Visual Art 9-11-2008

VISUAL ART: Beginner’s Eye, Tinkerer’s Heart

Susannah Schouweiler profiles Edina photographer and painter Polly Norman, from the beginnings of her sideways journey into art-making to her inventive experimentation with technique and media.


POLLY NORMAN IS AN ARTIST WITH INCREDIBLE HUSTLE. Her eye-popping artwork, much of it made through a technical fusion of photography and abstract painting, rewards sustained attention. But it’s her business savvy—not a common strength among creative types, I’ve found—that first captured my interest. (“It’s in my blood,” she shrugs when I ask her about it. “I come from a family of ad-men, so I’m probably paying more attention to that aspect of things and have a more instinctive ability to tell that kind of story than most people.”) Notices for her exhibitions, in frequent succession, have been crossing my inbox since I took this gig a few years ago. Norman’s attractive digital press packets (links! pretty pictures! pithy, informative copy!) and extensive portfolio have served their purpose well. The more I see of her varied, inventive work, the more I want to see.

Polly Norman is no Bohemian artist, and she’s definitely not starving. This doctor’s wife works from a cozy, jumbled attic studio in her genteel home in a highly coiffed Edina neighborhood. She’s mother to two grown boys and she spent much of her adulthood as a stay-at-home mom, raising them. But keep your knee-jerk assumptions in check: Norman’s no hothouse flower. Trained as a nurse, she worked for a number of years in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) caring for the most fragile of patients, impossibly tiny preemies and their anguished parents. The constant pressure and heartache of the gig takes a harsh toll on the people who work it. “Most nurses last a year,” she says simply. “I worked as a NICU nurse for four years, myself, before I had to give it up. I miss it terribly, but the job just breaks your heart so much.”

Though she dabbled in the arts as a child and hails from family of enthusiastic hobbyists, Norman’s journey into making artwork her profession was a circuitous one with humble beginnings. It all started when she volunteered to take some pictures and do a little public relations work for her kids’ school, Our Lady of Grace in Edina. She had a real knack for the work, as it turned out. In short order, as people saw her photographs for the school, folks started to approach her about commissioning portraits. Word of mouth brought bigger gigs her way: freelance photojournalism for local newspapers and magazines, dance photography (which left a love of motion and kinetic energy that still marks her work), commercial/advertising shots, and even some evidence photography for area lawyers. Buoyed by the interest in her work, Norman entered one of her personal snapshots in a national photography contest, and it won. Then, on a lark, she submitted one of her artier images to a juried, competitive photography exhibition at a local art gallery—she placed there, too. She remembers, “I was so excited! I thought I might be really on to something here. Maybe I could really do this!”

With the confidence she’d gained from these successes, she set out to break into the world of fine art photography, something she’d always dreamed of doing. But Norman’s not the kind of person to sit around and wait for someone to discover her work—she’s got hustle, remember? She made her own breaks—attending exhibitions, researching galleries, putting a portfolio of work together and shopping it around to curators. Take a look at her listings to get an idea of what I’m talking about: her online archive is fearlessly exhaustive. Her experiments—failed and successful—are all represented, with a wide range of studies in form and technique from the polished to the raw. The sheer variety of media, form, and styles she’s willing to try her hand at is downright audacious.

Norman is, by her own admission, constantly hungry to learn more— once she commits to something, she pursues the interest obsessively. At the same time, she’s a practical artist whose playful experiments are marked by a DIY verve and a hands-on attitude to understanding art. Intrigued by Pollock’s eye, she pushes up her sleeves and tries her hand at drip-painting. Her passion for work by artists like Lee Krasner, Kandinsky, Man Ray, and local artists like Dick Brewer is clearly reflected in her occasionally imitative work—often these pieces are explicitly marked as studies in those artists’ styles. In fact, the sheer variation in her early archive of work betrays a kind of creative restlessness, as if she spent a lot of time trying on other people’s artistic visions while she worked up the nerve to launch her own.

A few consistent threads run throughout these motley early experiments, nonetheless: in her color work, the hues are lush and exuberant; her most memorable pieces, whether photography or painting (or made with a hybrid technique of her own invention, about which more below), are marked by abstracted forms which undulate fluidly. The decisive line and use of color (or contrast in the black-and-white work) reveals a guileless ebullience that sets her work apart from the self-consciously ironic or fashionably oblique work you’ll often find on gallery walls these days. Her artistic vision is distinguished by a childlike wonder and an earnest longing for revelation. She’s not interested in playing the creative coquette; her work reveals her to be a curious sort of artist who’s interested in play.

After a number of years deconstructing elements and flourishes from other artists’ oeuvres, Norman has, with her recent work, begun to flex her own creative muscle more confidently. She’s aided in this task by twin blessings: a beginner’s eye and the soul of a tinkerer. Witness how she stumbled across the unique process by which she creates much of her work, an inventive fusion of photography and abstract painting. While sitting, bone-tired, in a froth of hot-tub bubbles, looking off into the middle distance, she happened to fix her eyes on the images refracted in the glass blocks surrounding her. What she saw through the glass, on the edge of her vision in that unguarded moment, so captivated her that she was driven to try and capture the evocative, kinetic shapes she’d seen on film somehow. So, she picked up some architectural glass block and started experimenting with the camera–many of her glass-block shots were taken just outside her back door. After tinkering with the process, she began to recapture some of the visual dance of the forms she’d been chasing, but the photographic results alone didn’t quite capture all she remembered with her mind’s eye. So, she picked up a paintbrush and her portrait colors, and augmented some of her shots, bending and shaping the lines with the colors, painting directly on the sliver gelatin prints.

For Norman, this was a critical epiphany. She says, “I don’t want to sound too religious or anything, but I think [this kind of image] is a window into the hidden things that God has put around us. There are these wonders in plain sight all around us, we just don’t always see them.” She goes on: “I like the spontaneity and randomness of just taking some pictures out my back window. Bending the shapes a little, refracting them through the glass blocks-…these distortions help you get past your preconceptions about what you’re seeing so you can really look at what’s in front of you, really notice details you’ve missed before. That’s what I get excited about. I never know what I’ll find until I get down to it.” What she’s describing sounds a lot like what Zen masters call “a beginner’s mind.”

Even now, her work continues to evolve. She still makes plenty of her lushly colored photo/painting hybrids and eye-fooliing glass-block prints, but she’s also exploring more primitively rendered abstracted forms resulting from her play with photograms. Lately, Norman has also been trying her hand at pure abstract painting, working with just paint and a blank canvas. In fact, a collection of both her abstract painting and her photo/painting fusions are on display now in her NYC premiere solo show, Chiaroscuro Incarnations, at the Amsterdam Whitney Gallery through September. She’s got another solo show scheduled for a Chicago gallery in December. Keep your eyes out for what Polly Norman does next—she seems poised for big things.

CLICK HERE to browse through an extensive accompanying collection of Polly Norman’s varied, eye-popping artwork on

About the artist: Polly Norman was born in South Minneapolis, and her family moved to Edina when she was 12 years old. She is a graduate of Edina High School and Abbott-Northwestern School of Nursing. She worked in nursing (Neonatal Intensive Care) for four years at Children’s Hospital. She married, had two sons and stayed home to raise them. Norman has also run a residential photography studio for over twenty years. Beyond individual commissions, her career has expanded into many areas including legal/evidence photography, photo illustration for newspaper and magazine articles and commercial/advertising photography. Her work has been exhibited in Minnesota, around the country and all over the world, and she’s won a number of both regional and national photography competitions. A collection of her pieces is on view at Flanders Contemporary Art Gallery, and inquiries about individual works may be directed to the gallery or artist. Visit Polly Norman’s website or her individual pages for further information.

About the author: Susannah Schouweiler is editor of the arts writing and criticism on and in its twice monthly e-journal, access+ENGAGE.

Susannah Schouweiler

Susannah Schouweiler is a writer, editor, and museum wonk. For 12 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of Mn Artists at the Walker Art Center and responsible for publication of original arts writing on the homepage, blog, and social media assets. Back in the day, she served as Editor of Ruminator magazine, a nationally distributed art and lit mag. She has written on the arts for a number of regional and national outlets, including Hyperallergic, Rain Taxi Review of Books, MinnPost, The Growler, …   read more