Robert "Bob" R. Norman, 44, is working on two custom-built cedar tables that need to be shipped in next two days, and he is pressed to get them out to the buyer. Norman just returned from Burning Man, a weeklong art event and temporary community in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, and he is now playing catch-up. His black-gloved hands begin to pick at the chunks of old varnish that coat the spray canister. "I didn't empty this before I left for Burning Man, said Norman. "I should have cleaned it; instead I just left myself a mess."
Norman is well-known throughout Eureka Springs and across the country for his hand-built rustic furniture and more recently, his larger-than-life works of art. His art tends to reflect chapters of his life in Eureka Springs but mostly it reflects a period from his youth in Michigan, where he grew up as an avid angler. "I know fish; I know what they look like and I use them in almost all of my paintings," he said.
Painting has become an outlet for Norman and has helped him along his journey from alcoholism toward sobriety.
After his wife divorced him and moved away with their daughter, he did not stop drinking. It wasn't until a friend took Norman to Burning Man that he began to feel like life was worth living, soberly. "I wandered around drinking for a few days and when I began to sober up I started to see all the beautiful art that was around me," he said. "Burning Man that year was a game changer--I got a grip on things and then I understood that everyone is broken, not just me."
It wasn't until his close friend, Todd, died from liver failure from his own fight with alcoholism, that Norman understood the reality of the situation. "I realized that if I didn't stop drinking that could be me in a few years," he said.
Art has since eased the void left in his life and given him a creative outlet to express himself. In 2011, he entered one of his drawings into art competition for the May Festival of the Arts poster contest and won. He then began selling copies of poster and that was when he met Practical Magic Art Supply and gallery owner Raven Derge.
"When I first met Bob he sold his prints out of the back of his van for one or two dollars and as he began to get recognition for his work, the price began to go up," Derge said. "We framed the prints we bought from him and hung them in our gallery and sales sky-rocketed."
Norman now displays large art pieces at Derge's gallery in Bentonville, along with several rustic art chairs.
Norman's life was a lot different 17 years ago. He owned and operated a business of six craftsmen at his roadside furniture shop, Roadside Rustics. He created rustic chairs, tables and benches from found wood and he is well known for his sassafras benches with fish backs. "I created this style of bench and I have seen benches like this that were inspired from my creations," he said. "I didn't expect the business to begin like it did, but once I started making the benches and displaying them along the highway, sales took off."
The owner of Bass Pro, Johnny Morris, has two of Norman's fish benches at the corporate office in Springfield, Mo. "He saw my furniture out front and stopped to check it out," Norman said. "He ended up buying two benches from me and displaying them in one of his stores in Missouri. A few years later I got a call and a designer wanted two more for the Bass Pro corporate headquarters and they are still there today."
When Norman came back from Burning Man several years ago he decided that he no longer wanted to make furniture so he sold his business to his employees. "I decided that I wanted to do art full-time, so I let go of Roadside Rustics to focus on my art," he said.
Though he sold his rustics business he still creates his signature benches and builds large commissioned furniture pieces to ship across the country.
The building that once housed all of Norman's furniture is now a display studio for his many works of art. When driving by his studio there is often a 4x8 painting on an easel pointed towards the roadway; a painting is normally outside on the easel regardless of weather conditions.
A large robot painting that was displayed for over two weeks was recently propped up on its side underneath the porch, soaking in a puddle left behind from a recent thunderstorm. "That painting out there can take some abuse- if it falls over or gets ruined it doesn't matter," he said. "The art is about how it affects people that see it; if someone driving by sees my art and it makes them smile then I have succeeded."
Norman spends hours spreading layer after layer of paint onto canvases to create abstract paintings and although he puts many hours into his paintings he isn't attached to all of them. Recently, he left two 8x8 paintings that he created for the Center Camp Café at Burning Man-- he does not know who has the painting. "My mother told me I was crazy--but I didn't make the art for me, I made it for the people and it wasn't mine anymore," he said.
The paintings were worth around $6,000 but he had no intent to sell the paintings -- he painted them for the temporary community at Burning Man. "When it comes to the value of art, that is something out of my realm," Norman said. "More than 50,000 people saw my art and that is what I wanted the most."
Norman also uses art as a way to connect with people in his community. For several years he has hosted 'Drink and Draws' at his home; essentially they were a party for he and his friends to come together and make art but after a harsh winter the roads to Norman's house became too dangerous for people to drive so he moved his 'Drink and Draws' to Chelsea's Corner Café and Bar. He provides all of the materials for people to become creative for a $5 donation.
"A lot of my friends were wasting their time drinking and not producing anything -- most of them are very talented artists -- I figured if I gave them paint brushes and a canvas maybe they would create something and they did," Norman said.
"I think he got tired of people coming to his house and he didn't have enough beds for all of them -- we don't have beds here either, but we can kick them out," said Nate Huff, co-owner of Chelsea's.
Currently Norman is working on a conceptual art show named 'BROKEN' that requires participation from the audience. "I'm asking the crowd to experience the creative or destructive nature of the art I will be displaying," he said. "Behind everyone there is a destructive force or someone that is broken and art is a way to release and let the anger out."
Although his road to sobriety was not an easy one, Norman has defied alcoholism stereotypes through and through -- he can go out with friends and even attend social events at bars without enticement from alcohol, even at times when he feels broken down or upset.
"I will never drink again and I'm not even tempted; I made the decision and now it's hard-wired in my brain," he said.
For more information about "Drink and Draw" contact Chelsea's at 479-253-6723.