Emile Norman: By His Own Design.
Emile Norman – By His Own Design. A documentary written and directed by Will Parrinello, produced by Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.
*A review by David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle*
Will Parrinello calls his film “Emile Norman: By His Own Design,” but had Noel Coward not gotten there first, he could have well chosen “Design for Living” for the title of the documentary.
Regardless of what you think of the work of Big Sur artist Emile Norman, you’ll come away from this gentle, loving documentary with irresistible appreciation for Norman’s greatest work, his own life. From his beginnings on a San Gabriel Valley walnut farm to his life today on a hilltop home in Big Sur, Norman has determined the order of his own life.
Now 90, Norman defines iconoclast in every way. He could have gone into farming in the San Gabriel Valley where he grew up, but instead he decided to make art. After his first gallery show in New York drew raves from an influential art critic and sold out the next day, Norman could have stayed in the East at a time when the Abstract Expressionism of Jack Pollock was all the rage. Instead, he returned to Big Sur to create gentle, nature-inspired carvings and reliefs, adorned with inlays of wood whose natural tones Norman admires too much to sully with stain.
He could have tried to live up to the image his gallery fostered of being a “California rancher turned artist,” but, after dressing in macho tweeds and popping a pipe in his mouth to look the part, he returned to California and fell in love with the man who came to fix his radio. Norman’s relationship with Brooks Clement lasted 30 years, until the latter’s death from cancer in 1973. To friends in Big Sur, the two became one with a single signature, “Clemile,” decades before anyone thought gay men would ever be able to get married in California.
In this film, produced by Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry, with award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”) serving as advisers, Parrinello has created a valentine to one man’s life, but it’s hard to argue that “Emile Norman” could be anything but. His relationship with Clement had a bit of a rocky patch, but they stuck it out.
A few years ago, doctors advised him that it wasn’t a good idea for him to live all alone in the breathtaking hilltop home he and Clement built themselves, so Norman invited a younger gay couple to move in with him. Norman defined “family” on his own terms.
Throughout his career, Norman has followed his own muse, in art as well as life. At one point, he designed ornate headgear for the leggy chorines in the 1946 Hollywood musical “Blue Skies.” Later, he created window displays for Bergdorf Goodman in New York. But for many, his greatest creation can be seen atop Nob Hill in the San Francisco Masonic Center, where Norman not only created that massive and ornate glass mosaic window that overlooks California street but also carved the sculptural reliefs on the building’s exterior.