For the past decade or so, I have been an avid camper. Ever since that first trip out to Georgian Bay with my high school’s art’s department, I’ve been hooked. Nature is awesome when people haven’t moved in a wrecked it.
I try to avoid the big holiday weekends, choosing instead to head out either the week before or the week after the holiday weekend. This way, the traffic is a whole lot better, parking is plentiful, gear rental is assured, and popular camp sites are deserted. The spots I typically head to are quite remote, but I still run into the occasional camper if I am out during a holiday weekend. And it just doesn’t feel like camping when other people are near by. I need that ‘middle of nowhere’ feeling.
On this trip, I broke my usual rule when my friend Mindy invited me to something very special: camping at Norman White’s place.
Norman White left the Ontario College of Art and Design before I had a chance to study under him, (he now teaches at Ryerson) but I did hear a lot about his projects, turning him into a bit of a legend in my mind. Although I never studied under him, I am fortunate enough to have friends who did get a chance to work with Norm. These friends of mine like to go camping. Norm has a big May 24 weekend camping party at his place every year, and all of his former students and co-workers are invited. That’s how I got in.
After an early morning and not nearly enough sleep, a rental van that was about two sizes too small arrived at my front door. I loaded up my gear, then we hit the road.
During the drive up, my phone vibrated for a second before emitting an obnoxious tune.
“Kyle! it’s Brad, wanna head over to my place for some fireworks?”
“Sorry man, I’m 2 hours away, heading up to Norm White’s for a weekend of camping”
“Norm?” asked Brad, “The name sounds so familiar, yet I can’t quite but a face to it”
“It’s Norm… the Helpless Robot guy!”
There was a long pause, then Brad’s voice dramatically increased in volume. “You are going to go camping with the Norman White and you didn’t invite me to go along with you? I think I might want to hurt you!”
“Ha! You know Brad, you are the second person to threaten me for not being invited”
Norm lives in an old mill that has been converted into a home studio. The place is best described as being an old musty barn filled with awesome. The property backs onto a beautiful river surrounded by trees and old rural architecture. But it isn’t isolated and out-of-the-way, it’s actually on one of the main streets, so all the necessities are within walking distance. Quite the ideal set up. The first order of business was the tour. His home felt like a 4-story version of Active Surplus, but with more couches.
I was initially a little uncomfortable. I felt like a bit of a third wheel, or an intruder. I was the friend-of-a-friend who just happened to show up to the party. I didn’t know the man, and I wasn’t specifically invited. This feeling did not last for long. Within seconds of talking to Norm, I was put at ease. Norm is very welcoming, very accommodating, genuine and generous.
He is not fancy or pretentious at all. He reminded me of a website with no markup or formatting, just content. No bloat, just the goods.
In conversation, he was quick and direct, with a remarkable ability to make complicated ideas seem easy. It’s almost like he just takes information and puts it directly in your brain. He doesn’t work the info into a story, but instead summarizes complexity into quick memorable phrases that stick with you.
Norman has influenced a lot of people through his long career of working as an artist, while teaching and working with other artists. Many of the fellow campers were big artists themselves. (But I’m not going to name drop.) I was surrounded by a group of international artists working in Berlin and New York. There were a lot of interesting and distinguished people present. There were many good conversations going on, and a lot of very good humour. Artists are a lot of fun to be around when ‘showing art’ isn’t the reason for bringing them together.
After returning from a long hike through the woods, I started cooking up some sausages. I offered one to Norm. After taking his first bite, he commented that the best part of hosting these camping trips is how he doesn’t have to do anything. People do his dishes and cook for him, he just sits back and enjoys it.
I talked about my background, starting OCAD just one year too late to have him as an instructor, and how I worked for a year to save up to do art full time. He really liked that, and told me that was how he got started, always doing one random job to build up a good savings account, then doing art untill he was broke once again before picking up a new job. This was very encouraging for me.
The conversation moved back to OCAD, and he asked if I had taken any classes with Doug Back. Norm described Doug as a gem at OCAD, a professor who no student should miss. I was lucky enough to have Doug twice. We talked about Doug’s passion and enthusiasm, and his unique ability to draw fantastic work out of his students.
When our conversation was over, my friends were eager to get back on the road. I thanked Norm once again for everything. He thanked me for coming along, and extended an invitation to show up anytime I’m in the area.
It was truly a great weekend. There is no other way to describe it.