Robert Benjamin Norris
Robert Benjamin "Ben" Norris
The watercolors of the American painter Ben Norris reveal an insight into Hawai'i and its culture that few artists have captured. With skill and understanding, Norris imparts a sense of respect for the land, a sense held by the indigenous people of these lands. Born in Redlands, California, Norris’ talent as an artist was recognized at a very early age. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Pomona College, he won a fellowship at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University where he spent a year and then studied at the Sorbonne in Paris for 11 months. He traveled extensively throughout Europe before returning to California to pursue a career as a landscape painter. As an active participant in the California Watercolor School, he had the opportunity to work closely with landscape artist Thomas Craig (1906-1969). They became friends and in 1936, at Craig’s suggestion, Norris accepted the position of first art teacher at the Kamehameha School for Boys in Honolulu. After a year, he joined the art department at the University of Hawai'i as an associate professor and served as department chair from 1945-1955. In 1955, he was awarded a Fulbright professorship to Japan where he was exposed to Asian techniques, motifs and forms. He retired in 1975.
Norris succeeded in building an academic and artistic environment that transformed Honolulu and its university campus from a modest art locale to a bustling epicenter of lectures, seminars, and activities. In addition to introducing artists of international stature, such as Max Ernst and Jean Charlot, to the islands, Norris participated in a group exhibition that traveled across the Mainland. Norris has created a large and diverse body of work. He has experimented with traditional Japanese techniques and motifs, abstract collages, three-dimensional forms, large wall murals, and oil paintings. While his style progressed during the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's, Norris’ method for producing landscapes remained the same. He would sketch en plein air then return to his studio to paint, not only from the sketch, but also from his memory of the scene. He often sat for hours, soaking up the aura of the landscape as much as the physical characteristics. As he moved into a more focused abstraction, “it became more of a memory thing” for the artist. This melding of memory and subconscious reflected the influence of Max Ernst on the artist. Ernst, a surrealist painter, was a major exponent of the movement that mixed reason with unreason, using dreams or chance effects to create a new vision and new reality. When asked how he measures the success of a work, Norris mentions integrity, weight, and consistency but emphasizes that gut feeling is most essential.