Capturing the Ephemeral Environment: Heidi Norton’s Art Practice Inspired by the Natural World

Capturing the Ephemeral Environment: Heidi Norton’s Art Practice Inspired by the Natural World

Step into the enchanting world of artist Heidi Norton

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Heidi Norton, installation view of The Edges of Everything, 2022. Commissioned for the Sunroom ProjectSpace. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Wave Hill. Photo: Stefan Hagen.
Step into the enchanting world of artist Heidi Norton

Heidi Norton approaches her artistic practice with an acute awareness for the intricate beauty found in each crevice of the natural world, calling us to engage with all it has to offer. Based in Brooklyn, Norton immerses her viewers in spaces where natural elements converge. The Edges of Everything, her current exhibition running through August 28th at Wave Hill in the Bronx, NY, is composed of sculptural and tapestry-like forms that ebb and flow from the Sun Porch at the historic garden overlooking the Palisades. Norton manipulates glass, wax, backlit film, and the elements of nature to create dynamic compositions and installations. Present throughout the exhibition is Norton’s deep understanding of how humanity and nature are inextricably linked, which reflects the interest that she cultivated early during her upbringing as a child of New Age homesteaders in 1970s West Virginia. As each element she creates floods our senses, we explore the wonders of plant and animal life through the abstracted and vibrant lens that she creates.

Beyond her practice, Norton is passionate about bringing together art and community. She is the director and founder of Vantage Points, an art education and portfolio development program geared towards helping students of all ages and levels develop their artistic visions. We interviewed artist Heidi Norton to learn more about her current show, her practice, and her innovative Vantage Points program. Read our full interview with Norton to enter her mind, explore realms of brambles and bristles, and discover the worlds she builds though her creative eye.

“Professor E. O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, meaning “love of the living world,” to describe the instinctive bond between humans and nature. We need nature; nature is part of us, and we are part of it, whether we are conscious of it or not.” — The Curious Nature Guide by Clare Walker Leslie
Heidi Norton, installation view of The Edges of Everything, 2022. Commissioned for the Sunroom ProjectSpace. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Wave Hill. Photo: Stefan Hagen.

Can you tell us about what your show, The Edges of Everything, at Wave Hill explores?

The Edges of Everything is a site-responsive installation that responds to the ecology of a public garden and who it serves — from humans, to insects, to plants. The exhibition title is a term that Wave Hill horticulturists use to describe the importance of details and nuances in tending to the grounds. It also refers to the zones of interaction in nature within symbiosis- the edge between life and death. Drawing parallels to the multi-sensorial approach of a gardener, I’m interested in asking, “What happens when we consciously shift our perspective from the middle (observer) distance to the minutia, noticing the spaces in-between and around?”. This can be achieved using a heightened multi-sensory approach, similar to other species. Each organism in a space like Wave Hill, experiences a unique sensory world. This is the concept of Umwelt, a German word for environment. If you start thinking about the umwelt of other animals, you understand that nature’s magnificence is all around us. There’s a vast world around us that animals can perceive — but humans can’t. For example, flowers are extraordinarily beautiful, but if you had the ultraviolet vision that a bee has, you’ll be able to see patterns on those flowers that we can’t see. The colors of flowers have evolved to ideally please the eyes of bees.

This is illustrated through the forms, colors and imagery in the work on display. One can see bees, larvae, pollen, super saturated colors collaged against photographs of the land and sculptural elements and text. The configuration of the scrolls is in a wave pattern replicating the topography of the land past and present, but also the wave pattern of energy vibrations. The work serves as a metaphor for the invisible elements of the natural world and life’s impermanence, as well as birth and regeneration.

By working with living material and embracing chance, I’m acknowledging the symbiotic yet often misunderstood relationship between humans, plants and other living creatures.

Flowers and other organic materials are displayed in glass panes and encased in wax, calling to mind specimen slides of living matter that change over time. The wax sculptures are embedded with flora found at Wave Hill and are made by casting into the earth around various patterns of plant growth. They are then lit on fire and change as the elements shift. Investigating ideas of preservation, my work explores the instability of the present and the states of transition between one stage and the next, drawing parallels to mythologies of origin, decay and death.

A lot of your work engages with ecology and the natural world. What kind of impact themes do you relate your work to, if you do? What does the relationship between art and advocacy look like for you?

I think nowadays all art has some underlying theme of advocacy. It’s created and placed into viewership/public for people to enjoy but it also helps them “see” things differently, outside of their “normal” way of processing information. My work is not clearly pointing at what we historically think of as “environmental art” or political art, but its intention is to heighten your relationship to the natural world.

How does your multi-sensorial approach play a role in your art? How does it relate to nature and gardens?

My work is visceral. Regarding the sense of vision, I have always been interested in distorting vision, using photography and sculpture to create an altered sense of space.

In these works, the colors are intensified and imagery is magnified. Visual tactility and the seduction of touch, has also been important. When you look at the glass works, the plasma-like element of the resin, the “wet” drops on the edges, the melting wax, invite the viewer to touch the work. Recently I added the element of fire to my work, and the sound of the work melting is also very seductive. I also added natural scents to the wax works.

If your work were a sound, what would they sound like? What if they were a taste, a sensation, a smell?

I have been thinking and experimenting with sounds that only certain creatures can hear and are not audible to humans… that is something I am still thinking about. How do I make these sounds realized and something a human could experience? If we are thinking about sounds that are auditable to humans my work would sound like — drips and oozes, little bubbles popping quietly- like the bubbles that are trapped in slime. As far as taste- some are sweet and sour like candy, some would have earthly flavor.

Heidi Norton, installation view of The Edges of Everything, 2022. Commissioned for the Sunroom ProjectSpace. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Wave Hill. Photo: Stefan Hagen.

How does the space and light in exhibition spaces create a new dimension of experience for viewers?

The show is site responsive. Although I work frequently with these materials, they are installed and designed specifically for this space. Everything at Wave Hill is considered, from the grounds and their history, to what is in bloom, to the architecture of the greenhouses, especially the sun porch. Plants have been forged for sculptures, archival images are collaged into the work, and new photographs tell stories like the panel “Death of the Rose Garden”. In terms of the installation, it is meant to create a bewildering, seductive, alternative reality. A room of light and color where space is confusing and disorientating. Like if you were an insect trapped inside a kaleidoscope. The scrolls and their undulating wave forms (that reference the plant architecture of the beds and the illusionistic movement of the land), invite the viewer’s eyes up and down, from the sky light to the stone floor. The light from the windows activates the scroll and intensifies the color and illusion. The scrolls also create “Pathways” and “boundaries/edges” similar to those found on the grounds. The viewer’s movement in the space is meant to reference how a visitor may move about the gardens from looking down at the plants to looking up at the palisades and hills of plantings. The imagery and the sculptures show magnified imagery and objects that allow the viewer to examine the spaces in between- a full sensory experience.

Tell us how the natural world impacts your storytelling through the art you create. There is a stunning balance between aesthetics and natural sciences, how do you go about negotiating art direction and plant study in the studio?

My work is really informed by my own personal narrative. In this show you can actually see letters and lists, books, from my parents 1970’s homesteading collection. This is juxtaposed against a visual narrative of-sorts from the eyes of the plants and animals. Like if they had the cognitive ability to explain their perceptual experience, this is what they would see. This is all framed in a medium that inherently tells a story, photography, framed through the format of a scroll. The more scientific look of some works is related to materials- the glass, the resin, or materials that may be studied to think about preservation in the sciences and natural world. They also have a relationship to optics-lenses, devices that refract light. Often these varying transparent sculptures will be layered on top of other ones in the studio; and through the apparatus of the camera, light, perspective, and the compression of space, objects are transformed into flat, two-dimensional representations of something totally different. They become literal “mergers,” forming something completely new, previously invisible to the eye. The idea that a machine/apparatus allows us to see things invisible is fascinating to me, and it’s something that I think about when making the large glass works. How do I visually represent through non-scientific materials something that is only visible through a lens? The glass sculptures, also resembling scientific slides, pull you closer to examine the micro elements, but then push you back to reveal a greater composition and a bigger idea of something existential. I like to think of my practice as cyclical and sustainable.

What is your process from the birth of an idea to the final piece?

That’s a complicated process and it varies from piece to piece, artist to artist. With me, sometimes it has its roots in material experimentation, or a certain plant, or has developed from writing, or is an extension of a previous work, or is site responsive, but mostly it involves materializing a floating thought — grabbing it and giving it life by writing it down, using my tools/material, to actualize it, refining it and preparing it for public consumption.

Heidi Norton, installation view of The Edges of Everything, 2022. Commissioned for the Sunroom ProjectSpace. Courtesy of the artist. Image courtesy of Wave Hill. Photo: Stefan Hagen.

Can you tell us about Vantage Points, its mission, and the community you’re building through it?

VP believes learning is lifelong. Our mission is to provide guidance, mentorship and education to all artists of all ages, background, level, skill set. Community is at the core and we believe that anyone can create a creative life if they surround themselves with supportive, like minded individuals.

What are some of the things your students love about Vantage Points?

A student told me today she loved two things the most: 1. The community — the intimacy of the class and students. 2. And the investment myself and the teachers have in the students and their work. That we see everyone, teach to everyone, and show up.

Are there any exciting Vantage Points events coming up that we should definitely know about?

Yes! We are about to roll out scholarship opportunities to continue to make VP more inclusive and support a wider community of artists. And we are also offering a membership opportunity for the fall!

What advice do you have for young artists who are pursuing their BFA or MA in art related fields?

I get the question as to whether they should pursue one a lot. My answer is always the same. What do you want to get out of the two years? I ask them to clearly define their goals — do you want to teach, do you want a community, do you want to delve deeper into their practice? This will help them clarify if this is the right choice now or later and where they may want to look. Sometimes we can find some of this in other places like Vantage Points.

If they choose an institution, I say stay true to your voice and vision. Don’t let the pressure and criticism conform you. Allow yourself to be open, but leave it on the cutting room floor if it doesn’t apply. And pick a free school — there are plenty of amazing ones.

Follow Heidi Norton on Instagram and visit her website to keep up with her practice, and follow Vantage Points here.


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