A long and prolific career, mastery of the wet technique of watercolor, and creativity in all media and styles have made Ben Norris (1910-2006) one of the major figures in the history of Hawaiian art. Hawaii’s premiere watercolorist was born, raised, and trained in California. He graduated from Pomona College in 1930 and then studied at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Sorbonne in Paris. After returning to California to pursue a career in landscape painting, Norris was recruited as the Kamehameha School’s first art teacher in 1936. The next year, he joined the University of Hawaii, where he served as chair of the Art Department (1945-1955) and taught until his retirement in the late 1970s.
Norris was honored and pleased to exhibit in the invitational Chicago International Watercolor Show (1940). A critic took notice of his work, writing in a national art magazine that, “the Norris watercolor is hung with the academicians, from which it differs in emphasis on the inherent vitality of nature.” Later, when asked to explain the essence of his landscape painting, the artist cited this comment. As chair of the university’s fine arts department, Ben Norris had occasion to bring several notable visiting artists to Hawaii, among them renowned surrealist Max Ernst. "Max was totally charming," remarked Ben. "He saw with what was going on in his head more than what was really there. He gave me my first contact with surrealism and abstract art, and introduced me to the approach of interrogating materials. 'What are you painting? I don’t know, I haven’t finished it yet.' That's surrealism."