To the select society of people who attend classical music concerts on the Peninsula and frequent certain restaurants in Big Sur, Emile Norman is an instantly recognizable figure. When the 88-year-old artist makes an entrance in his trademark purple beret and matching Converse sneakers, flanked by caretakers Jeff Mallory and C. Kevin Smith, it’s like one of the barons of bohemia has just arrived. A whiff of celebrity hangs around him.
But while Norman is a genial enough raconteur, he remains an enigma, even to regular guests at his stunningly crafted Big Sur home, where he frequently hosts private concerts amid the richly detailed wood cabinetry and sculptures for which he is famous. A new documentary premiering this weekend on KQED-TV goes a long way toward filling in the blanks.
Emile Norman: By His Own Design is an intelligent inquiry into who the artist is, what drives him, and how character and circumstance carved the arc of his unusual artistic career. Directed and produced by Sausalito filmmaker Will Parrinello and co-produced by actors Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, the film was five years in the making. There were difficult times, starting with Norman’s initial refusal to consider the idea, which was hatched by his admiring and well-connected neighbors.
“We approached Emile and he turned us down flat,” says Tucker, who, with his wife and LA Law co-star had bought property from Norman and built a house (they’ve since moved to New York). “He was not interested in making a film. He wanted to do his art.”
Another neighbor, Mary Ellen Klee, eventually helped persuade Norman that the film was a good idea. But he kept rejecting directors. At last, Will Parrinello passed muster. Then came a setback: Norman did not want to be filmed working. Parrinello, who had been planning a cinema verite-style film, had to regroup. For a more traditional biopic he would need to bring in old friends and associates, find photos and old film footage.
Mallory and Smith, Norman’s live-in caretakers (and friends of mine) were able to assist. They archived the photos, correspondence and home movies that helped bring the story to life. And as a loving gay couple, they afforded Norman a measure of the stability—and protection from the outside world—that Brooks Clement, his partner of 30 years, had provided until his death in 1973.
“In a sense, Jeff and Kevin became the conduit to another side of Emile’s life,” says Parrinello. “They helped flesh out the story in a way that Emile was just not interested in.”
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The biopic approach may have been Parrinello’s second choice, but it’s hard to imagine a better telling of Norman’s life and work. It begins with his boyhood on a San Gabriel Valley ranch. Pictures show a golden boy of startling beauty, and later a gorgeous young man with the knowing sensuality of a young Orson Welles. The gleam in his eye is part play, part challenge, a clue to the hardheaded individualism that defined his career.
After high school the young artist changed his name from Emil Nomann to Emile Norman and enrolled in art school. He dropped out after a few weeks, unimpressed. He enjoyed some commercial success, but the great turning point came in 1944, when he met Brooks Clement. The pair bonded immediately, and Clement established himself as Norman’s manager.
“He said, ‘You sit in the studio and do the artwork and I’ll show the world what you’re doing,’” Norman recalls. In 1946, they moved to Big Sur and began construction on their paradise. Free to focus entirely on his art, Norman began to win notice. (A local example of his nature-inspired, painstakingly wrought work is the graceful dolphin sculpture in the lobby of the Portola Plaza Hotel.)
“Clemile,” as they were known to their Big Sur neighbors, opened a gallery in Carmel. The Masons of San Francisco commissioned Norman to do an astounding four-story glass mural at their Temple on Nob Hill. And then, in 1956, the two went to New York.
Norman’s show at Feingarten Galleries opened to rave reviews by Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Emily Genauer. He was an overnight sensation. And yet within months they were back home.
The tide was turning toward abstract expressionism. The barely contained riot of Jackson Pollack’s work—aesthetically as far as you could get from Norman’s careful, beautiful pieces—came into vogue. It was very stressful for Norman, Smith says in the film, and would have been worse if they had stayed. “I think Brooks moved him back to Big Sur to save him, in a sense,” Smith says.
Back in Big Sur, Norman continued his work in relative isolation. He and Clement had parties, went on safari, worked on their beautiful house. Before he died in 1973 of liver cancer, Clement told Emile, “Wherever I’m going, rest assured, I’ll get you a job in the art department.”
Norman has not stopped working since. The opening and closing scenes of the film are taken from an image that greeted Tucker and Eikenberry each week as they arrived in Big Sur, having left the NBC studios after shooting LA Law. As they crept along the dirt road in the wee hours of the morning, they would invariably see Norman at work in his studio, lights blazing, completely absorbed in the private world of his own making.
EMILE NORMAN: BY HIS OWN DESIGN premieres Sunday, Oct. 15 at 6pm on KQED, Channel 9.