Thursday, July 22, 2010

Elizabeth Hoover Norman

When I started this blog about a year ago, I called it "the world's museum." I meant to evoke in that phrase the curious and thoughtful looking that I associate with museums, the way we pause, admire, critique, ask questions, try to remember objects that the museum presents us. What if the world were a museum, then? What if we, walking across fields, reading a book, looking at a garden, visiting a new place, thought of what we were seeing as cared for by curators, as "framed" to invite us to contemplate, the time we spend there precious and significant?

I came this way of thinking from many others who seem also to know this, from my father, my friend George Allen, my wife, my brothers and sisters-in-law, cousins, teachers, students. This week I lost one of my dearest museum companions, my cousin Elizabeth Hoover Norman, who died Tuesday.

Elizabeth was the daughter of my father's youngest sister, who followed him from southern Georgia to Cambridge, Mass. There they roomed together and she studied Shakespeare with the G. L. Kittredge, who was my father's dissertation advisor. And he introduced her to Herb Hoover, not the president, but a young architect from Idaho. He built a collection of stunning modernist homes in Lincoln, Mass., including his own home. No wonder that Elizabeth, and her twin Lucretia, and brother Harry, grew up wanting to talk about art -- and music, and books, and mountains -- as if these were part of a vast museum.

Elizabeth, like her sister, studied art history at Oberlin, using the same wonderful art museum that I now teach in and write about. Later she took an MA at Harvard -- while I was an undergraduate there, and I would visit her at the Fogg. When she married John Norman, she moved to England with him and taught art history at several places, most recently at Hallam University in Sheffield. She finished her PhD at Leeds just a few years ago, in her late 60s!

What she most loved was public art, art that doesn't hang on the walls of a real museum, but occupies public space in cities or in fields. She took us a couple of years ago to the Yorkshire Sculpture Garden on a blustery November day, full of energy despite her cancer, bounding across fields and paths to find the next Goldsworthy.

I loved visiting England's historic homes with Elizabeth. Last fall we went to Haddon Hall, an Elizabethan house that I had never seen. We lingered -- despite the freezing cold -- in the courtyard, the great hall, the chambers, the galleries, talking all the time about the architecture, the furnishings, the people who had lived here, above all just trying to evoke for each other the sense of the wonderful patina of the place, its layered historicity. John gave up after not too long and went ahead to watch a video about the re-creating of a sixteenth century banquet in the hall.

Just weeks before she died, Elizabeth went to London to give a talk about public art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was about a project she was passionate for, the "Fourth Plinth" project in Trafalgar Square. There are three big plinths occupied by statues; the fourth has been empty for most or all of its time. The artist Andrew Gormley devised a plan to fill that plinth not with images of famous people, but with actual ordinary people, all day and night, all summer. Elizabeth signed up to be one, and was delighted to be chosen in the random drawing process. Late one night, at one am, she was put on this plinth by cherry-picker and proceeded to spend an hour doing her Indian Club exercises. We and others watched by streaming video as she deliberately paced off the area, swung the clubs in wonderful great arcs, and her amplified shadow followed her, projected by the arc lights onto -- where else? -- the front of the National Gallery. The indoor museum as a screen for the outdoor museum! Here the link to her part of this event -- you can actually watch her swing the clubs! 

Elizabeth was an exceptional curator of that world's museum that she and I shared.


Will Jones said...

Hi Nick,

This is really touching. I have a clear memory of visiting Lucretia and Herb in their house near Boston, but only a vague recollection of Elizabeth (perhaps at Granny and Grandad's 50th wedding anniversary?). This really helps me appreciate her life. Thanks for posting it.

Best to you and Sue,


Tammela said...

She sounds like an incredible woman, Nick.

I hope you are well,

Anonymous said...

What a lovely blog! I'm so glad I've met Lucretia and Harry, but sorry I never met Elizabeth. People born in Georgia are very special! - Lynn

gtimson said...

Condolences on the loss of your cousin, Nick. A beautifully-presented tribute.