On Bells and the Inherent Hope in “Re-”
by Brittany Vesterback I meet Christina Norberg (www.christinanorberg.com) in an open, spartan workspace she shares with a handful of other artists. Each artist has their own area, and Norberg admits that while it can be a bit distracting, they’re all usually quite good at reading one another’s artistic mindset. “Like, headphones in, means I’m in it,” Norberg tells me. Within the first few minutes of introducing ourselves, I’m settled with a cup of tea and we’re discussing the relative curative properties of ginger and garlic. This sets the tone of the conversation that follows, in which Norberg tells me about making collages while out and about with the Diptic app, we talk built-in obsolescence and being conscientious consumers, and the inspiration Norberg draws from the natural world.
The bells which were what first drew us to Norberg and her work were still in boxes, having just recently been shipped back from Toronto where they had been a featured exhibition. Norberg hasn’t unpacked them yet and tells me that she hopes to display them somewhere in Vancouver soon. “I’m just looking for a space and maybe some other artists to collaborate with for an exhibit.” The bells have already inspired a collaboration, as Norberg tells me that she was contacted by a chef who saw her Toronto exhibit and loved it. He contacted Norberg with an interesting proposition: “He’s going to do this thing where he creates a meal based off of what I do with this dinner bell I’ve got,” Norberg shows me an old-fashioned dinner bell painted white, sitting on her worktop. “There are five other artists involved, and it’s intriguing because that’s not the usual connection. Food and art. He was inspired by my bells to suggest the dinner bells. I wouldn’t of thought of that. And he thinks of his food, that medium, as his art. He fully feels and calls himself an artist, and I love that. It’s exciting, feeding off that energy in an unexpected medium.” Norberg’s bell is going to be the inspiration for his dessert.
Having already spoken to Valerie Arntzen about the inspiration she draws from the objects she finds and letting them inflect her art, I ask Christina how much she is influenced by the story behind the pieces she uses. “You know, not as much as some artists. For me, it’s really more about the story that I find for myself. Like, thinking about these poor bells, just sitting in a pile, that they were just going to go to the metal recycling—and at least they were going to be recycled, but yeah. They were already made in this amazing shape. And it all fits into my internal imagery, of these single cells or these tiny seeds.” Despite this, she tells me that she’s probably going to move on from the bells for a while. “Like, if I’m struck by some idea or inspiration, I’ll definitely follow it, but I know that for me and for a lot of artists, once I’m done with a series I like to do something that’s either completely different. Or something that branches off from that series in some interesting way.” Which brings us around to the topic of inspiration. Having already talked about the ideas that drew her to the bells, we begin to discuss Norberg’s upcoming projects. She has lots of things “percolating” at the moment. Her father-in-law works with stained glass as a hobby, and she’s thinking about doing some work with glass in “geometric terrariums, but put my sculptures inside, like my felted bits and papier mache bits and also paint parts of the glass, so it’ll have multiple dimensions. 2D on the face of the glass but with windows looking in.” Norberg is also taking part in an exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby. “Every year they have an annual fundraiser and last year they had a whole bunch of artists paint traditional Japanese sculpture, and these are Daruma, and they give you these blank sculptures to work with.” She shows me the blank sculpture, which looks like a little penguin crossed with a Russian nesting doll. “They have a big silent auction, and it’s so fascinating to see the variety of ways that artists approach it. And this is kind of what I want to be moving towards three dimensionally.” But sculpture is sort of in the percolating stage for Norberg. “I tend to work very intuitively. I think the bells were one of the few instances where I took a lot of time to do preliminary sketches and prep work before I went to work on the actual bells. But I do think that you need to give an idea time to crystallize even when you do work intuitively. If there’s no direction, you can just feel lost, and I need some sort of a focus. And from there exploration can happen and happy accidents and discoveries.” I wonder, with this sort of percolating phase, does it get difficult to get rid of found pieces? Her workspace is quite spare, though there are a few boxes up on high shelves that could contain anything. “I’ve gone through periods of collecting and then just purging. I don’t want too much clutter in my mental space, so I’ve gone through stages of building up and letting go. I was actually almost getting to the point of purging these beauties (the bells), but then an idea kind of crystallized.” “I do believe that there’s a time limit. Part of that is my husband, who is quite organized and minimalist, and I’m learning his mentality that, anything you might want is out there if you’re looking for it. If you’re looking for a door, you can find it, you can go on Craigslist or something like that. When I was in art school there used to be this building…it was like a shack with shacks built onto it, and you could walk through—it was totally not building code safe, and I think it’s had to be torn down since then—but it was amazing. You could wander through this collection of ramshackle things and I think that’s where I started collecting.” “There is so much stuff out there that is changing our view of what might be a valuable thing or what we might want to experiment with. Because there is so much waste, so many businesses and industries that produce so much stuff that it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get ahold of things.” I bring up the wood that is clear-cut every year, which has a telltale blue tint and many other interesting markings and was, for some time, quite difficult to acquire. Norberg is intrigued. “I’m going to look into that. You’d think they’d want to make it easier for people to make something of it.” I’m happy to say that, after doing more research, it seems that it has become easier to acquire the pine beetle wood for use in art, architecture, and pretty much everything you might want to use wood for. “I really want to work with wood,” she says, showing me a wood slab that she intends to use as a canvas, to build upon with paint, papier mache, and reclaimed materials. Right now, Norberg is working on paintings. She shows me some of her recent paintings and is pleased when I tell her that they remind me of aquatic plants somehow. “Oh, that’s great!” she says, looking at her piece again. “The work I’m doing right now is botanical, organic inspired but with a kind of modern, futuristic vibe.” “It’s like, I love anything biological and anything cosmic. Constellation-like stuff. I like to think about the place where things connect. That there’s a spot where it’s made obvious for a moment that everything is one. You can see hints of it in fractals, just little reminders in the physical world of the non-physical world.” This gets us off on a tangent about the bewildering fondness for “boxes” in our architecture. Though we both acknowledge that there are some architects and designers doing some amazing things, “For the most part we haven’t accomplished the complexities of nature, like bees making beehives. Working within nature’s laws hasn’t been our strong suit.” Even the idea of letting fields lie fallow fell by the wayside, ignoring “that basic law of nature that is that cycle, that things come up from the earth and need to cycle back again. We’re just taking, and we’re just now getting to that point where we’re like, oh, it’s not sustainable.” “Capitalism definitely kind of messed us up for quite a while. But the optimist in me tells me that we can find a way back.” Optimism is something that we return to many times during our conversation. Norberg is ever optimistic, even though she admits it’s sometimes difficult. But however dire things get, Norberg insists, “there are so many solutions, so many ideas, we just have to make sure it’s a priority and that we put our money where our mouth is.” Which comes back to being a conscientious consumer. “Take a step back and think about where our money is going and that it isn’t just going to these big, controlling corporations. There’s a lot of hopefulness in repurposing things. I’m a pure optimist, it’s the only way I know how to be, is to focus on solutions on what else we can do. Yes, there are problems, okay, what can we do, let’s make the best of it. I can’t help but think that it’s going to get better. If you get too fatalistic about the future, if you think things aren’t going to get better, you remove yourself from the possibility of finding a solution.” Even the ‘re-’ in the word ‘repurposed’ or ‘reclaimed’ speaks to that cycle, of revolution and recovery and rebirth. “There’s something very hopeful in it. It’s exciting.”