I first met Norman Gilbert’s work in Edinburgh’s Sutton Gallery in July 2016. Knowing my enthusiasm for accessible Scottish art, Norman’s son Danny, a fellow writer and Twitter friend, had put me onto the event. I’d hoped to meet the artist at the exhibition, but I guess I hadn’t quite understood at that point that Norman was almost ninety and a care-giver in his sixty fifth year of marriage to his beloved Pat, as well as a practicing artist.
Before the exhibition, Danny sent me a photo of one of his Dad’s pieces. It was woman-centered; an exercise in control, repetition and mastery revealed through pattern as both negative space and focus. Most satisfying for me, however, was the indulgent use of colour. In essence, the intro to Norman’s work was a new combination of everything I look for as someone who doesn’t ‘know’ art and has come to it by accident, discovering it a useful expressway, sometimes, to a better understanding of life.
I went to the exhibition a day after it opened. The gallery was buoyant with freshly graduated artists, their energy and the pictures creating a laidback buzz. Then, discovering the artist wasn’t in the gallery past the opening night, I allowed myself to look more closely, less inhibited about being seen to say or notice the right things. In the melee, ideas about Norman fell away and the work came forward. Face to face with huge framed boards, I took in shapes and palettes; in every case, Norman’s pieces tied together by a pared back figurative emotion, clever omissions of detail and flatness in the paint accelerating the collection’s impact.
I left feeling uplifted, promising myself if I ever had a disposable income comfort zone I’d save up and treat myself to a Norman Gilbert; a huge painting for the rest of my days, a home fixture to affirm lightness and roots in the west that can be difficult to hold close, post-childhood. Afterwards too, I contacted Danny to say if his Dad would be interested, I’d love to meet him and write about his work. ‘Great!’, Danny answered, and got right onto arranging it.
What none of the Gilbert family knew would follow so soon after, however, was Pat’s health deteriorating quickly after the show closed. When I meet Norman, just fourteen months after the loss of Pat to talk about his upcoming exhibition, he’s teary, still heartrendingly fresh in grief. We talk almost immediately about the sometimes surreal nature of death, Norman likening some of the period since Pat’s passing to driving a car alone for the first time after successfully sitting his test. ‘Suddenly you’re on your own, making all the decisions with no one to ask what to do and someone has been there, all the time, till then’. As much as someone with less than half of Norman or Pat’s life experience can, I get it and it hurts badly. Among other things, grief is brave.
Standing in Norman’s studio, I flashback to how his work was somehow familiar to me the first time I saw it in Edinburgh. Maybe it was the Glasgow light in it. Maybe it was a palette often dominated by pinks; I like the shock and awe of pink used in anyway other than Barbie-esque; as a woman and mother of a daughter, it’s a relief to meet the colour in a more expansive state. Thinking of that, I tell Norman his work seems different to the view we’re told is a stereotypical male lens and this surprises him. It’s at this point I realise I’ve no objectivity; I always over identify with work centering women, because that’s what the bulk of my work’s about. Norman goes on, regarding his work with less visible emotion than I’d presumed would be at the fore, ‘all I did was simply paint scenes from my life spanning a fifty-year period’. The truth of it resonates; Norman and Pat’s sons feature hugely and Pat’s a near constant. Pat’s friends are there too, Norman explains, as are women that his and Pat’s four sons had close relationships with and brought into the fold. Norman has painted neutral fact, as he tells it, portraying a family and a home. And yet, for the outsider, there’s so much more.
As we talk, images of Pat grace the walls and lean four deep on the fireplace and the corners of three enormous window recesses. Meticulously prepared boards, never canvases, all complete, are stacked and variously wrapped on a rack about three metres wide and two metres tall, swathed in dust sheets. I feel honoured to be invited to sit in the armchair Pat and so many others have been captured in over the years. There, in a perfectly lit nest of lifetime achievement with good coffee and a biscuit in hand, I can’t not smile; I say it to Norman as I bask. ‘Don’t think I’m smug’, he replies, shifting slightly defensively in his sparse, paint-splattered wooden chair, ‘I’ve huge self-doubt, you know. Glasgow School of Art kicked me out for being unteachable, Edinburgh rejected me because they thought I’d be a dangerous influence and it was only after a lot of resistance that I finally got my diploma in 1963. Some people there wouldn’t even look at me in the corridors, they were that angry I was there.’
Norman is, I think, familiar with telling this story of an often tortuous route to success but, understandably, not entirely reconciled to peace with it and, when I ask, he says there are no lessons for anyone else in his story, that he can only tell what happened to him. Vulnerability hangs in the air until Norman moves on to saying a nicer thing was having till he was twenty-one to decide what he wanted to do, thanks to three and a half years in the navy after school. Then, two years in as a single man studying art alongside classmate Pat, Norman listened to Pat tell mutual friends the story of how she’d hitchhiked with her younger brother down through France then onwards to Rome over the summer before third year. The impression of daring and the heart-quickening the tale inspired endures and reaches out still from Norman to me in 2017. Then, Norman explains, ‘we paid a lot more attention to each other, from there’.
Before and after we speak about her, Pat’s absence is palpable in the occasional misfiring in Norman and I chatting. He’s eager to let his work speak for itself and, having met it previously and imbued it with meanings of my own, I’m eager for Norman to speak for the art and tell me where I’m right and wrong. I think, even though Pat and I were always destined to be strangers, both Norman and I miss her interjections as we attempt to bridge the gaps.
On the easel as we talk is a work in early progress called The Chair. Norman explains his process, his words and movements around the room quicker and more fluid as he directs my attention to things I should notice to understand his meaning. First, he explains, he sketches out the subject, then the sketches become full size. Then, a clean sheet of paper goes up and he does the whole thing again, finer this time, starting to process which areas will be coloured in light tones and which in dark. The next stage is to transfer the image to a prepped white painted board, then colouring the dark areas with Indian ink, creating an arresting high contrast version of what’s been and what’s to come. Finally, the image is charcoal traced onto a final board and the work of line and colour begins, then ends.
After my time with Norman I get in the car and know I must speak to his youngest son, Mark, to get the missing pieces of jigsaw about the artist I couldn’t find in his studio and home. Norman had told me proudly Mark’s an artist and an academic at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. This information’s particularly relevant because in the last week of Pat’s life, as Norman kept hospital-beside vigil, he also sketched Pat to ‘keep himself sane’ and create a record to share events with those who couldn’t be there, like Mark. In creating the sketches, Mark reflects this poignant work was the first in which his Dad assigned a clear narrative purpose in his art.
Much of Mark’s own career has been dedicated to, ‘bringing the seeable to the unsayable’. In one of several remarkable iterations of this, working with Barts and the London NHS Trust, Mark documented patient’s journeys with portraiture before, during and after serious facial reconstruction surgeries. The records created enlightened colleagues in art and medicine about the existence of an intersection where significant therapeutic benefit to patients and care-givers occurs.
Since Pat’s death, in gentle collaboration, Norman’s sketches of Pat’s last week have since been presented by Mark to several professional, academic and lay audiences in Canada, the USA and Glasgow, facilitating and adding depth to discussions around art and medicine in complement. It’s clear for father and son that marking the end of Norman drawing Pat with a beginning of Norman’s work going into the world in a new way has been affirming in loss and comforting in possibilities of making critical care more empathic.
When I arrive home in Edinburgh after my time with Norman, my teenagers want to know where I’ve been. I show them my photos of Norman’s work and studio and they all love them. ‘How old is he?’, my daughter asks, hands beckoning impatiently at the boys for her turn to scroll through the images again. I clock she’s asking how old Norman is because what they’re seeing of his work in my photos doesn’t tally with what she remembers I’ve mentioned about the artist before today. ‘He’s 91’, I answer and they all look up, surprised. ’19?’, my daughter asks, dissonance growing. ‘No. 91.’ ‘I actually really like this though’, my son chips in, frowning. The relevance of Norman’s style has made a connection over several generations and done that thing perhaps only art or photography can; it’s offered a glimmer of someone else’s reality in a world we know to be our own.
‘Do you mind when a painting gets sold?’, I’d asked Norman not long before I left, thinking I’d be devastated to let work like this go. ‘Not at all’, says Norman. ‘I think the house looks better without it standing around. Let’s the light in’. ‘You’ve created so much though’, I think out loud. ‘I think the biggest thing I’ve created is a problem for my sons’, Norman answers, nodding at the enormous rack, looking wholly perplexed then wondering, ‘I mean, what will they do with it all? It’ll take a few skips.’ I tell him I don’t think his sons will have a problem or need skips but his answering shrug says he’s unconvinced.
When asked what Pat would make of his last drawings of her, Norman gives a little laugh and says she’d probably just say, ‘there he goes again’.
Norman’s work goes again at The Tatha Gallery in Newport on Tay in Fife, from the 12th of January to the 17th of February, where twenty-four extraordinary pieces will be featured in a retrospective exhibition. You’ll probably find me smiling obsessively at a huge painting of three women. Back in the 60s, Norman saw two of the women in the Glasgow subway and stored the detail of them in his head until he got home and could start recording them on paper. There’s the protective knock of knees around a shopping bag between feet, the tightness of a headscarf over hair, fastenings on jackets, hemlines and a dog on the knee of one of the women that became a bag. Norman nods at it, remembering; ‘if I’d kept it as a dog it would’ve looked like a bad piece of taxidermy’. I’d asked who the other woman was and he’d answered, ‘I made her up. I needed her for balance and I put all three of them in this house.’ There we were, regarding three women in what was once the grand drawing room of Pats’ three Aunts, two of whom were teachers while the third kept house. Between them all, they brought Pat up while her Mum lived and worked in London. Then, as time moved on, Norman, Pat and the boys made the house their family home. We’re in a house of stories, many of them belonging to women. Pat, the kids and the plants around Norman – every living thing he saw at different ages – they and the house are the muse combined.
Then, today, there’s the maker, standing alongside and invisibly inside stories of a marriage, family and home, the meaning of it all evolving fast because, at 91, Norman’s at the wheel alone for the first time again. The privilege of experiencing those layered insights within the lifetime of an artist is, without doubt, extraordinary.
My nephew moved in with us a few months ago, all the way from a Pyrenean idyll in the south of France. It’s really interesting seeing someone discover Edinburgh, it reminds me of all the compromises we’ve made along the way as well as the rewards of the move. It’s also interesting living with a ‘new’ person full-time. It holds a mirror up to everyone’s personalities and quirks and asks whether you’ll each change or grow the things about yourself that are suddenly more visible. Mostly, it feels like an excellent challenge.
My daughter tells me she learned at school there hasn’t been a May as dry as this in Scotland since before I was born in 1976.
It seems we picked a lucky time for digging a new border in the garden and moving plants around to fill it up. It’s become habit, to go out between writing and running about and be amongst plants growing right before my eyes, echoing the kids growing and changing too. This time of the teenager seems the busiest of family life yet – and possibly the most rewarding.
A proper road trip – a long time in the car, sweets, music, stops for the dog to wee, chats about memories. Maniacs in white vans, eye-spy and the name game.
Does it all sound perfect?
It wasn’t. We fought, too. There were hideous tensions as well as laughs and Kodak moments. Families trying to keep growing together at the same time as letting kids grow up are like that, I reckon. The wood of the construction makes different noises in different weather.
Roots and wings.
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We saw Collateral Beauty. The film whisked me back ten years to a hell of a week. Mum had been admitted to hospital in Aberdeen with a DVT. My son had his sixth birthday party. I hadn’t organised a thing for Halloween.
The morning after cobbled together trick or treating, Mum called from hospital and gently explained she had terminal cancer.
The world stopped as grief started.
Who I’d been until then died with her and (slowly, painfully) a new gratitude for life was born. Heather 2.0. An unwanted, bittersweet fresh start.
I’m battling to feel Christmassy. The weather’s telling my senses it’s Autumn. The bagels in the cupboard and alarm clock scream that school’s still in. My diary’s saying it’s a few days before my annual crying at the song in The Polar Express which I love but will make the rest of the family roll their eyes in an agony of stretching tolerance.
YET STILL I REMAIN LARGELY SEASONALLY DEAD INSIDE.