ali norman | The Energetics of Creation
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 19 march 2019
“We’re coming back to the intangible and the intuitive.
The physicality of the print can get into a fleeting emotion that we may not even have words for”
We live in a world that privileges words. One only has to spend a day in a research-based MFA program to understand that. Students can make pretty much whatever they want, any way that they want, with any level of skill, as long as they can write about it with plenty of Said and Foucault in the footnotes. This practice is a part of the arts’ never ending quest to rationalise our world to those on the outside. To this end, we dive into the game of words, arguments, and logic. It’s how we get our funding and argue against it being cut. Exhibitions in small commercial galleries to major museums produce catalogs and write wall text —words which are often consumed before the imagery is taken in. Unless we can justify our creations to the left brain, the logistic, the masculine, we fear our work will be considered devoid of meaning. Ali Norman doesn’t agree, and judging by her 20,000 Instagram fans, she’s not the only one.
Norman is a printmaker, an adjunct professor, and a boss lady. She grew up in Florida, playing in the lush greenery, with her father building a single prop plane in their garage and Ali being the first to volunteer to go to Home Depot with him for tools or supplies. These early influences of the natural world mixed with the physicality of creation are evident in her current practice. Although she says that if you were to tell her ten-year-old-self that her life would take on the form that it has now she never would have believed you. As a child she was always drawing, and had a deep interest in darkroom photography. An interest which eventually took her to the Savannah College of Art and Design where her introduction to printmaking was stone lithography. Although, admittedly, she says she spent that entire class looking longingly through the doorway into the etching studio. While litho may not have stolen her heart from the beginning, during her first class in the etching studio, she knew that she had found her calling even before putting the plate in the acid. Recalling the experience she says, “It was like I had done it in a past life.”
Now in her position as an adjunct instructor, she is passing on this passion. She tells the students to think of printmaking as magic or alchemy. “You’re not going to understand for a while why you’re doing what you’re doing, but you have to trust the process and know that it will come. You’re putting all your intentions and emotions into something, and in the end it’s transformed into a new state.”
In her own practice, the ritual and repetition make for magic. Through the copper, she feels a connection to the earth from which it was pulled as she works and prepares her plates. One of the most distinctive and beautiful aspects of Norman’s aesthetic is how she intricately cuts her plates. The act of doing so not only means that Norman spends even more time in preparation of her matrix, but also gives the finished print a textural physicality that moves it beyond the familiar square. Preparing several plates at a time, Norman will leave them on an altar with candles, or place them on a window ledge under a full moon. For Norman, these rituals are about getting into her subconscious as well as the subconscious collective we all share. Her intentions imbue the plates, and the finished prints, with an energy that can be felt by others on an intuitive level.
Her imagery itself also exists in the energetic. Norman readily admits that words are not her strong suit. “I always have a million thoughts and concepts running through my head,” she says “but when I go to try and explain them, I feel like I need to tell people, ‘I swear that sounded better in here!’” In her etchings the figures and animals stand in for concepts she’s working through or dreaming of. She’s always had dynamic, detailed, lucid dreams, and to this day keeps a journal by the bed so she can take notes or sketches based on what she’s seen. In her dream, in the world beyond words, icons appear with regularity. Imagery such as the ancient ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. This image is about repetition and the circular nature of our lives, our returning to our mistakes and our patterns. She believes that her viewers will understand this even if they don’t know what the symbol means specifically. Much the way the Byzantine halos on her animals let the viewer know that they are not in this world and instead in viewing her prints they have passed through logic and are now in the world of dreams, the spiritual, The Other. If she’s feeling powerful and chaotic, images of serpents appear in her prints. If she’s been vulnerable and sad, that’s when the rabbits pop up. Norman thinks that in a world which champions science and tech people are feeling the void of our spiritual experience. “We’re coming back to the intangible and the intuitive. The physicality of the print can get into a fleeting emotion that we may not even have words for.”
Mother of Dragons
But don’t let all the woowoo fool you, Norman also has brass business balls. With an enviable instagram game and a thriving online business, Norman is doing that which seems like witchcraft in and of itself to many artists: being successful selling and promoting her own work. She was an early instagram adopter, and says that her initial impetus came simply from her love for etching and the desire to share it. Flash forward to a few years later, and her feed is one of the best curated and most beautiful out there. Her instagram story is updated pretty much every day with videos from her studio, her plant friends, and recent adorable backyard vids of her new pup, Conrad, running in the grass. This kind of dedication offers her followers the sense that they know her. The daily updates from Norman are something that most of us don’t get even from our closest friends. Beyond this, however, it shows the world that Norman is in her studio, about her business. With her studio in house she never has to clean up or put her ink away. She gets home from teaching and can immediately dive in to her work again where she left off. She thinks it is important for her students to see her in the studio and for them to know that she practices what she preaches. She’s in the studio every day after class, so why can’t they be as well?
Calling in Your Stones
“That’s the thing that older printmakers have told me: the equipment finds you.”
I am writing this on the heels of the pleasure of spending a few days with Norman at SGCI in Dallas, TX. SGCI has become a gathering place for all us printmakers tucked away in the corners of the globe, where we can put faces to practices and actions to Instagram feeds. It was during SGCI that Norman found herself in one of those magical, kismet, SGCI conversations that can change your life. She learned that a lithographer who she’d never heard of, but lived not too far from Tampa, had recently passed away, and that his widow was looking for someone to take the studio. Understandable though, the bereaved woman wanted to make sure that it was going to a good home. Norman was in the right place at the right time to hear this and undoubtedly is the right person. Cut to this Saturday when Norman, and one or two strong men are driving a rented truck to pick up a Conrad Litho Press and several lithographic stones. The press will be replacing Norman’s dining room table and eventually blossoming into her long term goal: a community printshop in Tampa, Florida. Something which in the original plan was a ten years out goal for Norman, has most suddenly become a lot closer to reality. If this sound a bit like magic, just remember what was said in the immortal words of Roald Dahl “Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
For Norman, all of it - the energetics, the ritual, and the magic - comes down to this. “It’s playing with your own psyche which is what magic is all about to begin with and your subconscious manifests that belief into reality.” Or indeed, into a litho studio.