October 20, 2018

Artist with a comic twist

OBITUARY: Norman Gardner, artist and humorist, dies at 89 in Boca Raton, Florida

(April 9, 1928 to October 28, 2017)

Norman Scott Gardner, a life-long artist and humorist, died Saturday in Boca Raton at the age of 89, due to complications from Alzheimers disease, according to members of his immediate family.  

In his final days, he was surrounded by his wife of 32 years, Katy Gardner, and four daughters from his first marriage, Laura, Valerie, Wendy and Miriam, all of whom are married but have kept Gardner as their last name.

As early as age five, Norman Gardner was recognized for his artistic abilities by the City of New York, winning a student art award. Later, though often in trouble for being the class clown, when he was caught doodling in elementary school, Gardner recalled that his teacher peered at his drawing and simply said "You can draw whenever you want to."

Norman Gardner with his big brother Bobby

Norman (4) with Bobby (8)

By that time, Gardner had already known loss and despair. His older brother, Bobby, had died suddenly at age eight from a rare form of tuberculosis meningitis when Norman was just four.  This incredible tragedy was followed not long after by the permanent departure of his father, Charles Goldberg from the home.  Forced by loss and fear to become the "man of the house" at age ten, young Norman was profoundly changed by these experiences and became committed to doing what was necessary to help support his family.

For this, he found that his artistic talent, while a private refuge for himself, was also a means through which he could earn money, when used to meet the needs of various paying customers.  Norman Gardner began to develop the ability to find what art work was needed by those he knew and provide that—which he could readily do to the satisfaction of the customer — and he never looked back.

A Gardner Wood CarvingAfter her husband's departure, Gardner's mother, Henrietta, struggled to support her family. With three children, she took on difficult work as a milliner in Manhattan, in what would now be known as a sweatshop. This created a huge strain on the family and Gardner figured out that he could help to supplement their income by selling the drawings, graphic designs, crafts and special wood carvings he happily created in his spare time.  As young as eleven, he would walk up and down East 96th Street and Church Avenue in Brooklyn, near where his family lived, and take up piece work of various kinds from local retailers. His teachers at Brooklyn Tech High School would refer him to clients who needed help and these referrals provided a stream of paying jobs making custom signs and crafting work, such as creating the insignia for officers in the armed forces. 

Mural painted by Norman GardnerLater, while a student at City College, he was hired by the toy company, Renwal, to come up with toy ideas and he developed the "Invisible Man," which became quite popular. He then obtained other work from Remco as well.  His clients were always happy with his work and he learned to maintain these relationships. Following his graduation with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, he was drafted into the 61st Army Infantry during the Korean War. His assignments included designing ground-to-air missiles and painting murals for officer lounges and common areas. 

When the war ended, Gardner applied to Pratt Institute to study Fine Arts. Before even completing his own Masters in Fine Arts there, he was offered a position on the Pratt faculty, becoming the youngest member of the faculty. This enabled him to continue providing family to his mother and family support even while he obtained his masters degree. He loved teaching and continued to work at Pratt for the next dozen years.

Gardner married Frema (Ricki) Lichtblau in 1953.  In 1959, with two young children, the couple moved from Brooklyn to New Rochelle, New York, where Gardner rented a space and set up shop as Norman Gardner Associates.  His clientele initially included his former contacts at Renwal and Remco Toys but he quickly developed a reputation as a full service product and packaging designer who could literally do it all: illustrations, mock-ups as well as fabrications of realistic prototype models to present to senior executives and clients.

Gardner's artistic talents were clearly exceptional but his facility with the sliderule and complex calculations may have helped him land long-term product design relationships with Avon, Revlon, Clairol, Estee Lauder and Proctor & Gamble, the corporate clients that eventually became his company's largest accounts. Not only could he design a beautifully shaped product decanter and packaging, such as for a perfume or cologne that would come wrapped in a box, he could also provide the sophisticated calculations for the volumetric measurements, wall thickness and scaling required to produce each unique bottle shape accurately sized for different ounce amounts, easily enabling production of differing volumes in the same shape, as needed by his clients. These mechanical drawing required complex and laborious calculations that took a long time to complete.

By the mid-60s, Gardner had expanded and moved his business from New Rochelle into Manhattan to better service his larger accounts. He adroitly hired a crop of hugely talented designers to work with him and his business grew rapidly.  By the late 60s and early 70s, requests for Gardner's volumetric calculations were coming in from around the world.  So Gardner hired a programmer and devoted long evenings to designing his own proprietary software program to run on a Honeywell mini-computer. This program, once completed, shortened the complex calculation process time down from multiple days to an hour.

For years, Gardner licensed use of the program on an hourly basis to customers who traveled from Germany, Japan and around the world to use his system. He also hired an attorney to help him apply to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for a patent on his proprietary software application. To his dismay, the PTO declined to issue a protective patent because software applications were not deemed patentable at that time.  This policy changed not long after, when micro-computers emerged on the scene with open-source platforms begging for application software.

Revlon's Pub Cologne on wooden standDespite that setback, Norman Gardner continued to achieve professional success as a product and packaging designer for quite some time. He and his team were known for having designed Revlon's award-winning Pub Cologne bottle, the first cologne bottle shaped like a beer cask.  He also designed the first Norell Cologne bottle, creating such an elegant design it launched Norman Norell's brand in 1968, and it is continues to sell even now.  Avon, known for its ever-changing product line, assigned Gardner several new product design projects each week and he spent so much time at Avon's headquarters on 57th street, that he eventually moved his office and shop to 56th Street, right in midtown Manhattan.

Throughout this increasingly busy period, Gardner never abandoned his passion for fine art.  On the contrary, his commercial success gave him the financial wherewithall to pursue his passions on his own time and buoyed a new phase of artistic endeavor, during which Gardner worked prolifically, producing one sculpture after another, painting murals, building furniture and built-ins, doing landscaping, even building his children a treehouse.

Don Quixote a sculpture in silverGardner's first love was wood carving but he soon realized that working in wood confined him to his workshop. Keen to be home with his wife and young daughters, he devised an approach that enabled him to sculpt right in his own living room. Armed with scissors and masking tape, he cut and shaped pieces of cardboard to construct scaled-down prototype models of what would later become full-sized sculptures fabricated from sheets of metals like bronze, aluminum, silver and gold.

Gardner was a devoted son and family man. He made trips on a weekly basis to see his mother and taught himself knitting so he could make his mother the long wool sweater he thought she needed to keep warm.  He also took up jewelry design to make his own gold and silver jewelry for the women in his life.  He preferred to use the lost-wax mold method, so he could make five or six copies at one time in his own workshop, so each of his four daughters would have the same items.  By the late 70s, however, Gardner had separated from his first wife after twenty years of marriage and the couple finally divorced in the early 80s.  He then met and married his second wife in 1985 and remained happily married. Yet, despite finding new love and maintaining a stellar design reputation, Gardner's business and fortune began declining in the late 80s and early 90s and never recovered.

It started with the AIDS epidemic. This disease wiped out a large portion of the design community in New York City.  Not only did Norman Gardner Associates lose some of its own most talented staff to the disease but most all of his closest friends and personal contacts at client offices, the internal product design teams, died in relatively quick succession.  Gardner suffered enormously from the losses of friends and talent.  By the mid-90's, both Gardner and his business were reeling from the prolonged devastation.  The whole design world had imploded and he did not see how he would rebuild, so he gave away his power tools and equipment, helped his remaining employees find new positions, and he closed up his 56th Street office and shop.

Universal Woman II PregnantUnmoored from the discipline of having to manage a daily business, Gardner embarked upon a period of great professional and artistic exploration. Moving away from metal fabricated sculpture, Gardner launched into his "chromatics" phase, producing cast epoxy sculptures painted white but starkly outlined in black. He painted darkly-hued pictures premised upon sardonic puns. He toyed with writing and self-publishing books and commodities trading. None of these activities produced the outcomes he sought yet he persisted. Eventually, Gardner's wife convinced him to move out of New York City and down to Boca Raton to commence retirement. They moved in 1997 and Gardner loved the beauty and comfort of his new home in Boca but instead of easing up, Gardner was pulled into his final artistic phase. It happened while visiting one of his pregnant daughter, who invited him to join her for her pre-natal sonogram appointment. He was shocked and awed by the experience and thereafter devoted himself to depicting women's procreative powers, which he called "pre-natal" art. He began adding a chromatic baby to the stomachs of nearly all of his prior female figures, and wrote articles and even several books railing against what he described as cultural taboos against pregnancy in the art world.

Gardner continued to design and create new works well into his late 70s, including the seven-foot stainless steel sculpture, "Celebration," a highly-regarded larger than life depiction of three intertwined figures, which is installed in front of the private school his grandchildren attended in Palo Alto.  Though the last of his monumental works, Celebration evidences further evolution towards a more contemporary, abstract style.

Gardner's preoccupation with fetuses and pregnancy in art endured until his death, premised as it was upon his profound awe of the female figure and its profound but well-hidden power. His four daughters and two stepchildren yielded him a grand total of fourteen grandchildren and he embraced his role as grandpa with great gusto. He made multiple trips out west to build his grandchildren a treehouse and launched a series of monthly comedic "Grandpa Grams" that rollick with silliness and self-deprecating grandpa humor. Nevertheless, he was convinced that women were not given adequate recognition for the importance of their powers and authored several harsh harangues of the art world hoping to elevate appreciation for maternity as an aesthetic not to be covered up.  Gardner, however, failed to arouse meaningful public awareness of the issue or acclaim for his pre-natal art.

Between 1946 and 2016, Norman Gardner was a driven and prolific artist who not only produced hundreds of beautiful and diverse works of fine art but whose blend of artistry and prodigious engineering talents enabled him to successfully support himself and his growing family with his commercial design business for decades as well. Gardner never shirked his responsibilities and plied himself to his dual career, even though it may have kept him from being fully embraced by the art world.  A loving son and husband, a responsible father and doting grandfather, Gardner was a natural comic whose perennially quirky sense of humor served as a surprise counterpunch to his undeniably sensuous and elegant aesthetic vision, whose works shout in mirth and sing with irony.  In the end, Gardner chose to infuse his own strictures on beauty with intellectually and visually startling elements that were discomforting enough to force the viewer to go deeper inside the human experience, just as the artist himself did in living life.

Norman Gardner is survived by his wife Katy Buchalter Gardner of Boca Raton, his brother Harvey Jay Gardner of Oro Valley, Arizona, his sister Corinne Hagood of Beaufort, South Carolina, his daughters Laura Beth Gardner of Menlo Park, California, Valerie Ann Gardner of Atherton, California, Wendy Sue Gardner of New York City, and Miriam Esther Gardner of Bedford Hills, New York, plus two step-children from his second marriage, Ari Buchalter of New York City and Naomi Schwartz Hemp of San Francisco, California and a grand total of fourteen grandchildren.

(Also see the condensed obituary for Norman on the New York Times Legacy site.

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