ST. PETERSBURG — Though a relative newbie to the world of art, Sharon Norwood’s impressive oeuvre includes many striking ceramic sculptures and thought-provoking paintings. Yet according to the artist herself she “fell into art” by accident. As a youngster in the Caribbean, the Dunedin-based artist admitted that she didn’t go to galleries or museums.
“I didn’t study art as a kid and just was not really interested in it,” she said. “I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. The visual arts was not something I saw anyone doing.”
Her family emigrated from the sun-kissed island to the more cosmopolitan Toronto when she was only nine, and Norwood admitted that making the leap from the small island nation that was home to a foreign metropolis was quite a culture shock for her.
“Coming of age in Canada was very different because there weren’t many boys that looked like me,” she remembered. “Where I was, the first boys you liked were the boys you saw on TV.”
But she did adapt to life up in the Great White North quite well, where she studied to be a graphic designer. It was also here that she began dipping her toes into the art pool.
“I remember as a teenager painting or drawing things and people saying, ‘That’s really good’ and I thought, ‘Really?’”
After finding a job as a graphic designer, Norwood was in her twenties when she decided to take a vacation with her family to Florida, not only for a change of climate but for a change of cultural surroundings.
“I traveled a lot,” she said. “Canada is so cold, so I took any excuse to go somewhere warm and to try to find some diversity among people.”
It was quite a rewarding vacation because it was in Florida that she met Charles Norwood, the man who would become her husband, and in 2001 she moved to the Sunshine State for good.
Still thinking practically, Norwood decided to pursue a degree in fine arts at the University of South Florida because she’d always believed the best graphic designers were the ones with an art background. This decision to go back to school changed her way of looking at the world.
“I didn’t really understand what it was to be a working artist,” she explained. “I learned how to become a competent painter, but what surprised me is that I learned I could sculpt, make these forms with clay. It opened my world!”
She’s been sculpting for about four years and her ceramic sculptures are primarily figurative, as she endeavors to express many facets of any particular subject.
“When I create these ceramic forms, I try to get these different instances of the same person,” she said. “When you’re walking around it you get different types of emotions, different parts of the person’s character.”
For the past year and a half Norwood has been going back to her home country of Jamaica to do artist residencies. Not only has she worked with some established Jamaican artists but has found ample inspiration there, and has sculpted portrait busts of the islanders she’s encountered. It is in such works as “Andy,” a sculpture of a man with downcast eyes and closed, slightly pursed lips that Norwood strives to tell a man’s life story with a single clay bust.
“I met a gentleman when I was in Kingston and you can just tell that he’s had a really hard life,” the artist said of this work that recently garnered a Merit Award at the Dunedin Fine Art Center. “You can tell that he’s been through a lot. And when you look at the piece I think it says that. There’s an empathy that comes through. I can connect with that. It’s about identity.”
Putting herself in her work is something that comes intuitively to Norwood, especially in her paintings. This is quite apparent in such works as “Pearl,” Norwood’s take on the famous 1665 Johannes Vermeer painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Norwood depicts an African-American girl in the iconic pose, and there is more than a passing resemblance between the subject of “Pearl” and Norwood’s own visage.
“Whether I’m taking Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ and I’m translating that into me being the girl with the pearl earring it feels natural, so it feels like that’s my story,” she disclosed. “It’s almost like reading a book and wanting the characters to represent you and that’s what I do with visual arts. I read visual arts and want to put myself into them. A lot of times I’ll take things and turn them around so it becomes a part of my story.”
Norwood strives to challenge people to view things in a different light and eschew any preconceived notions or biases when taking in her artwork. In other words, she’d like people to examine themselves while they’re examining her work. For her series “Portrait of a Saint,” she painted several African-American men with haloes to challenge the conventional way some people may expect to see such individuals presented, and questioning the stereotype of black men as criminals.
The artist said the paintings implore the question: “Am I comfortable seeing this black man with a halo or am I comfortable seeing him as a thug? Sometimes you’re saintly and sometimes you’re not,” she stated. “Why not present an image that is not seen as much? Invert the black man as criminal and put the black man in this different context, where he’s a saint, and see what kind of dialogue that creates.”
Norwood has only been painting for about five years and admits that when she went back to school she became truly interested in learning how to paint like the old masters.
“I saw images from museums, and those were what I thought of as beautiful so I wanted to create paintings like that,” she affirmed. “Paintings that belong in history.”
And like with the work of Vermeer, Norwood has her own take on a classic painting by a modern American master, Norman Rockwell. His 1964 work “The Problem We All Live With” depicts a young African-American girl being escorted to school by four deputy marshals in the early days of racial desegregation.
Norwood’s own take on this piece, renamed “The Problem She Lives With,” focuses on the little schoolgirl. Gone are the faceless marshals and the thrown tomato that has apparently just splattered on the wall behind the girl in the Rockwell work. The girl is the lone figure in this updated painting by Norwood, who portrays her young subject with a subtle, saintly glow all around her.
“I like Norman Rockwell because he does these popular cultural images that tell a story,” she said. “When I look at them there’s either a person that involves me in terms of identity or there’s an absence of me in his paintings. So he actually pops up in my work. He called it ‘The Problem We All Live With’ but for me it was the problem SHE lives with.”
Indeed, identity plays a starring role in Norwood’s work and she claims her paintings are always a reference to herself, her family and her culture.
“It’s always about identity,” she averred. “Making a safe space for me that is normal, that’s what I do with my paintings. Even when I was five or six, I had all these white dolls and I remember going to my father saying, ‘I want a black doll.’ It was just important for me to have a black doll. I work with the black figure because it’s important for me to see myself in the narratives I create.”
She would advise all artists, no matter in what medium they work, to be themselves when creating their own works of art.
“Make it to the best of your ability and don’t worry about whether anyone thinks it is good or bad,” she said. “Make the work that you’re compelled to make.”
Norwood’s work will be featured at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, 2240 9th Ave. S., St. Petersburg from May 10 through June 6. You can also view her works at Gallerie 909, the newest hottest art gallery on the Deuces, located at 909 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg.
To reach Frank Drouzas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.