Recapturing the sense of wonder inquisitive travelers experienced long ago, Kate Norris leads viewers on a path to discovery through the gentle art of paper collage. Charming and witty, her portrayals of creatures and objects in the natural world impart more than appears at first sight. Up close, as if under a microscope, a plucky rooster, butterfly or boar breaks up into tiny set pieces—beguiling pictures or blank fragments torn from rolls of scenic wallpaper. Each is a building block in an orderly yet crazy quilt.
While the main subjects spring from old scientific illustrations, their assembled parts may send a different message derived from vintage wallpapers. Take the case of a smiling skull. Looming large at five feet tall, its head is a patchwork of light and dark tones. Embedded in its forehead, however, merry costumed figures blend among its monochrome fragments. These gentlefolk frolic alone or in pairs; a woman dances, a man plays a lute. “They are like memories in its head,” Norris notes. “I took really pretty paper and juxtaposed it against a serious image, trying to make it light and beautiful, a saccharine contrast to the idea of death.”
In other pieces, wallpaper elements support the central theme. When asked to create an artwork at the height of the #MeToo movement, Norris based her design on an old illustration of a female bat. With women’s empowerment in mind, she called it “Batgirl”—a new superhero—and overlaid it with a pastoral paper showing countrywomen at work. Within the lush landscape composition, a graceful figure dressed in a cap and apron kneels along the bat wing’s edge, dipping a cloth into the void beyond. “I think of them telling a story as I make each one,” says Norris. “There are stories within stories, associations that I make. I have fun with it.”
Tall and agile, Norris won a basketball scholarship to Stanford, where she studied fine art. She went on to receive a master’s at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Her lifelong interests connect in unexpected ways. “Sometimes I attribute my discipline in finishing a section of an artwork to the perseverance that comes with sports,” she reflects, adding, “You can be creative in sports too.”
Norris arrived at her current technique of repurposing wallpaper barely three years ago. “I was a painter forever,” she explains. Standing in the basement studio of her home in Baltimore’s North Roland Park, she indicates earlier works that demonstrate her longstanding use of cut, mixed-media paper merged into abstract paintings and charcoal drawings.
That abstract approach began to change in 2010, when she started teaching in Baltimore County, now at Parkville High School. “I had to show students how to render things—draw a portrait or paint a landscape. I found out I could do that really easily, and I like it,” reflects the artist, who also created handmade quilts in her 20s. “The way I work now is the culmination of all those years.”
Norris favors toile wallpapers that typically picture wistful scenes of bygone times. Animals and birds, flowers and monuments intermingle with idyllic figures, sometimes in exotic Chinoiserie settings. “They are like little engravings,” Norris observes, adding that once she started ripping up the rolls, “it kind of exploded from there.”
Her muse may arise from a single image or a special paper. To demonstrate the quandary of finding a suitable match, she unfurls a cerulean blue-and-cream sample. It shows a sprightly pattern of Christian Dior storefronts intermingled with shoes, boxes and fitted, fashion-plate suits of a former era. Norris held onto the paper for more than a year before discovering a large seashell image to complement it. When an identical shell rendering turned up in a large tome she bought for herself last Christmas—containing artwork by Ernst Haeckel, a 19th-century zoologist and illustrator—the find compounded her goal of reinterpreting vintage illustrations and “giving homage to some of the old illustrators,” she says.
Norris compares her art to putting a puzzle together. Embarking on a new piece, she draws the image outline on a canvas, then paints around the borders before filling in the background. Rough edges of the paper remain silhouetted against the border, she says, “to allude to old parchment.” After large fragments are placed, one piece builds on another. At the end, each work is sealed and varnished for protection.
The artist remembers returning home for vacations to Redding, California, where she enjoyed doing puzzles with her father. Her collage art poses a different kind of challenge. “You get to make it up as you go along,” she says, smiling. “I don’t know where it’s going when I start—but it always seems to work out.” For more information, see katenorrisart.com.