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Monday, March 10, 2014

Artist with Muse


My friend Bennet Norrbo died recently, and I can't quite get over it. I grew up on the street in Portland where he lived with his mother Marguerite. He took care of her his entire life. She was an adorable Swedish lady who plied the neighborhood boys with milk and cookies and taught the girls how to knit. She had a complicated way of doing it where she used mostly one hand. I couldn't figure it out.

When I got older I studied art, and that's when I began to be interested in Marguerite's son's paintings. Bennet Norrbo had worked for a while as a commercial artist in LA, but it didn't satisfy his soul's true ambition - to be a fine artist. So he came home to stay, and just painted - ALL the time. There was a back room in his mother's house that he stored all his stuff in, stuffed floor to ceiling with his canvases. He showed me his overflowing file of reference photos and magazine clippings. In the  eighties he was excited about a technique he was using with acrylics, underpainting. He described to me in minute detail how he accomplished effects like the one in the painting here, "Artist with Muse." I love how he puts Marilyn in a dowdy sweater, standing with her forearm covering her chest and one hand at her chin, in the kind of pose she was never photographed in. It's the muse imitating the artist for a change. I wish I could remember half of what he told me. I wish I had had a tape recorder then.

Mr. Norrbo (it was hard for me to get used to calling him anything else) loved Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music - the first time I'd ever heard that composer's name - and Scriabin. He lived simply and never married. I asked him if he ever missed his paintings once he sold them. "No, not really. I need to sell them so that I can have enough money to buy supplies and do another painting." To me it seemed that he was living on air. His modest lifestyle was the epitome of good taste, and it made me feel weird about my parents' in-your-face style of conspicuous consumption.

When my mother died, I went over to Bennet's house and we listened to Scriabin in one of the basement rooms where his music collection was. There was a painting there of a beautiful dark-haired girl in the shadows. It was a quiet, romantic portrait. He said he'd done it when he was younger, and he didn't paint that way anymore. I wonder whatever happened to that painting?