Irving Norman was born Irving Noachowitz on January 10, 1906 in Vilna or Vilnius, a community then under Russian control but now is the capital of Lithuania. As a child, Irving loved to draw and his budding talent was obvious enough to attract the attention of an uncle who promised to send him to school devoted to art. Unfortunately, the advent of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution ended that opportunity. He was instead apprenticed to learn the trade of barbering.

In 1923, at the age of 17, Irving immigrated to the United States to live with relatives in New York City. The size and intensity of the city left Irving with a realization that the optimistic visions he dreamt of for his adoptive country contradicted what he saw and experienced on the streets. He had a deep concern for the poor and disenfranchised and felt a strong call to participate in part of the political movement for social reform. For a brief time, Irving became a member of the Young Communists League working to ease the burden during the years of the Great Depression. By 1934 Irving had left New York City and was co-owner of a barbershop in the small, seaside town of Laguna Beach, California.

Sensing the need not to just talk about the social ideals about which he felt so strongly, Irving volunteered for service in the American Lincoln Battalion and spent 1938, the final tragic year of the Spanish Civil War, as a member of the XV BDE, Lincoln-Washington Machine Gun Company fighting to defend the Spanish Republic against the Fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. The horrors Irving witnessed during that year profoundly affected him for the rest of his life and in large measure was the catalyst that drove him to search for a means of creative expression. Craving solitude, he moved to Catalina to the town of Avalon where he found the time for self-reflection and to attend a life-drawing class where his latent talent began to emerge. 

Irving moved to San Francisco in 1940, motivated by a growing self-confidence in his abilities and an intense desire to learn more about the technical aspects of his craft. He attended the San Francisco School of Fine Arts, studying under William Gaw and Spencer Macky. By 1942 Irving had his first solo exhibition of drawings. In 1945 his first major solo exhibition of drawings and paintings garnered praise as well as an Albert Bender Memorial Prize. With the cash award he returned to New York City in 1946 to study at the Art League with Reginald Marsh and Robert Beverly Hale. During that same year Irving traveled to Mexico to study the paintings that were a major source of inspiration: the large murals of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquerios.

In 1954 Irving met Hela Bohlen, a recent émigré from Germany and married her in January, 1955. From the beginning of their marriage, Irving and Hela came to an agreement: Irving would work on Saturdays to keep his barbering skills sharp while Hela would work during the week allowing Irving the time and freedom to concentrate exclusively on painting. It was evident by the late Fifties and early Sixties that Irving was a rare breed of artist who has the ability and genius to translate his social messages into visual terms with full technical command of whatever medium he wished to use. His work astonished and inspired as well as infuriated art critics and the public alike.

By 1962 Irving and Hela had created a home in the quiet coastal valley of Tunitas Creek, south of Half Moon Bay, California. For 27 years Irving found the isolation he needed to paint, and from his tiny studio he created the majority of his large and highly complex canvases. Irving worked through one idea, one painting at a time. After completing one of his huge works and when his creative energies were depleted, Irving and Hela would drive across the United States or travel overseas, seeking inspiration throughout the world’s great cities and their art museums, or, as Irving described them, our modern-day cathedrals.



Irving Norman, 1987 Photograph by Dirk Bohlen

Irving Norman, 1987 Photograph by Dirk Bohlen

Nine years before his death in 1989, Norman suffered a heart attack. Hela remembers him lying in bed, waiting for the paramedics, “Suddenly, he got a big smile on his face and he turned to me and said, I did what I wanted to do. I did it. Then he just relaxed. It’s probably what saved his life.  I keep thinking of that afternoon. He set his course and just stayed with it. He was a real artist. He felt art could transform people the way religion once did. That’s how important it was to him.”      Elizabeth Pepin, “Irving Norman: Dismantling the War Machine,” Juxtapoz, Winter, 1997

Irving recovered from his heart attack and quickly returned to his routine of a long morning walk, an intense period of painting until Hela returned from work, dinner and conversation, then a return to the studio to study the painting in progress, and plan the next day’s work. It was during one of these late-night moments of contemplation that Irving passed away in July, 1989. He was 83 years old.


Ray Day Productions

For over 34 years I have been recording audio for documentary and commercial video and film productions in the San Francisco Bay area, as well 47 of the 50 states and in 53 countries around the world. Clients have included: National Geographic, NOVA, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian World, World of Audubon, Animal Planet, Imax, American Experience and American Masters. I received my BFA and an MFA in Cinematography in the late 70's after 4 years working as a high-speed research cinematographer in the US Navy from 1971-75. Please visit my website at raydayproductions.com