The house built by artist Emile Norman (1918-2009) is a treasure box he worked on – and in – for over 30 years. It’s one of those magical off-the-highway Big Sur places that starts with a gate and continues up a narrow, curvy road, luring visitors with aromas of undisturbed nature and Pacific views.
Norman’s house was the first one built on Pfeiffer Ridge, sold to him by Big Sur’s Trotter family, who “took a liking to him,” says Kim Stemler, on behalf of the Emile Norman Arts Foundation, a nonprofit established in 2020 to preserve Norman’s legacy.
The house is hard to wrap one’s mind around at first. It is approachable from many sides, with an unusual layout, as often happens with small spaces that have been expanded via years of well-thought-through additions. The dominant color is medium-brown; wood is the base for everything, often the canvas of this grand live-in art project.
Norman loved guests, food and music, and so in addition to the living space – simple bedrooms, a functional, minimalist kitchen and a meticulously tiled bathroom, every inch populated with patterns that mimic, play off and glorify nature – there is a gallery added in the 1970s (the house was built in the 1950s), a solarium with a once-hot tub, and a room for the gigantic organ he ordered from Germany as a birthday present for his life and work partner. Norman spent a year building and adorning the organ’s exterior.
Underneath all that, there’s a massive underbelly of a workshop that casts some light on the process and the span of Norman’s work: Container after container filled with colored glass he crushed from big glass sheets; shells he picked up on the beach; his tools and notes that make one think engineer more than artist. His work ranges from countless wood inlay panels he called “nature poems,” through small sculptures, often of animal forms, held together with resin, to a massive, four-story-tall mosaic mural at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium.
Yet, the treasure that is his home was almost lost. Despite the clear vision Norman had for his house and millions left in a trust to support that vision – a vision now picked up by the Emile Norman Arts Foundation – the house was put on sale with the plan to demolish it. “Sadly the trust was mismanaged,” Stemler says. Some of the art was taken out of the house in the process. “We are still looking for his bigger pieces,” Stemler adds.
Now, it is safe and will remain under the care of Michael Trotter, its guardian of many years. The house will not be fully open to the public in the sense of a traditional museum, but the Foundation wants the community to have access to it. There will be some events by invitation only and soon an artist residency program will open, available to artists of all kinds, especially those willing to help organize Norman’s vast archives.
Living in this house would mean breathing art, as each tile is an exploration of the geometry of the biological world; each sculpture inviting to be touched; everything linear, functional and practical.
Norman arrived in Big Sur by chance with no plan to stay, but it was there that he grew and became successful as an artist, also thanks to his partner Brooks Clement, who represented him in business. In 1944, Norman’s work was first covered by The New York Times; the 2006 PBS documentary Emile Norman: By His Own Design is the most complete look at the artist’s work so far.
“He was a gay guy with a clubfoot,” Stemler says, suggesting it wasn’t easy for this San Gabriel native to conquer the world of art. The Foundation’s plan is, first, to document the collection. The idea is also to mirror each private event at the house with one open to the public – such as an upcoming exhibit at the Coast Gallery in Big Sur.
That said, “Emile had parties all the time,” Stemler says. “So if somebody really wants to come, we’ll figure out a way to get them up here.”