Tuesday, June 24, 2008


(Emile Norman and Brooks Clement)

I watched the PBS documentary tonight Emile Norman: By His Own Design, and it sparked a wave of thought in me about art, long-term lesbian and gay relationships, and the limits imposed on artists by class and gender.

Emile Norman is now 90 but still actively working and living in the stunning, hand-built home atop a hill outside Big Sur that he created with his lover/partner Brooks Clement in the 1950s. Brooks has been dead since 1973, but they had 30 years together. During the 1950s and 1960s, they were openly gay, and their home was a refuge, a magnet for all kinds of creative people.

(Emile Norman waves from tower atop his Big Sur home)

Emile is an innovative sculptor/muralist who relies on nature for most of his symbolism and themes. He dropped out of art school after one day and pursued his own path during an era when abstract expressionism was all the rage. When Norman and Clement moved to Big Sur in 1946, Brooks told Emile "You go into the studio and I'll show the world what you're doing." It was a deal that made Emile successful and happy. The two men were inseparable, excellent companions and at the heart of a wide circle of friends. When Emile became too old to safely live alone, a pair of young gay men (Jeff Mallory and C. Kevin Smith) moved in as caretakers and forged family.

The documentary was produced by Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, neighbors and friends of Emile. You may remember them as the husband-and-wife lawyers who immortalized the imaginary "butterfly kiss" on the TV series L.A. Law. It's a good film, interspersed with home movies from Brooks and Emile plus letters written about them by another neighbor, a young married woman and mother who visited constantly. The two men found freedom to be themselves in an era when few did, and the story of a sculptor who has been able to live by his art for 84 years is rare.

Equally striking to me, however, was the contrast between their good luck and the stories of other equally gifted and innovative artists who struggle with isolation and poverty. In particular, I wonder if two gay men of color would have found the welcoming attitude Emile and Brooks did. I doubt the Masonic organization whose mural represents Emile's largest work would have given him a commission if he had been non-white. Or a woman.

(History of San Francisco mural at Union Bank of California, by Emile Norman)

Lesbian artists of any ability are much less likely to be treated kindly by rural neighbors (even in a liberal place like Big Sur) or the arts community. They must contend with continuous sexism, veiled and incidental as well as outright violence and predation. If one of a pair of women is attractive by conventional standards, the men who enter their circle are likely to hope for a sexual conquest -- all dykes really want, after all, is the right cock, either from a manly man or, these days, from another queer. Or so the myth persists.

And with denial of access to circles of influence comes poverty. No chance to live atop hillsides, commune with nature, avoid wage-earning, and travel for inspiration.

(Solarium in home of Emile Norman and Brooks Clement)

Paula Gunn Allen died last month, far too early, with inadequate support at the end of her life. She had managed, while contending with her cancer, to buy a mobile home for herself (all she could afford) but it and most of her belongings were destroyed in a fire not long before she died. A lesbian of color poet, novelist, historian -- once the short-list for Pulitzer -- one of the greatest minds of our generation, but her death brought no public memorials that I've seen outside a few feminist blogs. And not even the Generation X blogs. It's as if she never existed.

I'm deeply glad Emile Norman is getting deserved recognition. I'm even more happy for the apparent happiness of his life. Still, it's not the face of minority art and artists. Not nearly enough.

(Polar Bear by Emile Norman)


kat said...

I clicked over to your page right after I turned off the tv last night. I was watching a PBS documentary, too! I was watching the one from 2002 about Del Martin and Phyl Lyon.

It was really interesting and very cute, in some moments. Their personal interaction is totally adorable, and the history of the movement was fascinating.

There were many images of pins with pictures or slogans, and I recognized a couple that Liza designed, as well as song lyrics that I know were quoted in Ginny Bates. The credits were tiny, though, so I couldn't read them to figure out who sang the songs...

I think I mentioned this when you wrote the Herstory post, Maggie, but once again, it frustrated me that this story of women and lesbians doesn't get told. When you learn about 20th Century activism and social movements, you're limited to a very narrow account of the civil rights struggles, and that's about it.

I'm really glad that PBS tells some of the other stories. While watching this, I turned to Boyfriend and said "I'm so glad that PBS shows these documentaries." They seem to present equal numbers of shows about lesbians as well as gay men.


PBS has been playing the same documentaries every Pride month for the last decade, it seems. Surely there are other stories that haven't yet been told?

Anonymous said...

Emile Norman has instantly become one of my very favorite artists. He's so good, I can't believe I'd never heard of him up to now! What an inspiring person....

Liza Cowan said...

What? They had my buttons? Really? That's far out.

Maggie Jochild said...

I didn't know about Emile Norman, either, even though I walked by two of his murals in SF when I lived there. I'm so glad he's recognized in his own time.

It seems to me that our "queer" movement has been hijacked by those who want find it difficult to acknowledge some of the womanist principles that are necessary to undo gender bias. They've been egged on this silencing by those who don't want this change to occur.

Well, the wheel will come around again. The current conservative, sex-obsessed, victim-playing strategies and theories will be laughingstocks in a decade or two, and another set of generations will "rediscover" what we did that is worth preserving (not all of it, but enough). I'm doing what I can to leave records. At the moment, though, funding for documentaries that don't emphasize male identity or masculine fetishization is almost impossible to come by, and films that raise certain questions get censored from even being shown.

And -- of course that had your buttons, Liza. They were FABULOUS buttons and we all had them.

Craig C Clarke said...

I was so struck by this documentary... caught it by accident in an after-midnight rerun and was so moved and inspired by the story and Emile Norman's artwork that as soon as it was over I sat down at my piano... by morning I had written and recorded a piece which I'd like to call "For Emile Norman," but maybe I should try to contact him or his reps for permission.

kat said...

Yep, Liza, they sure did.
There were pictures of buttons, posters, banners....the accessories of a revolution!

The documentary only briefly touched on the disagreement of assimalationism (dear god, how do you spell that?) versus seperatism, really only to mention that Del and Phyl are more in line with the former, but that would have been interesting to hear about...oh well, I'm sure it's not the last account of these remarkable women....

Maggie Jochild said...

Craig, I think it's all right for you to name a piece anything you like in homage. However, I bet Emile would like to hear about it, he seems to be very appreciative of music.

Kat, it is true that Del and Phyllis were/are assimilationist vs. separatist, in a broad sense (no pun intended but it's okay with me). They have always worked to change mainstream culture, within NOW, battered women's social service groups, etc. BUT -- they walked out on working with men because of sexism, and as far as I can tell, they've not chosen to work with mainstream gay organizations often, if at all.

So, it depends on how you define separatism. There are several different working definitions, all of which are "correct". The entire lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970s was separatist in the sense that we focused on our goals (that of women, that of lesbians) first most of the time. It was a strategy that worked wonders, and Del/Phyllis were definitely part of that wave.

The backlash has fostered an academic-based definition of separatism that is unflattering and dishonest -- in the same way that the Black Panthers are ridiculed by white comparing it to the "good" strategies of the Civil Rights era. But black separatism and black pride also deeply shaped the movement, which is why they were targeted by the FBI, police, and other groups determined to maintain white supremacist status quo.

Now that separatism is currently considered either foolhardy or dangerous, social change movements are without an essential tool in its workbox and nothing much is getting done, as a direct result.

If you are a member of a group targeted for oppression, you HAVE to have a chance to step away from the constant messages to figure out your own identity and path. It's not all you need to do, but it is part of the consciousness-raising process. When that is denied to you by members of the non-target group screaming you're being oppressive for "excluding" them or your own target group members insisting you not hurt the feelings of those whose values dominate the discourse by refusing to listen, even for ten minutes -- then you remain a victim. And a pawn of the Right, who wants us to never notice what is completely going on.

kat said...

thanks maggie.
you really ought to craft the definitive guide to social change, plus the definitive story of lesbian-feminism.

speaking of lesbians, the Dyke March was this evening and I missed it....I didn't have anyone to go with, and it's not the kind of event that I like going to on my own. Still, I'm massively disappointed.