into it." As the ball falls, it hits bells and things internal with a tiny tinkle, tinkle, clink, clink, clank.


stand, container, tree, world

Kathy asked about all the trees with exposed roots in his work, and Norm explained "They represent the natural world in the battle between Mankind and the Natural World." He and JR verbally shared the hope that the natural world would win.

more Norman Kary treasures

His tiny people — smaller than HO, Norman called them "HHO" — represent our place in the world. JR mentioned former Dallas artist Gregory Horndeski's penchant for including starry night skies in the background of many of his paintings — "to show our place in the universe." and Norm nodded agreement.

Norman Kary

Norman Hates This Photo,
seriously requested I replace
it at the top of this page,
but it captures who he is.


ater, via E-mail, Norman noted that he had "a comment from another artist who doesn't know much about me, and that was that the interview didn't go into much detail my thoughts about what my work is about, what I thought about art, [ and ] where ART is going." Although, "Everyone who has responded says you done good.

So JR E-mailed him back, asking, "What is your work about? What are your thoughts about art? Where do you think ART is going?"

Norman Kary answered much more quickly than usual.

" The theme of much of my new work — if I had to describe it in a single word — is, isolation. I am using different landscapes as a context to further the feeling of isolation, much as civilization encroaching on the Natural World becomes more removed from it.

From this step personifies the feeling of being in a 'natural' environment and yet unable to touch it, feel it, smell it. "Outside" of this picture, a piece of Nature is encapsulated, unable to be touched, felt or smelled. It also represents the way I feel sometimes when I work in my studio late at night.

The theme of God shows up in my work during moments of inspiration that come to me totally out of the blue. I had no title for this work for a long time. And I may have to change it again ( I'm thinking, God's Place ) like the cliche " a woman's place is in the kitchen," God's Place is in a shoe shop ( you know, repairing soles. )

Living in the Bible Belt allows me an outlet to make light of a subject that so many people take SO seriously. Seriously enough to kill each other over and wall each other off from. Looking Homeward shows a stuffed bird contemplating squeezing through one of the openings in to order to get to a landscape beyond.

I am hoping you think about where this bird "is" if he is not in a landscape. Perhaps it's me in my studio again. With my thoughts on the works I have mentioned I  will now allow you think about the meaning of the remainder."


Norman Kary explained that he purposely flopped his drawing ( right )
of a sculpture ( left ), to challenge his sketching ability.

When we asked whether Norm made or used note or sketch books, he brought us two of many. While we perused them and their many pages of myriad drawings, he said he thought sketching was "important for all artists. Drawing is fundamental," he said, explaining that "It ought to be taught in schools, and for a long time, it wasn't."

Norman Kary sketch. The street signs atop the Stop sign says Hall and State

Norm sketches pieces in progress and works out problems in them, documents his spatial and other ideas and his trips — like to New York, where he likes to go every couple of years, very much like his hero Joseph Cornell had.

We darkened this light pencil drawing, so we could
see it. Norm labeled it The Nasher Garden/Before 

Since JR had been conducting an ongoing interview with James Michael Starr, who also creates art boxes, the conversation blended to Starr's different, sketchless, way of working. Norm had read the interview and said he'd been considering taking out an ad in ArtNews, since James Michael had cited much success with his.


We all talked about the difficulties artists encounter trying to get their work into galleries. Norman shows his work at Edith Baker in Dallas and Handley-Hicks in Fort Worth. And he's seeking one in Houston. But he wants to keep it geographically easy. Norm mentioned James Michael's galleries across the country wondering how much Starr was spending, shipping work to them all, but as Kathy noted, "we should all have that problem."

Contrary to Starr's experience, Norman explained that Cidnee Patrick, who now owns Dallas' Edith Baker Gallery, told him that that the gallery almost never takes an unsolicited portfolio, like a cold call. We talked about how getting represented by a gallery was like any friendship. First you show up, smile, remember people's names. Then you talk about art. 'Hey, did you know I did art? Ya wanna see it?' You build any relationship slowly, over time.

While Norman and Kathy talked, JR was vaguely surprised to learn
that it might be advantageous to photograph some of Kary's
work from somewhere besides directly in front of them.

Norm said Edith Baker gallery had been good to him, and JR recalled that there's always a few of his pieces on what JR calls "the Norman Kary memorial wall" along the space opposite the kitchen, behind the main gallery.

Our hero springs into action.

Since all three of us are 50-somethings, we compared notes about Vietnam, the Lottery and going to school instead of off to war. Norman had a fairly high number in the draft, and finished school. JR went to Vietnam, and absolutely loved it, although he should admit he wasn't in the jungle, didn't fire a shot, and was only there three months.TOP 

Mounted on the wall like art, another
of Norman's "purely found objects."

When we asked if his works were spiritual, Norm hemmed and hawed. Only when JR reminded him that he had titled many of his works "God" did Kary continue. Kathy remembered one of her favorite Norman Kary pieces, a haunting little, wind-up clown god we'd discovered at Handley Hicks Gallery on last fall's Fort Worth Art Gallery Night, when we'd described it as follows:

God by Norman Kary

We marveled at several Norman Kary constructions, especially a benign appearing, found-clown toy figure standing in a bell jar with a tea strainer halo. Peering around in back of the small figure, we saw a wind-up key and the sharp ends of multiple nails. This God that appears to be a clown you could wind up, is really disturbing."It blew me away," Kathy vividly remembered. "It was like, God is supposed to be all-friendly, the benevolent god, but He's not always. It's not that simple. He's more complex than that. And Norman expressed that in elegant, yet grotesque metal inside a bell jar."


After he sold the older piece, that we'd talked about at the Arlington Museum of Art auction, Cidnee wanted more of Norman's older stuff, from what JR calls his "Translucency Period." As Norman explained, "The Moral of the story is don't throw away your old stuff."


Comparing other Dallas artists who work in conceptual assemblage, Kathy and JR both cited Tom Sale's work, Norman's and James Michael Starr. David McManaway's escapes Kathy, although she recognizes him as the chicken before the Sale, Kary and Starr eggs, and knows we have to pay our respects.

According to Kathy, "Many artists who do assemblage, put together a lot of similar, interesting objects into an attractive package. Some are elegant and overtly spiritual. Norman's tell us something visceral, often ironic, sometimes disturbing, and always profound."


All the images on this page are Copyright 1999, 200,
2001 and 2002 by Norman Kary.

The photographs are Copyright 2002 by JR Compton
No reproduction in any form without written
permission from both artist and photographer.

Additional Norman Kary
images are on these DARts pages.


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since September 13 2007, about five years after this was posted