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Shape Shifter 

More Than Just Art

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By Cheryl Ross

Norym is checking out the artwork in the lobby of the American Medical Association building at Grand and State. He's making sure the collages and photos are all in place, mounted on easels along the south wall's soaring windows. The photos are portraits, all of the same man, in glamorous costumes and with clumps of jewels fixed to his forehead like talismans. Today, the opening day of the exhibit, Norym is dressed quietly in a navy suit and oval eyeglasses. The only clue that he might be the extravagant figure in the photos is his jewel-encrusted bow tie.

One photo shows Norym naked to the waist. His long straight hair is slightly tousled, and angel wings sprout from his shoulders. The name "Norym" runs down the left border of the photo, and under the figure is the slogan "To earn your wings you must dream. To fly you must hold on to your dreams." He's looking off into the distance toward someplace, it seems, far away. "Life is a type of performance," Norym says softly, explaining the pictures. "If we continue to push every day, with our dreams, they will eventually take center stage and will perform, will execute themselves."

ooo

Norym spends a lot of his time hanging around the Gold Coast, in trendy restaurants where a celebrity might grab a bite. We met at the 3rd Coast to talk about his show. Though we sat inside he wore sunglasses. He brought along samples of his work. His collages are fantastical pieces that use paint, magazine cutouts, faux jewelry, wood, and other objects. Two of them--one showing a bare-chested woman, another a woman's face crafted from copies of one-dollar bills--have been used as illustrations in Playboy. The photos, conceived by Norym, were taken by a local photographer at Norym's instigation. He said the texts that accompany them were inspired by conversations he's had with local notables, including U.S. District Court judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. He showed me a photo of himself and the judge, standing together.

Norym says the exhibit is about how we should "look inside of ourselves to see what it is we have to contribute, and not allow social conforms to make us fit into a particular structure. That's primarily what I'm about." He added, "Exactly why I am who I am, it's hard to say."

Norym said he was born on the south side, but didn't like to specify where. "I don't want to talk about it, where I grew up." By now he had taken off his sunglasses, revealing that his eyes were colored gray with the help of contact lenses.

He considers himself multiracial, he said. He knows he has aborigine, Irish, and Creole blood. That's on his mother's side. As for his father's side of the family? "I never delved in, so I can't specifically say. I guess," he said, looking pained, "you could consider him African-American."

Norym said the persona represented in the photos has no strong racial or sexual identity: "It's a way of expressing that we're all a part of each other." He first took on the persona about ten years ago, when he was hanging out in Minneapolis. Back then, he went by his real name, Myron Hartsfield. But Minneapolis inspired him to experiment.

It was his first time away from home, with the exception of a stint in boarding school as a teenager. He said the transformation was gradual: First he reversed the spelling of his first name and started to wear theatrical makeup. Sometimes he painted his face completely white or black, embellishing it with colorful designs. He said he wore a long, embroidered red silk robe and faux jewels on his forehead--pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, gold, silver. He'd always associated jewels with wisdom. He said for two years, he dressed this way whether he was going to the store, riding the bus, taking tea in a restaurant, whatever. People on the street were very curious.

"If they weren't asking for pictures, then they would come in a very serious way and really question what does it mean," Norym said. "It would open up some dialogue and it went across every social barrier."

He recalled a day on a Minneapolis lakefront when two women came up to him and asked if he were from the spirit world. He says the three of them talked about art, religion, politics, prayer, the weather.

Another time, he was in a gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. When Norym switched positions in his chair, a man who'd been standing near him fled from the room. The fellow had thought Norym was an art object.

Then there was the time on the train when he was coming home to Chicago. "I remember a person boarding and looking at me and looking around for another seat," he said. "He actually decided to go to the next car or something. That was a little dramatic."

In the fall of 1995, Norym, who had long since been back in Chicago, decided it was time to make a record of his persona. He called Michael Voltattorni, a photographer whose work he had seen in Chicago Social. Voltattorni had never met Norym, but he was intrigued by the project. He agreed to take the photos for free.

One day a month, Norym would go to Voltattorni's studio to shoot. All the costumes and ideas were Norym's; Voltattorni says he was just a technician. In February of this year, a year and more than 500 photographs later, the two men wrapped up their project. It went on display at the AMA building in September.

Norym says it's more than just art he's showing there; he's displaying himself. "It's not an act," he says. "It's not a performance."

ooo

When Norym hangs out around the Gold Coast, he sits and talks with friends, drinks tea, watches people, or reads for hours. He hasn't had a day job in years, he says, with the exception of occasional temp work. His schedule recently changed a bit--he's studying philosophy at DePaul.

At the end of a typical day, Norym picks up the Broadway bus on State Street and rides it down to Lake, where he transfers to the Orange Line. He takes the train out to the Ashland stop, then waits there for the number nine bus. He rides that south about 30 blocks, past the Swap-o-Rama flea market, the discount stores, the currency exchanges, till he gets to 60th Street, in Englewood.

There's a spiffy-looking fire station on one corner, a used-car lot with an office in a trailer on another; a boarded-up building, a convenience store, and a ribs-and-chicken joint complete the scene. Norym walks over a block to a residential strip of homes and vacant lots. Neighbors say the lots formerly held houses that were beyond repair, some harboring illegal activities. Norym winds up at a cute bi-level brick house. It has been his family's home for 27 years. They've lived in the neighborhood for 40.

Norym, who is 46, lives at home with his mother, 81-year-old Marie Hartsfield. When I visited him there, he sat clear across the living room from his mother. He didn't say much.

Mrs. Hartsfield said that as a little boy her son hardly ever spoke. When he had something to say, he'd write a letter and give it to the family. She said she remembers him standing on a stool in the house, singing and reciting poetry. He made collages and put jewels on them--a couple of things disappeared from her jewelry box. She said he never shared the family's love of African-American culture.

When it came time for high school, he didn't like going and failed classes. When the first high school didn't work out, they sent him to a boarding school in Lexington, Mississippi, where his grades improved slightly. He still hated school, and after many anguished phone calls, the family brought him back home.

"So I went to the Board of Education with him and I said, 'I want to know why it is that he doesn't want to go to school,'" she recalled. "'Can he learn?' So they gave him tests all day and finally, whoever it was gave the tests came out and told me we're not going to tell you that you have a genius, but he sways more to that side. They said leave him alone and he'll do what he wants to do. And so then, I didn't bother."

When he came back from Minneapolis dressed up as his new character, she thought it was weird. "But I didn't bother him because that was his thing," she said. "I just took it with a grain of salt."

She looked over at her son, attired in dressy slacks, a blazer, and his jeweled bow tie, and said with a laugh, "Right now he's dressed like this. I don't know what he's going to be dressed like in the next few months."

She said she didn't know about his current exhibit until a couple of weeks ago. "I saw a lot of his work going out the door. And I said, 'What are you doing?' I didn't know if he was moving out or what. He said, 'I'm getting ready for an exhibit.' That's all he said. And he didn't tell me you were coming until a few minutes ago. He just doesn't talk very much about what he's doing.

"I still don't know where the exhibit is going to be, because he just doesn't talk about it," she continued. "Then after it's all set up, then he'll say, 'Well, I have an exhibit at such and such a place.' Then I'll have a chance like the rest of the people to go and see it."

She learned about her son attending DePaul in typical fashion. "He almost had it sewed up when I found out," she said. "But I have to tell the truth. Myron, aren't I telling the truth? He just doesn't talk too much about what's going on."

On the bus headed back toward downtown, Norym said he feels like Englewood is a different planet; he feels like he fits in on the north side. For a year in the early 90s, he was able to live out that dream: thanks to a sponsor who believed in his artwork, Norym says, he lived and created collages in an apartment on the Gold Coast.

He wishes he were there now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Norym photo by Nathan Mandell/ studio photos by Michael Voltattorni.

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