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Sculpting a better life for others

Artist continues to pass along his mentor’s lessons

Morris Norvin works on a sculpture at the Stonybrook Fine Arts studio where he is the director and instructor. Morris Norvin works on a sculpture at the Stonybrook Fine Arts studio where he is the director and instructor. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Alex Spanko
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2010

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Hanging around the loading dock at Morris Norvin’s studio, in the shadow of the red-brick brewery complex in Jamaica Plain, is a goat. Its steel skeleton and innards are crafted from motorcycle chains, rebar, pipe, and bits of discarded shelving.

For Norvin, a motorcycle-riding sculptor whose bald head and beaded Fu Manchu belie his soft-spoken personality, the goat, like a number of his scrap metal works outside the studio, is more than a curious spectacle.

Sure, people stop and gape at his works, like the two bears he made out of metal drums that are on display at the Franklin Park Zoo. But along with his partners at Stonybrook Fine Arts, Norvin, 48, who teaches at his studio and the Museum of Fine Arts, is on a quiet mission to bring sculpture to the masses. Through CAST Boston (Community for Art and Sculptural Training), his studio’s nonprofit arm, they hope to give teens free or subsidized instruction in sculpture, jewelry making, and welding — and an alternative to the streets.

Norvin has firsthand experience with the power art can have on a directionless kid’s life. The only child of a single mother who worked several jobs to keep food on their table, he found his own father figure — and lifelong purpose — in art classes at the MFA.

His mentor was Ralph Rosenthal, the legendary teacher who inspired generations of artists through his lessons at the MFA for more than 70 years before his death in 2003. Norvin took those Saturday classes from age 10, eventually working his way to a diploma from the Museum School in 1985. And while money was occasionally tight for him, Rosenthal found ways to help his pupil stay through MFA grants and his own personal scholarship funds.

Norvin returned the favor by working as Rosenthal’s assistant, and later taking over his classes after Rosenthal and another assistant became too sick to continue. Today Norvin teaches in the same room where Rosenthal first sparked his interest decades ago, and is trying to carry out the same message to the community: Art is for anyone.

“Ralph really filled a void. He was so generous with his time, with his things,’’ said Norvin. “He cared so much about people, and I’m trying to pass that on. If that’s even possible, to do something like that.’’

Gentle message
Norvin, who grew up in Revere and Boston and lives in Mission Hill, has carved out a niche with his reclaimed sculptures of animals (though he does people as well). The goat is unfinished, and when it’s done, he says it will be paired with another goat atop a “mountain’’ of scrap metal to create what he describes as a “you are what you eat’’ kind of piece — goats made out of trash on a pile of trash.

Norvin insists his environmental message is meant to be gentle. “I’m not a pogrom or anything to save the world,’’ he said. But he does think he can make a difference. “When I put my sculpture out in front of my studio, people respond to it, they react to it,’’ said Norvin. “They want to see art. They want to talk about it. They want to ask me questions. I know there’s a hunger for it out there.’’

The problem, he said, is that those people — including needy kids from the neighborhood and older people interested in sculpture as a hobby — don’t always know where to find an outlet for their creativity. For them, the MFA can be daunting.

“I think mostly there’s an air about the museum that tends to keep people out . . . if they weren’t brought up with art around,’’ he said.

Today, with the help of his wife, Anne Sasser, and former studio mate Ben Todd, Norvin works in a renovated former HVAC shop on Porter Street, down the block from the Sam Adams brewery. In his studio, he fosters a loose, creative atmosphere where anyone is welcome regardless of skill level.

It’s the kind of place where the nonprofit’s board of directors holds meetings around a table in the welding studio over wine, brie, and crackers. It’s the kind of environment where, on a recent Thursday night, Norvin sculpted right alongside his students, advising them only when necessary. He carried on an animated discussion with his nude model, Allison Luke, who seemed totally comfortable discussing Norvin’s statue of Miley Cyrus or his college-age experiments with performance art, while he and his students sculpted her body as she stood on a rotating platform.

“This place has been just absolutely incredible,’’ said Steve Hahn, one of two students to show up for Norvin’s sculpture class that night. The former plumber from Stoughton turned to amateur art after retiring, fixing up his collection of old decorative radiator caps. He realized if he could fix the tiny metal sculptures — an arm here, a wing there — why couldn’t he sculpt a whole figure?

After some experiments of his own, Hahn, 65, found Stonybrook through the MFA’s catalog, and started taking Norvin’s sculpture course to lift his artistic expression to the next level. “I learned how much I didn’t know,’’ Hahn said.

Reaching the youth
So far, Norvin has focused on attracting later-in-life artists like Hahn, as well as former art students looking for the resources they lost after graduation.

“I was doing this in people’s backyards, driveways, working out of garages and basements, wherever I could set up my stuff,’’ Norvin said, explaining that it was often hard to find studio space that could accommodate welding and metal sculpture.

“So I moved around a lot, and it really hurt my artistic career. I wasn’t able to get solid footing,’’ he said.

CAST Boston will continue to provide that footing for art graduates and curious adults. But grabbing the interest of teens — especially the ones who can’t afford the $640 tuition for an eight-week welding course — remains a priority, as well.

“Some of them may not finish high school,’’ he said. “But if they know how to weld, if they have a trade, they can do something with that.’’

On that recent Thursday night, while Norvin taught his class, CAST Boston’s board held its third meeting on the other side of the sculpture studio’s doors. The separation is more than just physical — Norvin has purposely excluded himself from the business side of his vision, entrusting the nonprofit to his wife and a small group of well-connected friends and partners.

“He’s more of the doer, the teacher, the dreamer, the idea man,’’ said Leila Joy Rosenthal, Ralph’s 67-year-old daughter and a member of the studio’s board who also teaches at the MFA.

She has known Norvin since he was a teenager in her father’s art classes, and she said she was drawn to his desire to create while giving back to the community.

“So when Morris had this opportunity and this dream, it was like seeing Dad all over again,’’ she said.

CAST Boston is still in its preliminary stages. They’re waiting for tax forms to go through, but they hope to start collecting funds this summer. Eventually, they’d like to host after-school classes for 60 students per week in Stonybrook’s studios. It’s a small effort, but Rosenthal said focusing on the teenagers is the first step toward stimulating a community of creativity.

It’s a vision Ralph Rosenthal would have appreciated.

“Certainly reaching kids is probably the best way to start building,’’ Leila Rosenthal said, “because that kind of interest is going to be maintained throughout their lives.’’

Alex Spanko is a freelance writer and rising senior at Emerson College. E-mail him at alexspanko@gmail.com.

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