Will Norman: A Short Biography

NOTE: It's difficult to complete a biography of Will Norman since many details about his life are unknown. Nonetheless a few vignettes from my step-father's life are assembled here. Some parts of this story are conjecture. Will Norman was – particularly in his later years – a person who preferred to explain himself through his paintings rather than words. This sketch is based on observations during Will's final years as well as accounts by his second spouse, Jean Price Norman. A somewhat different biography of Will is also available here.

– T Newfields, 2003

At age sixty Will Norman was ready to dedicate his life to art. Recently divorced and financially stable enough to devote his remaining years to paint as he wished, he moved to an art colony in central Mexico. Traveling with just a few bags and many painting tools, Will was leaving behind a lot of memories as he rode the bus to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. For many years Will had earned a moderate income teaching art at a small college in Minnesota. From time to time, he produced fauvist imitations of works by famous contemporaries – complete with fake signatures. This business appealed to Will for financial reasons. "Fortune is merely a game" he often muttered, "but real art – that's something different." Though he felt as talented the prominent painters whose works he imitated, fame eluded Will during his life.

Arriving in San Miguel de Allende, he determined to do things differently his remaining years. He rented a small studio and began producing many fine charcoal sketches and oil paintings. Favorite subjects included aging cathedrals, urban landscapes, and languorous nudes. He often worked on several paintings at once. At any time he would have half-a-dozen works in various states of progress, ranging in size from two hundred centimeters to two meters.

Not long after settling down in Mexico, Will met a 51 yr. old American woman with kindred interests. The affinity between them was immediate. Will and Jean remained in Mexico for the next seven years – with occasional trips across the border to renew their visas.

What attracted Will to Jean is hard to explain. There is no question Jean Price worshipped Will: she not only considered his art superior to hers, but also admired his gentleness, wit, and generosity. Regarding marriage as bourgeoisie and out-of-date, it may seem a surprise that in 1974 they tied the knot. Moreover, though Will and Jean both claimed to be atheists, they regular attended Quaker meeting and for a while practiced transcendental meditation. One thing about Will I noticed is that he was tolerant of other people as long as they did not assert how he should run his own life.

For his honeymoon, in 1974 Will went on a one-month tour of in Europe with Jean. There they visited many art galleries and museums. Will also remarked on his fondness of the canals of Venice and rugged coastlines of Normandy. The 1970s seemed to be a happy time for both of them.

In 1977 Will and Jean settled down in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix in central Arizona. One room of their home was converted into an art studio. Will spent most of his time in that studio, venturing outside mostly for meals or TV dramas at night. Shy and reticent by nature, he socialized with a small circle of people. From time to time he would attend a Quaker meeting or exhibits at the Scottsdale Art League. Generally he seemed content to spend time with his own art works. At times I believe he almost "talked" with his paintings. I could often observe him starring at canvases while puffing on his proverbial pipe. Jean recognizes his need for silence and was with him mostly at night.

In 1978 Will was diagnosed with cancer. Over the next two years he underwent various chemotherapy treatments. However, as the disease progressed it became obvious he was dying. Shortly before he passed away his son Mike (a potter from Minnesota) and his daughter Judith (who worked at an ashram in the Catskills) also spent some time with him. Will passed away in his sleep in August 1980. Retrospective exhibitions of his works were held at the Tempe Public Library and Arizona State University.