HUMAN INTEREST STORY: No. 5 - Sphere sends artist's career into orbit

Thursday, December 26, 2013
Robert Norman

Robert Norman had carved a national name for himself as a furniture designer for Bass Pro Shops, and the company he founded, Roadside Rustics, won international acclaim in the world of modern furniture design. Working out his studio near Blue Spring, Norman also has developed a reputation for his paintings. But the launching of the Community Sphere project last spring sent his career to new heights.

A Creative Energy Project that promotes community art projects, the Sphere is a sculpture that Norman designed and installed in the Basin Park fountain in conjunction with the May Festival of the Arts. In the months leading up to the festival, Norman held events at schools, nursing homes, bars and parks where he invited people to decorate 2 to 3- feet long branches of wood, which he had culled from local woods, debarked and sanded, and write a wish or hope on them with metallic markers. Norman then attached the sticks -- he aimed for more than 1,000-- in a criss-cross lattice to a metal framework six feet in diameter. When completed, the sphere was lifted into the fountain with a crane and lighted at night.

"The whole process put me in the public eye in a greater way, which drew the attention of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art," Norman said. "They invited me to design and create a sphere, similar to the Eureka Springs' one, to be a centerpiece of their first-ever ultraviolet extravaganza, the Light the Night party on the autumn equinox."

Hundreds gather in Basin Park prior to the debut lighting of the Community Sphere during the May Festival of the Arts.

That sphere met with such enthusiasm that the museum requested it remain on exhibit for a week instead of just one night, Norman said. Following that request, Norman was asked to begin teaching classes in the adult outreach program at Crystal Bridges. The first, "Wildlife on Wood," will be Feb.16.

The Community Sphere also brought him attention from the media. KY3 News in Springfield filmed an interview with him that was broadcast in April, and several newspapers did articles. Sphere, as he came to call it, also increased his exposure with art collectors. At a Drink and Draw night while it was still installed downtown, two tourists bought one of his paintings on the spot simply because he was the Sphere artist, Norman said. Several local clients also commissioned furniture and art as a result of seeing his work with Sphere.

And in a town with more professional artists per capita than anywhere else in the state, Norman and Jeremy Mason McGraw, founder and director of theCreative Energy Project, were named Artists of the Year by the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce.

"More than anything, I feel that what I gained from the success of Sphere was greater confidence in my ability to gain public support and appreciation for large sculptural projects," Norman said. "Coming from someone who has been known for his furniture and wildlife painting, this is a shift in my career that opens up new long-term artistic visions."

The Sphere's design reflects the luminescence and grand scale of sculptures displayed at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, McGraw said, in which Norman has participated as an artist, and the construction of the exterior from sustainably-gathered materials is fundamental to his signature style. The Sphere also spun off the creation of smaller spheres, which were installed on the wall around Basin Park.

The biggest surprise, Norman said, and the best thing that came out of the Sphere was Suzanne.

"She came into the project as my girlfriend and now she's my wife," Norman said. "Projects like this test relationships and we passed the test. She has become my inspiration and my partner in art. My one true love."

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