Addicted to Drawing: An Interview with Alison Norlen

Alison Norlen’s life is a story waiting to be made into a movie. Raised in Kenora, Ontario, in a house filled with taxidermy, fish netting, a bearskin rug and African artifacts, she trained as a barber, became enamoured of art, won a graduate scholarship to study at Yale, completed her mfa and was invited to teach there. Instead, she came back to Winnipeg with the intention of opening a barbershop. Trimming hair ended up giving over to producing art, so 20 years after leaving New Haven she is an Associate Professor of Drawing and Painting at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and one of Canada’s most accomplished artists. Norlen is a sojourner in the theme parks, mega-malls and festivals of the Americas, and out of those visitations has drawn and fabricated entire worlds of fantasy. At her own admission, her compulsion is to make art “a multi-sensory, visceral experience,” and the stories that emerge from them are narratives “layered with weirdness.” She has been to Carnivale in Rio de Janeiro, Las Vegas, the West Edmonton Mall, Disneyland, and countless rodeos and agricultural fairs across the prairie provinces and, from them, has made objects of equivalence, artful locations redolent with spectacle, desire and unrealized dreams.

There is something fearless in Norlen’s approach to art making. Nothing seems to intimidate her, least of all scale. She has made 26-feet-long graphite drawings, has re-created drawn versions of pin-ball machines and roadside attractions, has built a theme park that outdistances the most imaginative model railroader, and is now making sculptures (she calls them “wire drawings”) of zeppelins, roller coasters and the sea-devoured Brighton Pier. It’s as if she were channelling onto paper, and into space, a meeting between Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Walter Elias Disney. Through her drawings and sculptures, she is staging a compelling dialogue between two and three dimensionality, and in the process is confounding the way we understand the nature of the two art forms. Beyond that, the scale of the work enters the space of architecture. Her term “flux architecture” adroitly captures the sense of mobility and transformation that characterizes her work in all media. The titles she has chosen for her newest series indicates one way they can be read. Called “Mirage” and “Glimmer,” their naming underlines the qualities of elusive romance that trace across their surfaces. “I’m trying to push the imagery into nothingness,” she says.

But Norlen is quick to point out that any notion of aesthetic or utopic dreaming should be viewed, equally, with a shadowy cast. The world she makes reflects a world already made and in the process of being un-made. “Like Vegas; you tear it down, you rebuild it, and it still has some of the grime. That ever-changing element is how we live; it’s how we conduct ourselves in our environment. We have to constantly compromise and change and, perhaps, be disappointed.” That inescapable movement is equally a condition of both life and art. She thinks of drawing as unique because it is the medium that never stops. As the medium goes, so goes the artist. Alison Norlen is the artist who never stops.

Norlen was interviewed by telephone on July 9th. The interview begins in the world of technology. Norlen had just returned from Salt Lake City where she had consulted with the designers of a sophisticated micro-welder she had acquired earlier this year. She is using the new welder to make the ambitious 40-foot-long pier that will form the core of her exhibition at the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon in September, 2012. To read the interview pick up Issue 115 on newsstands now or click here to subscribe.

Volume 29, Number 3: Drawing

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #115, published September 2010.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.