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  A Short Biography of artist-sculptor Norma Jean Squires 1931-2015

 

 

   “I looked through a telescope into science’s new found universe  and was led by imagination to match its beauty with that of our own tiny planet”    
                                                   Norma Jean Squires 1989

  Norma Jean Squires was a foundling, a throwaway baby orphaned in a provincial village north of Toronto, Canada in the Great Depression year of 1931. The environment was what she described later as near Dickensian, a township lingering in places out of the 19th century, a step mother driven gradually to madness and death by a doctor’s over prescribing morphine for never diagnosed pains and a step father, a good man happy to have a lifetime job as a leather cutter in the town’s one factory, a job that sat waiting to be occupied by the adolescent Norma Jean, if she would allow that to be a future matching her past.

 There was nothing and no one to trust she believed except what she was beginning to find in herself , a depth of talent in art and music growing by will and the joyful challenge of creating a new identity for herself as a dedicated member of the arts, one appreciated and applauded by her schoolmates from whom she manage to hide the truth of waking each morning to the screech of a mad woman mocking her dreams and calling her fated to become as wicked as the whore mother who had abandoned her.

Looking far ahead from those earliest days to her death at age 84 in 2015 is to question whether her long dedication to art fulfilled both the life she had envisioned and art worthy of the challenge she had set for herself as a never despairing teenager.

The 55 years of work Squires left behind speaks for itself in its scope and uniqueness. Writing of her work critics have taken particular notice of her melding of spirit and science, imagination and meticulous precision, and color strategically placed to brilliantly affirm a sense of potential transformation of what stands as a troubled world today for so many, a transformation she had realistically accomplished for herself.

In 1989 Squires one person exhibition of acrylic paintings and wall panels ‘Science and Spirit’ was reviewed by noted Los Angeles Times chronicler of the arts Kristine McKenna with words expressing her thanks for being invited to experience work she called “simply inspiring,” a comment shared by fellow critic Shirle Gottlieb. Those reactions sum up the responses to her work from the beginning.

In the 1950s, New York City’s internationally renowned Cooper Union School of the Arts and Sciences was the destination that lured Squires from a friendly but quiet Toronto, Canada to a brash and noisy New York City fast replacing Paris as cultural mecca for would-be Picassos from around the world.

With a single friend, near empty pockets and great but shakey hopes of passing a stickler of a Cooper Union entrance exam, she conquered the first challenge to her improbable dream.

The competition of student by student at Cooper Union was sharp and a major test of yet untried talents. The professors, most of whom famous artist-sculptors , held her and the others to unforgiving standards, the same as they did for themselves. She determined she would not only meet and master those standards but go beyond them by creating innovations adding in her own way to basic learning.

In 1961 Norma Jean Squires was named honor graduate student of the Cooper Union School of the Arts and Sciences and honored also with the prestigious Sara Cooper Hewitt award.

She took many lessons from her time at Cooper Union, thanks to the patience and wisdom of her mentors. Four rules of her own making would become constant guides. 1.An artist is condemned to triviality by ignoring science’s near magical revealing of a new universe and our very human place in it. 2. Beauty without strength or purpose equals minor decoration. 3.Hoopla, gimmicks, spectacle , repetition, imitation, shock art the weirder the better, all elements to avoid as they thrive on funny money in a vulture culture. 4. Applause for an artist is best given viewer by viewer in silence.

Norma Jean Squires kept to those lessons for 55 years and learned to rely wholly on her singular passion for inventiveness, craftsmanship and the “awesome use of vibrant colors to explore the known and unknown of science and spirit”, critic Nancy Ann Jones of Artweek magazine wrote in a 1990 review of Squires one person exhibition ‘Toward A Personal Universe.”

Her first years after school between 1961 and 1969 found Squires advancing her skills as a sculptor into a series called kinetic color progressions, wholly self invented and constructed wooden and aluminum columns pieced together so that viewers are able to turn blocks of color into personally desired combinations. Some of the columns driven by tiny sets of clock motors silently progressed into seemingly infinite varieties taking on the aspect of constant surprise turning into structure.

Squires gained recognition for her linking of form, glass, light, mirrors, color and motion into into to what she would come to call hard won beauty.

Art reviewer-essayists Carter Ratcliff of Art News and Atirnomis of Arts Magazine were joined by other critics and museum curators in praise of Squires creative inventiveness which was equally praised in a special feature on TV station WNEW where her Color Progressions were shown and called by a commentator a marvelous complement to science’s space time.

Squires kinetic works were exhibited in museums and major galleries in the New York area, Toronto, Spain and among others California where she and her family would soon take residence.

The reason for her abandoning the New York art scene was primarily what the New York art scene in her eyes had itself abandoned, quality, expansiveness and yes, existential meaning. Beauty was not to be spoken of.

A so-called revolution in the 1950s through 70s was to her more like full blown anarchy, where anything in the name of “cool”was tossed off with a nod, hung quickly in galleries and sold. Rationales were abundant on why art was now correctly serving at the acceptable level of a consumer culture.

Squires wrote she resisted calling it art if there was no sign of struggle, no excitement out of the play of tensions and releases as in life and especially nothing in the work bearing questions for the viewer and artist alike.

There we're exceptions, movements that went beyond abstract expressionism but not inventive enough for her and also minus any hint of beauty as a human need ridiculed and called passé and elitist.

Humor in art high and low was for Squires a welcoming cause of loud and healthy laughter but not when the jokes were worse than bad, they were taken seriously, turned into an art movement with scholars applauding and prices exploding.

Never was so little talked about so much she wrote especially when there was a truly profound, artistically exciting and meaningful revolution taking place. Science’s cosmologists who she had been following from school through fascinated reading were presenting undeniable evidence of science’s new universe overthrowing for the most part the static, predictable machinery of a clockwork.

Creativity was at its core and an artist’s role she believed was to illuminate this new universe, personalize it so that the tiniest to most profound of human experiences would be drawn into a cosmic reality marked by transformation into human terms.

These still maturing thoughts were carried by Squires to Los Angeles where her focus changed permanently from sculpture and kinetic structures to painting.

The art scene in the Los Angeles of 1970S to 80’s greeted her with less than an applauding welcome. Coincidentally or not she joined fellow women artists in demanding mostly in vain for a justified place in the art world and its major outlets. Painful as her being bypassed was she never allowed it to to affect her real challenges as an artist.

Acceptance did finally begin for her paintings, a skillful tying together of imagination and innovation in two separate series. solo show at the famed LA Huntington Gardens Art Gallery, POSSESSED, displayed 30 strikingly detailed equilateral triangles, all with individual bright coloration and different messages by artist-poet Squires herself.

Humor here was her tool, sharp and meaningful themes on the everlastingly quizzical human condition. Many admiring comments were written by hundreds of viewers who were informed that her work had been chosen for display out of many curated lists of submissions.

The second series, HIGH ANXIETY, also recognized for originality and innovation by critic Joseph Woodward in Art News brought a personal touch to her paintings including self portraiture and themes of everyday to profound human experience. Those factors were always carried into her future work no matter how seemingly abstract that work and its delving into science and technology became.

When she started this new phase of her painting it was not entirely inspired by viewing the mechanical tools of science and technology as overwhelming they proved ro be. the. It was a small very human event.

A group of parents and their school age children, were invited to attend a showing of her paintings and a small talk on its theme at LA’s Pierce college. The children were shown by an instructor how to adjust and look through a telescope into the sky above. Then asked to look at the paintings.

What they saw in the telescope they were told by Squires are chapters of a story scientists call the finding of a new universe. Her paintings she went on were meant to light up her deepest felt thoughts about this story and how it belonged to her personally as it did to every child in the world who’ll one day learn to continue it.

Hands were raised. Good if very simple questions asked. A lot of these children including her grandson were already amateur scholars having taken on the story of the dinosaurs, even learning their names. If the story of the universe is told simply as it should be they’ll be anxious to start with basics and go deeper with time, Squires was convinced. My job she wrote is the same as all artist’s, to illuminate the meaning of what science finds.

One basic in science’s cosmographic range of discoveries that captured the artist’s eye was that of microcosm, the calculated invisible quantum forces that reach up from below to create the Macrocosm above with its visible galaxies, stars, planets and we ourselves swept as one through energy and matter in an evolving universe.

A series of her paintings using this micro-macro theme and others as subject matters was praised as always for Squires recognizable skill at matching innovation and precision, power and beauty but the art world from museums to galleries were polite but not convinced there was an intellectual need or commercial market for themes that always centered on the beauty of a new universe.

How could they think this, Squires wondered when just recently a magnifcent TV series COSMOS garnered a huge audience seemingly fascinated by science’s awakening of knowledge that she had been following since school and was now masterfully covering her canvas with its significance.

Was the given name of Norma Jean rather than Norman Gene Squires a major hindrance to her being accepted by the ruling hierarchy . A lone woman artist grasping and making powerful innovations in a field almost revolutionary was perhaps too difficult for the keepers of the art world to take seriously.

Squires response was to artistically emphasize a metaphorical approach of masculine-feminine elements in the universe such as wave-particle duality in quantum choices of measurement

The question of exposure for Squires work as it advanced into and beyond the micro—macro series actually diminished commercial gallery interest but conversely raised the interest of more adventuresome non profit art organizations, especially those drawing together a system of matching artists in overseas museums of a variety of countries.

Curators in these museums would select from submissions presented by curators in Los Angeles. Norma Jean Squires work was always submitted and always accepted. Work was displayed matching artists in museums of Japan, France, Korea, Thailand Mexico, Armenia.

In a statement underlying her first successful showing of newly centered paintings in those museums Squires wrote that we are all part of the same creative being, all sharing a tiny world we must preserve by continuing to draw our minds and spirits to the thought of our advancing together into a universe that somehow needs us and life for its and our destiny.

These words are wide open to potential ridicule by those framing themselves as common sense realists but not by Nobel Prize winning cosmologists, physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, open minds and artists like Norma Jean Squires, who could not fathom an art world ’s lack of excitement over this new universe superceding the dead weight of a machinelike clockwork universe.

With the advent of the Hubble Telescope in 1990 bringing visibly defining reaches  into the micro-macro scope of an evolving universe, a canvas for imagination and illumining artistry was handed to Squires.

Always an admirer of abstract expression’s near visionary content she saw now what had been missing for her, observation matching imagination, dreams not settling yet into purposeful reality.

A series of her new paintings and wall structures were presented and accepted out of many entries in a statewide California arts council competition. Squires two sizable paintings were given prominent display in Glendale City’s Perkins building and the Silicon Valley neighbor Redwood City county library marking its opening. The arts council acknowledged Squires accomplishments with ceremonies in both cities.

A second and what she called the most special, surprising and unforgettable invitation to exhibit came from a representative of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach California.

Squires new work had been on display in a one person show at the landmark Howard Hughes building in Los Angeles. Among visitors to the show were the admiring critic Nancy Ann Jones and equally admiring rector A. LeRoy Young of St. Luke’s, so captured by the paintings he offered Squires the full dimensions of the church for an exhibition on the theme called Space Track.

For more than a month Squires linking of science and spirit was given a real life setting. Those of the church, those of science, art lovers, tourists who were intrigued by major critical reviews all gathered beneath and around traditional religious images sharing space with Squires new universe of micro and macro or masculine- feminine images face to face as if they had always belonged together.

Critic- poet MacMcCloud ’s review cited the paintings as brilliantly conceptual in a visual rather than literal way, solidly imaginative, sensual and free ranging and “ not to be forgotten.”

Critic Shirle Gottlieb’s favorite in the show was 20 separate one foot square paintings hung together into what she called a single magnificent instillation.

Comments especially by the church people aways settled on the beauty of the images leading Squires to an intriguing series of ideas on the topic of beauty.

Squires noted that beauty, practically cast out of both poetry and art, was taking a major role once again but not in words or colors but numbers and thought play by mathematicians and yes Albert Einstein holding fast to beauty as the signaling truth of his idea of the universe. She of course was delighted by the estimable support of the major tool of her art, hard won beauty.

Other Einstein thoughts and similar ones by his fellow mathematical geniuses were gathered up to eventually become a book, Poem Into Life, for which Squires contributed 13 masterful illustrations.

The key element in the book that was to bolster Squires art was the idea of the human mind and imagination’s power to conjure up questions and answers on the working of the universe and our place in it. If information on a cosmic level was available in our inner being for numbers, Squires insisted it was there too for art and she would reach to it.

Poem Into Life illustrations and commentaries were exhibited in a major Los Angels gallery, Walker and Walker in 1990. A book is available from Xlibris publications.

A surprise invitation to display her work in 2009 proved almost as gratifying as the St.Luke’s installation. It was from the Los Angeles parks department. The city was beginning a monthly art festival at its downtown Pershing Square park area and her work was chosen to cover a wall with a painting digitally blown up to eight feet by eight feet.

The extensive park area always well populated and being surrounded by office buildings and apartment buildings brought crowds of viewers of all ages to Squires’ well publicized “giant” attraction.

Two of Squires last major series of paintings “Flamenco” and “Toward A Personal Universe” completed between the ages of 75 and 84 ideally exemplify her general theme of Science and Spirit and the promise she left behind for other artists to explore.

The Spanish dance “Flamenco” which opened Norma Jean Squires imagination to a brilliant series of art works is a discipline that incorporates spins, spirals and swirls in a way that for her could be seen as reflecting the motions of particles and galaxies, the rhythms and energies of inner and outer space that link each of us to multiple interconnections in the visible, invisible dance of reality we call cosmos.

In a glowing review of Squires one person exhibition ‘Toward A Personal Universe” noted critic and essayist Nancy Ann Jones of Artweek magazine wrote a lengthy article on what she saw as the artist’s work taking hold of the realities of the new universe and humankind's eternal Great Mystery.

Who/what are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here?Where are we going? And how, through what processes will we get there? The steps along the way are examined and illumined in Squires art scope called by critic Jones filled with wonder and elemental detail.

So Squires ended how she began her work some 55 years ago with the challenge of personalizing objectivity, bringing her artistry and insistence on beauty to science’s opening of an evolving new universe to be shared equally by every humanoid on this tiny planet.

RECOLLECTIONS a time capsule assembled in 2010 by Los Angeles’ Barnsdall Municiple Art Gallery will be opened in the year 2093 bringing to that future world examples of life today. A book containing samples of Norma Jean Squires 55 years of art work was accepted out of many submissions and is now held in the time capsule.

ADDENDA

Squires always found strength in her fellow artists mutually held belief in art’s potential for healing the world, tribe by tribe, nation by nation into a family where even extreme differences would be blended into oneness.

The efforts in this cause by chairman Hideo Sakata of the non profit LELA organization was influential in curating shows that led to Squires painting of science and spirit themes brought together with museum artists of Japan, Korea, China, Phillipines, Thailand, Armenia, France.

Marisa Caichiolo of the Building Bridges foundation brought Squires work to Mexican museums and SouthAmerica.

As a secular humanist who leaned a great deal on science for inspiration, Squires was thankfully pleased but slightly surprised by invitations to exhibit with a variety of religious denominations in and around Los Angeles.

There were—-
Two major shows at Mount St Mary’s university for women.
Two shows in the art gallery of the Jewish University
Solo exhibition at Loyola University.
Extended solo exhibition at St Luke’s Episcopal Church.

She commented later that it was the spirit in her goal of science and spirit that attracted her audiences in the church and temple schools here as well as in the Far East.

Squires stood beside artists who protested against what she believed was outright senseless if not craven acceptance of control by power brokers on behalf of their own collections and the space they command in public museums for their work.
Result of the near exclusion of the ‘wrong sex” art has been a flood of what current critics are calling boring and insignificant works presented by of so called major galleries and museums.

But the money pours in.

Among her confederates, a group who originally numbered themselves Group Nine, consisting now of six surviving women, began experimenting with the idea of each artist creating a wholly separate addition to a common theme. The experiment could have ended in chaos but it didn’t. It rather made for a convergence of individuality always blending into perfect and powerful wholeness.

Squires last work for the group will be included in an exhibition scheduled in 2016.

A fellow member Merilyn Duzy also joined Squires as curators of a show themed Quarks and Quasars.

Squires left behind a collection of over 250 separate works of sculpture, kinetic wall pieces, paintings, fibers, illustrations and drawings. Her individual exhibitions, group shows, museum shows, lists of reviews and magazine articles and magazine covers are catalogued on her Norma Jean Squires web page. A history of her work can be found in the archives of the Womans Museum in Washington, D.C.

The rustic tiny town of Norma Jean Squires upbringing is today the thriving and rightfully prideful city of Newmarket Canada Beside the BFA from Cooper Union.

She held a masters degree from California State University of Northridge.

Squires estate is managed by her husband Gerald Hopman and daughter Jessica Hopman.

SCIENCE and NJS
The years between the 1950s and 1965 marked the challenging of science’s assumption of the physical universe pictured as a great machine wound up and inexorably moving from gear to gear as in an eternally predictable clockwork set in place by god it was once assumed. The genius of Isaac Newton proved the clockwork universe was set by natural laws of motion and gravity understood through mathematics and testable observation.

Still called on as example for sending astronauts to the moon, Newtonian classical mechanics has proven totally misplaced at such levels as quantum physics and Einsteinian relativity. Add to that the visible proof of a big bang beginning of our universe and a cosmological revolution was underway.

With the help of mentors at Cooper Union and magnificent books from great scientist and science writers under the general theme of science for non-scientists Squires, an able if not genius mathematician, was easily led into this new universe and its total effect she believed it would have on every aspect of human experience.

Squires gave special thanks to writer-scientists Paul Davies, Timothy Ferris. Lee Smolin, Lawrence Leshan, Henry Margenau and above all others K.C.Cole. Having lent her book title Sympathetic Vibrations to a series of Squires painting was not only an act of generosity but also Cole’s example to fellow scientist of how important it was to employ metaphor and art such as Squires in teaching the public the basics of the new universe.

For 55 years Squires challenge was to think of our true home as a seeking universe, self created from birth into a quantum fluid history unpredictably evolving step by step from settings of dark into light into seeding clouds forming the beauty of stars aging and leaving behind the stuff of planets, ours and perhaps many others sharing a gift of life and its ever transforming future.

Squires insisted creativity was not reserved for the arts, mathematics alone but was an inherited quality derived from a creating, evolving universe, the source of us all. Her work personalizing and illuming what science has uncovered was centered on imagination, experience and productive common sense. So she declared in one of her last statements.

Her message was in work not words or numbers of which she shared the same mathematicians goal of beauty equaling truth . The last example of her personalizing what one reviewer called in applauding her series Flamenco was Science and Spirituality, an apt summation of all her work.

"To be certain about my understanding of New Age science,I hold it is pragmatism not aspects of Far East or Western mysticism that stands behind a phycist's work as it does mine.  Observation and measurement for me is the closing of the wildest unraveling of the splendor and mystery of cosmic reality. Still there are many different paths to the same destination and don't mean to denigrate the entirety of other's mysticism."  NJS statement 1988