Emile Norman: By His Own Design is a portrait of the self-taught California artist, Emile Norman, who worked with a passion for life, art, nature and freedom that inspired him through seven decades of a changing art scene and turbulent times for a gay man in America.
The film tells the story of Norman's independent spirit—how it developed from his early days on a walnut ranch in the San Gabriel Valley and brought him success in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. This independent spirit later gave him the confidence to leave the New York art scene and find freedom in Big Sur, where he and Brooks Clement, his partner of 30 years, built a house and created a haven for a circle of friends that still grows today. None of this came without struggle. From the beginning, Norman's natural talent and love of art came into conflict with the conventional ideas of his parents, while his sexual orientation had to be hidden in a time when "gay" meant "sissy."
The film shows Norman's work glittering in Bergdorf Goodman's windows, on chorus girls' headdresses in the Fred Astaire movie "Blue Skies," and winning rave reviews at New York City gallery shows. Even then, however, he had to be portrayed as "the California rancher-turned-artist." It wasn't until Norman met Brooks Clement that he was able to live openly. Then, as his long-time friend, costume designer Willa Kim relates, "He didn't just come out of the closet, he burst out of the closet!"
In 1946, Norman and Clement moved from Los Angeles to Big Sur, an enchanting place already home to a growing artist's colony. There they met a generous benefactor in Florence Pfeiffer. She helped finance their purchase of a spectacular ridge-top spread overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains. Together, they built their own home by hand; it was a labor of love that still serves as a tribute to their lives together and to their many talents. Extending along the coast and back-dropped by steep mountains, the geography and wildlife of Big Sur helped open Norman up to the possibilities of work inspired by nature and the divine. Clement told Norman, "You go into the studio and I'll show the world what you're doing."
And he did. Clement assisted Norman with his biggest commission, the four-story "endo-mosaic" window in the lobby of The Masonic Temple on Nob Hill in San Francisco and the marble frieze outside. He also opened and ran Norman's gallery in Carmel, and chronicled his art and original techniques in still photos and 16mm films. The two made a place for themselves and their friends on the mountaintop where, finally, it was safe to be "out." Brooks died of cancer in 1973, but their relationship continues to inspire a new generation. Today, Norman primarily creates playful wood inlay sculptures of animals using glass and composite materials. At times the work resembles "primitive" art with the textures and patterns created by thousands of pieces of inlaid material.
Emile Norman stopped working and called 911 on September 24, 2009. He died peacefully at the age of 91.
In documenting the unique life and work of this gifted artist, Emile Norman: By His Own Design shows the importance of art in channeling individual expression and shaping society.