Artist, Teacher, Muse
Local ‘art mama’ Joan Norris continues to inspire and influence the Vail Valley art scene
Teacher and artist, artist
and teacher ….
Throughout her artistic career, Vail-based painter Joan Norris has hopscotched back and forth between roles — creating vibrant plein air paintings of aspen trees and mountains around her home, or teaching students at Colorado Mountain College.
She has influenced many, and they have influenced her, say those who know her, and says Norris herself.
Norris has always been particular about barns, but she has gotten very particular about one in Wolcott, lately. She has been watching to see that it hasn’t been torn down yet.
But there have been so many others over the years that did get torn down, or ranches that were sold and developed. For years, Norris has been getting permission bring her classes to paint at places such as the Calhoun Ranch in Edwards, once owned by the late artist Buddy Calhoun — places that make for great paintings.
“That was terrific — having interesting material such as old barns and old equipment, horses,” Norris says. “I was particularly interested in the old, historic barn, because often they would be torn down after we had painted them.”
Norris also has been known for setting up her outdoor classrooms to have students paint the Eagle River Canyon, at Gilman, a stunning but difficult challenge for some. The group would have lunch together, then individuals could have their work critiqued by Norris. In those critiques, Norris says she would help adult artists in the classes “accept who they were and what they could do and move on from there.” She used diplomacy and tact and kept students returning for more.
‘My angel, my muse’
The teacher learned well from her times as a student, as well. Norris is a founding participant in the Summer Vail Art Workshop at the Antholtz Ranch in 1971, says Randy Milhoan, a fellow painter based in Minturn. The ranch encompassed what is now the Vail golf course and Golden Peak. From 1973 to 1978, the annual event was held in an A-frame structure where the Vail Library now sits, before moving to Maloit Park in Minturn, he says.
“Joan has been involved in (the festival) almost all the time, as a student in a lecture or being in an exhibit,” Milhoan says. “She was always more interested in being a student than in being a teacher.”
Artists in town formed the Vail Valley Art Guild, with about 189 people, Milhoan says. Local folks, such as Mark Glenn and Don Sahli, learned from Norris; and none other than the famed glass artist Dale Chihuly came to Vail for summer sessions.
Sahli says Norris is one person who reminded him about passion, telling him to laugh “with feeling. Like you mean it.”
“Her paintings inspire me, and mine inspire her,” Sahli says. “She’s my angel, my muse.”
Norris, now retired from CMC, says her philosophy — to live life to the fullest — is grounded in her original focus on theater. A drama major in college, she has traveled around the world to Japan, China and other exotic locales. She waxes more philosophical, though, as she reflects on more recent years. After a 50-plus-year career that includes life as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother, Norris has a history. She and others call her “art mama” in the Vail Valley, an affectionate term of endearment.
A few years ago, Norris was actively participating in the Vail Farmers Market, her daughter coming to help her sell her paintings. That kept her in touch with other artists, and a wide community of buyers, but it got tiring, says Norris, now 80.
“I do not have the same energy that I had when I was younger, and I’m missing that,” she says. “I guess that’s the main problem of being an older artist is that it’s tiring.”
If you’ve been around awhile, you may recognize Norris and her partner Jim Lamont as long-time organizers and participants in the annual Red Cliff Studio Tour. She has shown her work in all of the area libraries, and sold to the likes of Ron Wolfe, the former mayor of Avon, and his family.
‘Do you remember me?’
Norris says her identity as an artist lives on in her visits to San Miguel de Allende, Vail’s sister city in Mexico, and her work, there. In 2015, she showed works in Vail of bright reds and yellows and pinks of Mexico.
San Miguel also is an arts community, with a history of appreciating and encouraging the arts, whether it be writers or painters or photographers, as Lamont is.
“It reminds me of the early days in Vail, this community,” Lamont says. “It’s very authentic.”
The “art mama” is known well in the Vail Valley from her time at CMC, Lamont says. Everywhere the couple goes, someone at some point will say, “Do you remember me? I was your student,” to her, Lamont says.
“Many homes you walk into in Vail or around Eagle County and you’ll see a painting of hers on the wall,” Lamont says. “She has been at this over 40 or 50 years.”
In San Miguel, Norris says she feels enriched with new people, new ideas, new places and spaces. She takes time to walk and swim and try new food. There’s a different rhythm to the place that shows in her more recent work.
“There’s more time to think and to respond here,” Norris says. “There’s often no time to respond, the way we live in the mountain style of life.”
Norris says she loves being in an artist community where she can grow and learn from others, whether it’s in Mexico or in Colorado.
The artist, and the teacher, still. Norris’s work can be viewed by appointment at the Norris/Lamont Studio/Gallery in Red Cliff, 970-476-3250 or JoanNorrisVail@comcast.net
— By Beth Potter