Emile Norman, 88, still creates sculptures in his studio in Big Sur, Calif. A film made about his life is one of the highlights of this year’s Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Indie film traces the life of an artist

Emile Norman may be one of the most indomitable artists you never heard of. For more than 70 years, most of it on a ridgetop in Big Sur, Calif., he made a life around his unique art, and he came out as a gay man when gay wasn't cool.

The self-taught artist is the subject of a new documentary by Mill Valley, Calif., filmmaker Will Parrinello, "Emile Norman: By His Own Design." The picture will be shown three times at the Ashland Independent Film Festival beginning Thursday.

The intimate film shows the feisty Norman, often in his trademark purple beret and matching Converse sneakers, at work in his inner sanctum. There he creates exquisite sculptures that have no apparent debt to any known school of art.

Norman has been compared to Diego Rivera and Charles and Ray Eames. At 88, he continues to work with a zest for life that shows no signs of flagging.

"He made the point that nobody ever gives you permission to become an artist," Parrinello says in a phone interview. "He says you just have to say this is what you do."

Emile Norman grew up on a farm in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles and created his first sculpture at age 11 after looking at a rock and saying, "There's a face in there." He dropped out of art school, got a toehold in the New York art scene, abandoned it, bought land in Big Sur. He created the art for a Fred Astaire film and a massive window for a Masonic Temple in San Francisco and chose to stay with his lover on his hillside living an openly gay lifestyle in the repressed 1950s.

Parrinello spent four years making the picture.

"Part of that was Emile not wanting to give too much of his time," Parrinello says. "He loved having us, but we were a distraction. He works constantly. I think we energized him, and then he just wanted to get back to work before we drained his energy."

And part of it was the indie filmmaker's constant issue: money. The picture cost about $190,000 to make.

It finally got off the ground when Parrinello and his co-producers, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, of "L.A. Law" fame, who met Norman after buying property near him in 1991, pitched the project to Union Bank of California and scored a grant. Eikenberry and Tucker performed in a touring production of the stage show "Love Letters" as a benefit for the film, and a fundraising event in Big Sur with Parrinello as auctioneer raised $35,000 in an evening.

The 88-year-old Norman often works until 2 a.m. in his studio in the home he and his partner crafted over the years. He has focused for years on intricate animal sculptures inlaid with thousands of pieces of wood, inventing his own tools and glues.

He says he's still learning.

"When I stop working, call 9-1-1," he says.

The film traces Norman's relationship with his partner, Brooks Clement, who came to fix Norman's Fisher hi-fi one day in 1944 and stayed 30 years. That story is fleshed out by the addition of 35 mm film that Clement shot over the years and was found recently by two friends of Norman's who now live with him as assistants and caretakers.

Watching black-and-white film of himself and Clement in 1946 using a bulldozer on the hillside, Norman says with a smile, "That was the butchest time of the my life. I loved it."

The men roamed the hillsides, swam in the cold Pacific and hosted intimate dinner parties. Norman didn't just come out as a gay man. As his friend Willa Kim says in the film, "He burst out!" Neighbors referred to the couple as "Clemile."

In 1956 Norman had his biggest commission, the 40-foot glass panel in Grace Cathedral Masonic Temple in San Francisco, which can be seen today.

He had a highly successful exhibit in New York City (where the press called him a "rancher artist") at age 26 but abandoned the scene there as Abstract Impressionism was conquering all. The couple traveled to Italy, where Norman discovered "German Mastic," or epoxy, which opened a door to a new world of forms.

All the while, Clement took care of business, freeing Norman to attend to his art. He worked in every imaginable medium. The couple had a gallery in nearby Carmel. In 1973 Clement died, promising that in the afterlife he'd get Norman a job in the art department. Norman scattered his ashes at Big Sur.

Much of the picture is set to organ renditions of Norman's beloved Bach, which Norman plays on the German pipe organ he commissioned overseas and had shipped to his home.

Friends and neighbors had tried to talk Norman into a movie about his life for years, but he repeatedly turned down directors, until Parrinello.

"There was just something in that first conversation," Parrinello says. "It just clicked."

He was attracted to Norman's story in part because as a filmmaker, he, too, faces the constant problem of finding the means and money to make the art he wants to make.

"He said you have to give yourself permission to create, because nobody else is going to do it," he says. "He created his life himself. I was so taken by his space and his artwork and his way of being in the world."

The hardest part was getting Norman to allow Parrinello and cinematographer Andy Black into his studio, his "sacred space." At one point they were going to stay for a week, but Norman decided, "I can't let you guys come in and shoot."

Over time he relented.

When he finally saw the finished film before its premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, he pronounced it a "damn fine job."

Two days later one of Norman's friends found him asleep in a chair with his diary open.

"Saw the film," it said. "Wow, wow, WOW."

Parrinello plans to show the film at festivals in Florida, Mendocino, Spain and elsewhere. But Norman himself may have provided the final word on the film and his life.

"I've worked my tail off," he says. "But I've never worked a day in my life."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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