D E PA RT I N G FAC U LT Y b y M a r k L i n d b e rg , U p p e r S c h o o l t h e a t e r t e a c h e r
“God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master,” a gift book inscription in Rattigan’s play, The Browning Version, feels not so old-fashioned when considering the BB&N career of retiring Upper School art teacher John Norton. For 33 years John has been a vital part of a dynamic Visual Arts team. Though “enthusiasm” is often the ﬁrst descriptive word proffered by his colleagues, for three decades of students who have known him, “gentle master” has been the essence of John Norton.
He began his BB&N career in an award-winning building on the rise behind the old ice rink. Those of you with longish memories will know the award had been for the best dwelling built for under $9,000. To qualify it must have been deemed prudent to keep costs down by eliminating caulking from the windows, tarpaper from under the roof shingles, and insulation. There was a cramped, leaking, very cold or very hot atrium. The studios were 10 minutes away from classrooms and some art classes only 40 minutes in length. But an eager, enthusiastic John Norton boosted enrollment in Painting & Drawing from the low teens to thirty, then forty-ﬁve. He added Design and then Architecture, took charge of The Vanguard, advised, department chaired, and never let a week pass without cheering on a team from the sidelines before heading home. Every day was a great day to teach, a great day for art, a great day to be with kids. “Let’s play two” was his mantra, the Arts Department’s Ernie Banks. The building was razed to make way for the Nicholas Athletic Center. While we geared up a campaign for funding new studios, art classes found a temporary home in three doublewide trailers with ﬂuorescent tubes and plastic walls. John, ever the “if you have a lemon, make lemonade guy,” hid the walls with student work and hung their art from the ceiling. The trailers were connected by a wooden expanse of deck and John’s classes spilled out of doors and established that deck as a vital center of energy and activity that at times rivaled the athletic center as a place kids loved to be. He’s carried that energy to the third ﬂoor, industrial-chic loft studio in Renaissance Hall, which many of you need to visit because it has been and will be still a very exciting place where kids engage with art. And what is amazing about John is that after 30-plus years, the intensity is still there. Intensity and caring and boyish enthusiasm. “Boyish” not in its recent political North Carolina-biological-at-birth meaning but in the Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer/barefoot boy with a cheek sense of innocent (mostly) adventure. Because that is what John has brought to every class ﬁve days a week for 33 years. Every class. If you’ve been in the studio with John you’ve watched him, daily, lift up (metaphorically) an old log in the woods or a rock in a tide pool. The kids are gathered around and while the eager ones are reaching for a worm or a jellyﬁsh to draw or to draw on or to draw with, the more timid are being encouraged by John to feel the periwinkle crawling up the wrist, and then the hermit crab and then….