Burned and Listless: Queens Artist Tries To Rebuild Life After Fire
By Joseph Orovic
Artist and iconoclast John Norwood toiled away in his studio on another utopian cityscape, an expanse of tiny white buildings atop an ocean of blue. It consumed the recent years of his life.
He stepped upstairs to his College Point home of 35 years and began an egg-based concoction for supper.
Smelling smoke, Norwood returned downstairs to see billowing gray clouds rising from the floor. He attacked them with a fire extinguisher and rolled open the garage door.
Fueled by winter winds and a dubiously cautious response by the Fire Department, flames quickly engulfed the entire building.
His wife, Dr. Ruby Malva, ran over from her pediatric office several blocks away and spent too long calling his name, fearing he was in the smoldering building before her.
She found her husband to the side, in shock after watching their home and a decade’s worth of art burn to nothing.
Now College Point’s little-known 71-year-old painter, sculptor and resident leads the life of a youthful creator, sleeping on floors and piecing together an existence from fragments. But the greater part of life has passed, and what physical evidence he had of it disappeared with the night’s fire.
“I’m feeling very black,” he said with trademark cool, his voice a deep North Carolina drawl, made coarse by Marlboro reds. “I lost everything.”
Norwood’s face doesn’t betray his age; his features are soft with wrinkles too thin to notice. The only indication of wisdom may be atop his head, in the form of a thin mat of ash-grey hair.
The City wants to tear the burnt building down, and various interests have tried to shy him away from rebuilding his home on the second floor. It’s a decision Norwood would like to avoid.
As he and his wife wrestle insurance suits, haggling and fighting to keep their home standing, they spend their nights on an air mattress on the floor of their daughter’s studio just a few blocks away.
“We have to get a place for ourselves, for our mental sanity,” Malva said.
The ceiling collapsed on one of the building’s stairwells. The second floor, where Norwood lived, was completely destroyed.
“It’s a ton of headaches,” Norwood added. “One three-hour fire and the whole world goes to hell.”
When he first moved to the City four decades ago, he acquired the derelict waterfront property and spent a year and a half molding it to his own tastes and design.
“We want to rebuild the place,” Norwood said. “I put so much into it.”
While he exudes nonchalance, Norwood’s friend and fellow artist Tom Black believes it may just be residual shock. The loss is of a grander scale than Norwood wants to admit.
“The place itself was an extension of his artwork. It was a discarded building when he got it and when he finished working it fit him rather neatly,” Black said. “The building itself was a large, live-in sculpture.”
Lost in the formal aspects of recovering from this disaster, Norwood has had an artistic reassessment forced upon him. When asked if he sees this as an opportunity to start over, he responded, “It doesn’t inspire me that much. It’s all rather depressing.”
His age, of course, is a factor but according to Black, the nature of an artist makes this loss nearly unbearable.
“An artist tends to see himself as moving through time. So you discount your work from the past,” he said. Losing his most recent creations is “almost like losing your identity.”
Norwood’s art itself leaves reason for hope. His second studio, which also serves as his wife’s pediatric office, holds thousands of his works. Many are paintings, and the rest are sculptures.
Witness the coffee cups, stacked and sprayed a bright orange and yellow, their lids used in a separate piece. Or the pyramids, redone with cigarette packs instead of bricks, with stubbed-out butts pasted together into bulging piles.
Norwood’s sculptures often repurpose the mundane objects of everyday life to give them renewed meaning.
“I’m infernally abstract,” he said.
Now, Norwood must redefine a building along the water’s edge of College Point, as he did 35 years ago.
Inside, the utopian city Norwood worked on lays burnt and blackened, chaos creeping in among its streets and buildings. Architecture and a surplus of tiny people and buildings inform much of Norwood’s work. He was the former Chief Model Maker for renowned architect I.M. Pei.
But Norwood isn’t gushing hope right now.
“It makes a real mess, when things go wrong in your world.”