“I mean, look at this. This is my favorite one, right there.”
There was tape on the museum floor that Sirron Norris pretty much just ignored, stepped over, and pointed at the details of the painting – Eyvind Earle’s “Where Eagles Fly” (1993). In it, a dense, dark forest covers a tumbling cliffside as white mist seeps in from the left. Norris clutched his head, as though in disbelief, then motioned again to the image.
“I mean, how could you not want to look at this like everyday? It just makes you feel. You know that you’re on Earth. And that’s a beautiful thing. And you know that it’s a special place on Earth.”
Norris knew his way through the galleries of the Walt Disney Family Museum’s retrospective of Earle’s work. As a long-time fan, he had already visited the exhibition of Earle’s natural landscapes and the backgrounds Earle designed for Disney animated films. These last ones are uncanny in their emptiness — their lack of characters.
At first glance, they are works that seem so unlike Norris’ own. In the Mission District, at least, Norris is probably best known as a political artist, or at the very least, one whose bright, cartoonish murals have their roots in the local urban environment. He takes care to populate his city scenes. He did the blue bear wearing the “Bad Hombre” t-shirt at the entrance to Clarion Alley. In his “Victorion: El Defensor de la Mission” in Balmy Alley, a robot built from the Mission’s distinctive Victorian houses fights back against gentrification, and his recent “The Displacement,” at Bryant and 20th, addresses the police killing of Alex Nieto on Bernal Hill in 2014.
Part of what moves him about Earle’s images, Norris said, are their efficiency. Those trees? Earle accomplished them in just two or three brushstrokes. And his foliage is just tiny points of color on a half-domes of black.
“I paint murals, so that means I’m out on the street, I’m doing something very physical. I’m doing something in the public. Ideally, you want to be efficient,” Norris explained. “Because, you want to get out of there. You don’t want to be there forever. It’s taxing. So any way that you can figure out ways to create beautiful art quickly, but with, you know, like this spectacular crescendo.”
The first time Norris looked closely at Earle’s “spectacular crescendo” was ten years ago on a trip to Disneyland. The theme park has a large permanent collection of Earle’s paintings and prints, much of which made its way to the current retrospective exhibit.
“The thing is that we all grew up with Eyvind Earle’s work,” Norris said. “We just didn’t know that we were seeing it.”
Back then, spending time with those works proved revelatory.
Norris stopped in front of “Mountain Cliff.”
“I mean, look at this right here. You know, it’s so awesome, just because we know that these are trees, we’ve seen these trees before, in these big groupings. No, they don’t necessarily make sense, and yet we’re not distracted from it.”
Career-wise, plenty of parallels exist between the two artists. Earle designed backgrounds for classic Disney films, from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Lady and the Tramp.” Norris is the cartoonist behind the charming Victorian storefront on the television show “Bob’s Burgers.”
Plus, Earle enjoyed mass appeal. Norris remembered the ubiquity of his art in the 90s, when, he said, every mall in America sold Eyvind Earle prints. Within the confines of San Francisco’s 46 square miles, Norris’s iconic blue bear is everywhere. Norris said he can go to basically any neighborhood and point out a house that has his work.
Apparently, Norris said, he and Earle even share the same lawyer.
But these are just coincidences. There are more specific debts Norris feels he owes Earle. After that visit to Disneyland a decade ago, Norris began analyzing Earle’s paintings to figure out how they were done. He recreated some of them from scratch, building Earle’s scenes of nature layer by layer. Eventually,he incorporated some of Earle’s imagery into his own murals. He took with him the efficiency strategies.
“I adopted them. I would say steal, but my lawyer’s always like, ‘Don’t say that.’”
It takes a trained eye to see Earle’s work the way Norris learned to. The rest of us might be wrapped up in the minute detail of Earle’s landscape, in the dense, overlapping foliage of coastal Californian scenes, or in the generous shadows dragged across golden hills. What blows Norris’s mind is how — he keeps repeating — efficient it all is. Behind the specificity of each image, Norris says, there are a few carefully chosen brushstrokes; a single line or dot of color; or a pattern, repeated almost mechanically.
One technique Norris has borrowed from Earle is what Norris called reverse. He explained this in detail on the way to the museum, paused at a red light in the hills of Pacific Heights.
“So like, look at this tree in front of us. Now, you know in your head that that tree is green, right? But if you look at that tree, ideally, that tree has more dark green in it than light green. Everything does. I mean, if you look at any of this.”
He waved one arm at the buildings. “It’s gonna have this shadow. It’s gonna have this contrast. And so, what this guy did was he painted with light. Meaning, he painted color on top of black. So it’s almost like a reversal. So instead of saying, ‘I’m going to paint a green tree,’ I’m going to paint a black tree and paint green leaves on it.”
The light turned. Norris pressed on the gas. He continued, “And you get the idea that that is a tree, that it is, like, 4 o’clock, and that the light is kind of slightly casting on top of the tree, casting a little bit of a shadow, but all with just like a couple pointillized lines or dots on top of black. So it was this power you could get just by using these strokes of color on top of a field of solid black. Powerful shit.”
Norris doesn’t consider himself a very “artsy” artist. He attended the Art Institute in Pittsburgh and has completed residencies with the DeYoung Museum and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. But he hasn’t been to the remodeled SF MOMA. Generally, he finds the work in most museums inaccessible. What is he supposed to make of a red square resting alone against a white canvas? What’s the story there? Pieces like that need external narratives to animate them, he thinks. They do not quite stand on their own.
He does try to make it to the Disney Museum every so often. Usually, at least once a year, there is an exhibit there that Norris does not want to miss. When it comes to Eyvind Earle, it is the accessibility, the generosity that moves him. Norris has never met Earle. But, in some sense, Earle has still been a teacher.
“Creating something that looks like it took forever, but you figured out how to do it — ” Norris snapped his fingers, “— like that. This guy did that always.”
Awaking Beauty: The Art of Eyvind Earle is on view until January 8, 2018 Wednesday through Sunday at the Walt Disney Family Museum. 104 Montgomery Street, San Francisco.