Norwood hopes to rebuild home studio gutted by 2−alarm fire
By Stephen Stirling
At 72, College Point artist John Norwood is predictably bleak when he reflects on losing his home and half of his life’s work in a fire last week.
“I’ve been pretty black about it,” Norwood said, smoke curling out of his mouth from a Marlboro cigarette. “Have you ever lost anything in a fire like that? I’ve been doing this for 50 years now and everything there is lost. It’s all gone.”
Norwood’s home and studio, a 2,000−square−foot converted stable, was completely destroyed when an electrical fire tore through the building Jan. 5. Norwood, the only one home at the time, escaped without injury but about half of the work he has completed in his 50−year painting and sculpting career — as well as all his clothing and furniture — was destroyed in the blaze.
“The weather’s been bleak since it happened. We’ve been out there two, three days in a row talking to insurance people trying to sort out the details of it all. It’s cold. One day it was raining all day,” he said. “It’s been pretty f−−−−−− miserable.”
Norwood and his wife, Ruby, have lived in College Point for the majority of their 37−year marriage. They have owned the home and studio, at 22−12 119th St., for the last 12 years. Norwood said he put about a year’s worth of work into fixing up the home, which was built in the 1920s and overlooks Flushing bay, and he hopes to rebuild.
“They used to have horses here around the back, there was a big hayloft and they used to bring coal in by boat,” he said. “It’s a great view. That’s why I want to stay here. If I live that long, that is.”
Educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, Norwood over the course of his half−century long career has developed a very distinct aesthetic. His paintings and metric−based sculptures are fashioned out of recycled material he finds in his day−to−day life. Mountainous sculptures of packing materials, cardboard boxes, coffee cups and Marlboro cigarettes painted in vibrant colors line a large studio located above his wife’s pediatric offices on 15th Avenue. Inside a towering wall of Plexiglas boxes lie pieces of models from his work at an architectural firm as well as small figurines of Playboy Bunnies from another project he worked on for the adult magazine.
Norwood credits much of the inspiration for his work with several years of traveling through Europe and Asia following his departure from art school in Chicago.
“I left the art institute after I knew everything,” he said. “Me and a friend traveled around for three years just studying art history, palaces, architecture, the people. That’s really where I got my education. I remember I used to trade cigarettes with the Russians while they stood in front of their jets. I’ve lived a pretty interesting life.”
But as he toured a portion of his life’s work, Norwood was clearly preoccupied by what was not there.
“This was a portrait my daughter did of me for her master’s at the New York Academy of Art. She’s also an artist. I thought it was a pretty good piece, but it was destroyed,” he said, pointing to photographs, before motioning upwards at a large, dramatic sculpture. “There was another wall like this that pretty much got all screwed up in the fire.”
But despite all he’s lost, Norwood said there is some light in his life as he and his wife pick up the pieces. Their daughter, Daniella, was expecting her first child this week.
“Now we’re more worried about the baby than the material things,” he said.
Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.