the most part artwork tends to flow into one of several norms, the
most average being a canvased piece as so on from there. But few
times to people ever view the piece they're buying as both a unique
display and a utility in one. One local artist in particular has been
changing minds about that perception.
--- Joe Norman started up Blue Boat Home Design as an outlet for both his creative side as well as his handiness at modern décor. Taking scrapworks, average materials and sometimes useless garbage, and turning it into designer furniture that's fully functional. And with his pieces found throughout downtown and gaining attention businesses looking to modernize while staying green, Norman's business looks to have a bright future in years to come. I got a chance to chat with him about his works along with thoughts on local artwork, along with pictures he provided of his designs.
Gavin: Hey Joe, first off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Joe: I spent many years test-driving careers – I was a design consultant in San Francisco, A middle school teacher, and a backpacking guide to name a few. Now I’m a motorcycle mechanic and artist. You can see my work on my website and Facebook.
Gavin: How did you first get into doing sculptures?
Joe: For a long time I focused on the outcome that I wanted in my life’s work. World peace, bringing people together, inspiring students. And marched towards those goals like Frodo slogging into Mordor. What I found was that the joy I had in the process had much more of an effect than the desired outcome; that is, if I was having fun repairing motorcycles it made more of a difference in the world than if I was unhappily writing business plans for socially-responsible companies. Making art, and sculpture in particular, has brought a lot of joy into my life and by extension into the lives of others involved.
Gavin: I understand you have a degree in product design. What was it like for you earning that degree?
Joe: Hard work. Late nights. Lots of Metallica. The most important part of that experience was that I learned how to systematically approach a seemingly insurmountable issue, understand the needs of the people involved, and work toward a solution. I found myself chasing and video taping bike messengers through rush-hour San Francisco traffic one day and leading focus groups on the intricacies of the flavor palette of Vienna Sausages the next. It was surreal.
Gavin: Where did the idea for Blue Boat Design come from?
Joe: Blue Boat Home Design began with the idea that we don’t need more stuff in our lives that keeps us apart. The things that we need (if we need them at all) should help us build our connections to each other. It started when I was working as a design consultant for large consumer goods companies and saw how people were affected by their environment. What we do is only partly a result of who we are – the other part is due to our context. The rise of Starbucks in the 90’s and the Abu Gharib fiasco are testaments to the power of our surroundings to influence what we feel and do. At the same time I started seeing how our social networks were changing, and in many cases, disappearing. So I thought, “Well, I like to make things. And people need to build relationships, so why not use one to do the other?”
Gavin: How do you go about creating a specific piece, from design to final product?
Joe: For commissioned work, a large amount of my inspiration comes from my clients. What is it being used for? What stories are important to these folks? How do they relate to each other? I just have to have my antennas out and active to be inspired and then use the right design principles to have the desired effect. I may make a couple of prototypes, both digital and physical, and test finishes and processes to see if they will give the result the piece needs. I also look at what’s been done before – I’m certainly not the first person to make a table. It is also critical to be aware of what’s going on outside of the art and design world. For example, my little brother is an actual rocket scientist working on flux-pinned satellite navigation, which has got me thinking about new ways to cushion seating surfaces.
Gavin: Do you know what you're planning on making before you start, or is it more experimentation before its finished?
Joe: I know the effect I want, and usually the features that will give it – surface finish, size, edge treatment, metaphors, etc. But there’s always a magical moment when it finally snaps together emotionally. If a prototype doesn’t work (which happens all the time) then that’s a true gift to the creative process. If it worked exactly how I expected it to, then I’m no more evolved artistically than I was when the piece started, so what was the point of making that sculpture at all? It is then that I learn something.
Gavin: What's the process in searching out materials to work with for every piece?
Joe: That’s really half the fun – the materials themselves are mostly unremarkable – wood shipping pallets, scrap steel, bike gears. I mostly look for things whose beauty is unappreciated. Andy Goldsworthy is a wonderful inspiration for doing this in the natural world; I try and do it with the man-made world. And who knew there was such an underground market for shipping pallets? It’s tough to get a hold of good ones.
Gavin: You advertise the products as being environmentally friendly. Was that something you planned ahead of time or just happened to be a part of it all?
Joe: Lets be clear about "environmentally friendly" products – if you want to be completely sustainable don’t buy stuff you don’t need. No matter what REI and the Chevy Volt marketing teams tell you, you’re being much more of an environmental advocate by not purchasing those energy drinks, beach sandals, and iPhones. I have an ad from a company that claims it uses "re-purposed railroad ties from India" as a environmental gesture, and I wonder how it is that they came to think shipping railroad ties from anywhere, much less India, was a sustainable practice? The best we can do is purchase only what we need and do so in a responsible way. So, the truth is it takes an awful lot of electrons to run my plasma cutter. I, and every other artist out there, has a huge responsibility to create work which does its raw materials and purpose justice. Creating stuff – chairs, children, art – is a powerful act and we need to give it its due respect.
Gavin: Do you find people treat them more as furniture or works of art?
Joe: Unfortunately no one comes within a foot of my work when in galleries– it gets magically imbued with "artness" once on display. Apparently that means it shouldn’t be touched; alarms might sound and the curators would handcuff and drag away the offending patron. The fact of the matter is that my work is meant to be used – at a recent show I was wiping off dried pancake batter and peanut butter from a table in the parking lot before bringing it in. So, it depends on the context. Yoko Ono had a great exhibit at SFMOMA where she put an apple on a pedestal and dared people to take a bite, or left instructions for visitors to pile rocks in certain parts of the gallery pertaining to their sorrowful or happy memories. I thought that was a wonderful way to comment on the context of museums and how we’re supposed to interact with artwork. Really, there’s no reason my work can’t be furniture AND works of art. I recently participated in a show based out of New York that was entitled ‘Art v. Design’, pitting works of ‘Art’ against works of ‘Design’ in a public vote-off as to which was more powerful. It was fun and silly and underscored the fact that the two are not mutually exclusive. I think people are getting more comfortable with joining of art and utility-- Maya Lin’s work gets walked over every day and Phillipe Starck is in Target.
Gavin: What's your take on the way galleries have treated and showcased your works when on display?
Joe: They’ve been great. Large sculptures are not easy things to stage and light. The biggest struggle, though, is that they are not in context -- I can’t always have the family I built the coffee table for sitting at it in the gallery, although that might be interesting. I’m represented by Gallery MAR in Park City, and they’ve done a great job both displaying and using my work in ways it was intended, and in contexts that matter. There’s hardly a weekend that goes by and there’s not a fundraiser or non-profit benefit bash there.
Gavin: You were recently a part of the 35x35 showing. What was that event like for you?
Joe: Fantastic. I loved it. There is some amazing talent here in Salt Lake, and we ignore it at our own expense.
Gavin: Going local, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad?
Joe: There’s a lot of energy in Salt Lake – our conservative context has bred its own counterculture unlike either of the coasts. Now it is the work of that counterculture to stand for something rather than be defined by what they stand against.
Gavin: Anything you believe could be done to make it bigger or better?
Joe: We have to keep funding the arts in schools. They are just as powerful to students as any math or science class. I taught all three subjects and saw the effect making art had, especially on at-risk students. As a teaching colleague once told me, "The world doesn’t have its problems for a lack of smart people, it is because we don’t have enough good people", and the arts are a powerful tool for doing just that.
Gavin: What can we expect from you the rest of this year and going into next?
Joe: Work that tackles social justice issues. We have decision makers in Utah that advocate storing nuclear waste a stone’s throw from the Salt Lake Valley, taxing basic food products for families that are already going hungry, gerrymandering voting districts to influence elections, denying basic human rights from behind the cloak of religious piety, and shoving 3rd-home McMansions on every picturesque turn in the canyons. I’ve got more projects in the works than I can believe. I love it. My wife and I will also be taking 3 months to visit and study sustainable communities around the world. "Sustainability" is given a lot of lip service, and has been used as a marketing veneer on everything from ski lodges to coffee. Our intent will be to understand how human relationships are strengthened in ways that will help people thrive long after she and I are worm food.
Gavin: Aside the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Joe: Well, I’d like to unplug a lot or TVs and computers. Why are we inviting the multi-billion dollar advertising industry into our living rooms? Given that we do buy things, vote with your money. It makes more of a difference than voting with a ballot.