Jim C. Norton | A Western Palette

Jim C. Norton celebrates the light and colors of historic Utah and Wyoming

by Norman Kolpas

Jim C. Norton, The Lost Gold Pan, oil, 24 x 32.

Jim C. Norton, The Lost Gold Pan, oil, 24 x 32.

This story was featured in the August 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  August 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

His prospects didn’t look good, Jim C. Norton thought as he tried to control a throbbing headache and churning stomach just outside a meeting room at the Phoenix Art Museum that day in the autumn of 1989. Just 36 years old, he’d been invited for the first time to submit five of his oil paintings to the membership judging panel of the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America at its annual show.

Just a few years before, Norton had taken a major leap of faith into full-time painting, quitting a steady job as a supermarket rep with a food brokerage company in Salt Lake City, an hour north of his home in the town of Santaquin. He and his wife, Pam, had left their four kids back home with the grandparents and driven to Arizona for the show. Knowing it was exceedingly rare for a first-timer to gain admission to the preeminent organization of western artists, the Nortons planned to go on from there to San Diego to take in an exhibition of paintings by Joaquin Sorolla, the Spanish realist master.

But now, that journey was far from his feverish mind. “I felt so much pressure,” Norton remembers as he was called into the room where the panel of judges awaited, including the late William Moyers, then the CAA’s president. “I just walked in to grab all my paintings,” he says, knowing that it took even the great Howard Terpning three years to be admitted. “And they said, ‘You’re a member!’”

The Nortons scratched their San Diego plans and stayed on for the exhibition, in which all five of his paintings sold at prices far higher than he’d ever fetched before. “We left with about $38,000 and felt like we were filthy rich,” Norton says. “Pam was giddy all the way home.” Thus was launched a successful fine-art career that has since seen Norton cement his reputation as one of the leading portrayers of the West—in historic scenes of cowboys and Indians, present-day representations of working ranchers and their horses, natural scenes both sweeping and intimate of the places he calls home, and images of the animals that inhabit that landscape.

Norton admits that there wasn’t much in his own childhood that would have predicted his artistic future. Growing up in the mining town of Price, UT, not quite an hour and a half southeast of where he now lives, he spent most of his time “doing a lot of outdoor stuff,” he says, ticking off a list that included deer hunting, bow hunting, fishing, and pack trips into the mountains, along with starring roles on his high school football and basketball teams. “I even had an offer to go play football at Dartmouth,” he says, “but that was too far east.”

One aspect of his early days, however, held some hint of his future. His maternal grandfather, Earl Fausett, was an avid amateur painter. “When I was in grade school, I would walk back to my grandparents’ home for lunch and then go downstairs to the basement to see what he was painting,” Norton remembers. Grandpa Earl also had two cousins, Lynn and Dean Fausett, who were noteworthy professional artists—Lynn was an accomplished muralist, and Dean painted not only major public murals but also romantic landscapes and portraits of notable figures including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

So you could say that art was in Norton’s blood, just waiting to emerge. He remembers a painting he did of “ducks coming off the water” for a high-school art assignment. But he didn’t really pick up a brush seriously again until he took some classes at Western Wyoming Community College, where an art teacher, seeing his talent, urged him to go study under William Whitaker, a widely admired realist painter who had set up the graphic-design department at Brigham Young University.

During his two and a half years at BYU in the mid-1970s, says Norton, “I got my early foundations in art.” But, with Whitaker’s encouragement, he ultimately left the program to continue his studies in the real world. “If you want to paint sagebrush,” his teacher told him, “you’ve got to go out and look at it.”

Norton took some workshops, including one from the great Canadian-American western painter Robert Lougheed. And he regularly drove up to Jackson, WY, to seek the sometimes brutally honest feedback of respected landscape artist Conrad Schwiering. Looking at one early effort of Norton’s, Schwiering offered advice on the need for a clear focal point in a painting. “What do you want me to look at here?” the artist asked him. “If you’re going to paint the stream, paint the stream. But don’t try to paint the whole damn world in one painting.”

Mostly, however, “I just started doing my own study work,” says Norton. That included travels to great museums—the Metropolitan in New York, for example, and even a visit to the world’s largest collection of works by Russian-American master Nicolai Fechin at the Fechin Center in Kazan, a seven-hour drive east of Moscow. “Russia produced the top paintings I’ve ever seen,” he says with quiet awe.

Still, despite all that aesthetic exploration, Norton was beginning to feel stalled in his efforts to balance working a full-time job and painting part time. “I would get up early and do my stores,” he says, referring to the daily process of making sure supermarket shelves were properly stocked and displayed with the products his company represented. “Then I would come home, have dinner, and paint until bedtime.” After several years of this grind, one day it hit him while driving to his job: “I’ve got to paint 10 or 12 hours a day. I knew from playing sports that if you don’t put in the hours practicing, you’ll never make it.” He went straight to his boss and gave notice, then broke the news to Pam that evening on a walk after dinner. “She said, ‘I’ll give you five years.’ And that was it,” Norton says.

Little by little, his fine-art career began to build momentum with triumphs small and large. He began selling paintings through a gallery in Salt Lake City. A few collectors committed to regularly buying pieces from him, and more galleries soon came along. By the late 1980s, he was selling his works through Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale and Jackson. And then, in 1989, he became one of the youngest members of the Cowboy Artists of America.

That moment became a true career-maker for Norton, as he joined the ranks of the nation’s leading western artists—though he’s jocularly low-key about its impact and meaning. “If you’re in, you’re in,” he says. “They only throw you out if you do something really stupid.”

Based on Norton’s mostly large-scale canvases, created at his home studio in Santaquin or in a cabin studio he now has on 20 acres high in the Uinta Mountains of southwestern Wyoming, you’d have to say there’s no danger of his ejection from the CAA. Consider, for example, his recent work THE LOST GOLD PAN, which portrays two Indians on horseback in a sun-dappled mountain creek as they pause to regard a telltale sign of the white man’s incursion on their lands. The painting is an exemplar of the artist’s meticulous attention to authentic detail, including the Native Americans’ clothing and tack, their pinto horses, the gold pan itself, even the froth on the water.

Look closer, though, and you’ll notice all of Norton’s well-honed painterly skill: how the stream’s froth comes from little more than seemingly casual strokes of white paint against the kaleidoscopic colors that add up to a realistic illusion of water. “It’s the light and dark and the colors and reflections that I see and want to paint,” he says. “I’ll lay out on a lawn chair and watch the clouds billowing over me, and I don’t go, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful!’ I think, ‘That’s cobalt blue with a touch of red.’ I don’t really care if it’s a stream or a mountain or a rock. It all starts more abstractly. Color and values and light can be beautiful just in themselves.”

Despite that technical approach, he never loses sight of another key piece of advice that Whitaker once offered him: “You have to set up your scene. You’ve got to be a movie director, not just a painter.” That would certainly explain the cinematic glory of that cobalt-blue sky and the grazing pronghorn beneath it in A SUMMER DAY IN WYOMING, a work well received at the Cowboy Artists of America’s annual show last October in Oklahoma City.

Yet, in contrast to the grandeur he so often depicts in his works, Norton remains modest about his success and well aware of the blessings life has brought him. “I’m a religious man,” he says succinctly. “I don’t create the things I paint. They’re just there.”

Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY.

This story was featured in the August 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  August 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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