Mixed Media Artist Norm Knott lives with his partner Steve Beard in Rockford. On a grey day in May, I drove to their neighborhood in northwest Rockford, parked my car, and walked up to their house. From the street, the rambler seemed ordinary, but the closer I got to the front door, things changed.
Delightful statues and artifacts frame the path. With each step, I could feel myself relax. As nice as that was, it was nothing like the moment of stepping into their home. I felt like Dorothy stepping into the magical land of Oz, except Norm and Steve’s house is more vibrant.
It is filled with art. It’s a gorgeous gallery. Art is on the walls, floors, and tables. Sometimes the art is a table. Lightboxes, glasswork, pottery, tiny houses, mosaics, baskets, precious stones, prints, abstracts, and acrylics fill the space.
Art is on the man. Norm wears sapphire-colored glasses and beautiful earth-toned jewelry. He wears meaningful flair. One of the buttons pinned to Norm’s shirt holds a haunting photo of a smiling Matthew Shepherd.
In the kitchen, each wall is painted a different color. It’s a cloudy day, but natural light seems to select Norm and Steve’s house. It positively streams in through the windows. A houseplant thrives. I see jewelry, sculpture, and artifacts. There’s so much history here. There is so much art here. But it isn’t all or even mostly Norm’s. I asked him why.
Norm said, “I was kind of raised to think that if I were to display my work it was an exercise in ego and that should not be pursued. And so I didn't show really anything by me in the living room area.”
Norm kept all his art tucked away in his studio until he was about 50. He said, “Then I thought, you know, after several awards and things, it was time to softly ring my own bell.”
The "awards and things" he casually mentioned include more than 35 honors and awards for his innovative, resourceful art. And his work is displayed nationwide in homes, galleries, museums, and corporate collections.
He continued, "And so I do show a couple of tables in the other room. A drawing from when I was a teenager is in there. I still like to show and have the energy of all of the artists that I've met and gotten to know.”
It’s a spectacular home that dazzlingly displays the works of countless eclectic artists. In many houses, the kitchen is considered the heart of the home. At Norm and Steve’s, every room feels like the heart.
Art mingles with the air. Philip Glass’ music plays. Incense softly burns. There are elegant dishes containing wrapped pieces of chocolate. And there are stunning displays of precious stones.
Norm said, “Rocks, shells, and things of nature were always around me. Dad designed the house on Shore Drive and then he designed the one on Ventura Boulevard. My dog Paddlefoot and I would spend many, many, many, many, many hours together in the woods.”
Norm recalls those hours as being meditative and artistic:
“I would even do some of my art projects out there. Drawing and eventually painting. The rocks were just something that were always with me,” he said.
His rock culture evolved as he started studying different religions, especially Buddhism and animism.
Norm has a way of sharing and teaching at the same time. He said, “Animism is very much a part of all of the more ancient beliefs including Hinduism. That's the belief that everything has a spirit and I truly embrace that idea. Every rock, every breeze, the sky, mountains, water, it all has a spirit.”
Because of that philosphy, this is the house where you hope the owners ask you to house sit for them. There isn't a pool or jacuzzi, just art and absolute positivity. It's a rare place that simultaneously welcomes you and encourages you to go out into the world. That rare place is Norm and Steve's. And at the moment I realized that, I felt ready to go to our next destination: the suspension bridge just outside Rockford Art Museum.
This is where we talked a little bit about Norm’s artistic process. I asked him which elements he must have when he creates art. Our conversation took a turn:
“I always want junk somewhere present in the art and even if I'm doing a good drawing, I'll try to frame it in a recycled frame or something like that. And I will embellish it with my crystals and then some rocks, shells, and what-have-you,” said Norm.
Norm admitted he is constant state of scouting for his next artistic supply:
“I do it everywhere I go. When I'm having any kind of an art event, especially at Bennies Cleaners, my partner Steve and my best friend can be found in the parking lot with their heads down. Not because they're depressed, but because they're looking for car rust for me. And one of my favorite things is car rust. I will acrylic it, which is a varnish, and use it just like I would a precious stone.”
We talked about his river culture, too. He grew up on the Rock River and has fond memories of the neighbors and families who used to picnic and party on the river. He said he still loves to spend time near the Rock River:
“I love the Rock River. I love water. I love any river. I can’t drive on a bridge without looking down at the river.”
We said goodbye to the river and walked inside to the Rockford Art Museum Store, where Norm’s stunning art is for sale. He shared a significant memory:
“My first trip to the Rockford Art Museum, I was nine years old. It was not yet in this building. It was next door at the Burpee. I knew that I wanted to be an artist. To be nine years old and at the museum! That meant I had made it -- I was in the art museum!”
He continued, “It was kind of like the door was open and I was going to keep going. I ended up having my first solo show locally in 1982. And that really was the thing that started the ball rolling.”
I had to keep our ball rolling and head to the next venue. On my way out of the museum, I bumped into Nancy Sauer. She’s the office manager for Rockford Art Museum and has known Norm for nearly 25 years. I asked her how she would describe Norm.
Nancy said, “He has a heart as big as a mountain and a personality twice as big. He's just a joy to be around. And he's a wonderful artist, which you know, that makes it even more special."
Norm’s next location was Bennie’s Cleaners, a dry cleaning store in downtown Rockford. The lobby displays art on the walls. The counter is a work of art, too. We walked to the back room, which is where the bulk of business takes place. The first floor hums with immaculate efficiency and merriment. But we didn’t stay there long. Instead, we walked up a dark wooden stairway to the second floor. That’s where I met his partner Steve. Norm and Steve have been together for nearly 25 years. Steve shed insight into why the small business matters so much to Norm:
“Bennie’s Cleaners afforded a lot of artists, including one of the founders, which was Norm, a venue to show their art at a nominal fee and get a lot of exposure for themselves in the community,” said Steve.
During ArtScene and other times, the second floor opens up to the community. The gallery fills with art, artists, and art lovers. But the ownership of Bennie’s is changing and Norm said, “It remains to be seen” if the second floor of Bennie’s will continue to serve as an art gallery.
After Bennie’s, we walked to our next destination, The Office NiteClub. As we walked, we passed City Hall so I asked Norm what he thought about the local government. Norm answered fondly.
He said, “I think that the last several mayors have all been very supportive of the arts.” He spoke of recent efforts to preserve downtown architecture and raise the public's consciousness of art.
Norm continued, “The ArtScene that's held twice a year is one fine example of that. And Heaven knows that Mayor McNamara and his family are sort of The Rockford von Trapps of art. They are all fabulous artists. I've had some of the kids in some of my classes at the Art Museum too. And even the little ones are good artists.”
At that moment, we arrived at Norm’s next location.
“But this is The Office NiteClub. This is where I came out of the closet in 1977. I was 21 years old. It's where everybody came out of the closet in 1977.”
He continued, “Back then, we had three bars in town. I did the artwork that was over the 7th Heaven's bar. It was a nude guy on his stomach crying, and that tells you a lot right there.”
Norm was wearing a Stonewall t-shirt during the interview. The 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn are widely regarded as the catalyst for propelling the gay rights movement forward. Norm spoke to how Rockford's LGBTQ community also created effective change:
“I think that the generation that I was a part of kind of stood up and said, ‘We are part of the community.’ And I think that the previous owners, Dan Ford and Michael Wright, who I used to model with, really were part of that 'standing up and being noticed.' The more of us that were involved in the arts, and the downtown scene of Rockford, got more and more recognition and shed a light on it.”
Then he said, “Back then you went down this alley to get into the bar. Now you go through the front.”
We had time for one more location, so we drove to Womanspace, where Norm works as an art instructor. We wended our way through the woods and talked by his biodegradable art installation “Mother Nature.” Natural elements like sandstone, wind, pine needles, twigs, and a small tree all work together to reflect the the synchronicity and continuity of earth and sky.
Norm shared why Womanspace is important, not just to him, but to the community.
He said, “I think Womanspace, as far as women go, has just been at the forefront of allowing women their own space to realize themselves inwardly, outwardly, and politically.” He said, "In any community we must allow our members to live life to their fullest and be heard."
I asked him if he has always been heard.
He chuckled and said, “Not always. But the older you are, the louder you get. Maybe it's with art.”