The art of Kipp Normand Kipp Normand’s studio at the Harrison Center is a big version of the boxes he makes. History is scattered everywhere there: metal train cars, maple twigs and newspaper clippings organized into dozens of smaller boxes-in-progress on a gray steel counter top; blue glass birds, jars full of marbles and family photographs placed on wooden shelves; crates holding croquet balls, medicine bottles and Shinola shoe polish tins stacked on the cement floor. “Ida the Queen of Hearts” His biggest and most impressive box, “Ida the Queen of Hearts,” is a portrait of Normand’s great-grandmother who died when he was 9 years old. “She was a very elderly woman then, moving house to house, staying with relatives for as long as she could before she wore out her welcome and would have to go someplace else. She was essentially homeless. She always entertained us. She was a wonderful card player. She learned to play cards from some gangster that she worked for ages ago. She could do all kinds of fancy shuffles and fans and cut a deck with one hand. She told fortunes with those cards. She was an incredible cook and house cleaner. She played the piano. “The more I learned about her, the more interesting she became. There was an unusual period in her life in the 1920s when there are very few photographs that exist of her. In 1920, she and her first husband, who was my great-grandfather, had a department store in Bay City, Mich. He died of tuberculosis. My grandmother remembers what it was like to hear her father cough in this little room off the kitchen before he died.” Normand points to a photograph of Ida in a group shot varnished on the back of the box. He has drawn a red circle around her head. “She was born in 1890 and was not a particularly attractive woman. So her motto was, ‘For a girl in her position who was not blessed with great beauty, you had to do one of three things: You had to dress very stylish, cook well or put out.’ She did all three. So she was very popular,” Normand says. A stained-glass window glows from high on the north wall of this high-ceilinged, rectangular space once used as a Sunday school room. Below it, varying lengths of new lumber fill a corner next to a tangle of electric saws and other woodworking tools. Six-foot-high homemade shelves line the east wall. The south wall is reserved for a big mirror and a bulletin board pinned with old advertisements and line drawings. A red velvet curtain makes the west wall. Pull it back and the studio overlooks the Redeemer Lutheran Church sanctuary below, all dark wood washed in colored light from more giant stained glass windows. Sitting on a wicker chair in the middle of his studio, Normand rosins the bow to a violin his parents bought him for lessons in Detroit 30 years ago and begins to play “I’ll Fly Away.” He’s perfect as a living, breathing piece of this box. He’s timeless — modern and antique at once. Normand dresses, cuts his hair and wears the kind of eyeglasses that make him seem like somebody from a John Steinbeck book. But, at 40, he pairs this with the boyishly wide-eyed energy of a man who never stopped sneaking into abandoned buildings to play detective. Miniature museumsNormand, who just finished up the first major showing of his work this month, uses his box-making to investigate who we are as a culture of Midwesterners. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed looking in the back alleys and basements of old buildings. I would find little bits of paper and things people had left behind. They’re all clues to lives of people I may have never known. And they may be long gone,” Normand says, putting his violin back in its black case.
“It’s the history of a community and the history of us as a culture. We’re all the sum total of everyone that’s come before us; ideas and things are all distilled from ideas and writing and artwork and things that were created before we came along. And even the notion of popular culture and things, it’s all part of a development, a flowering, that comes from the things that have been before.”
Normand — who grew up in Detroit and moved to Indianapolis 15 years ago — is, likewise, a product of this past. “I always looked at these boxes as keys to understanding my own life. These are the things that I’ve been taught, notions of my family history,” he says.
But the reliquary boxes — which Normand calls miniature museums — go well beyond his life and his personal obsessions, distinguishing his work from renowned surrealist box-maker Joseph Cornell. “I’m really interested in working with the theme of community. And there are things that I do that suggest redemption,” Normand says. “The idea of home and community are so precious and so transient at the same time.”
But his examinations are not filled with empty nostalgia. Like Cornell’s best work, Normand’s boxes are a bit twisted. “I have a great interest in that kind of edge of society: old carnival acts and circus freak shows and kind of the underworld of society. So sometimes, the themes that I end up touching on are a little dark. There’s a series of small boxes I named after these cheap, fleabag hotels. There were hundreds of them in every city in the Midwest. And that’s where all of the traveling salesmen would stay,” Normand says.
“Sometimes I think about the sort of things that go on in hotels and the old newspaper articles and stuff that I plucked out of basements and things. “So I found these really random headlines about grizzly murders and these sorts of things and combined those and pasted them on the back of these hotel boxes. All of them have pill bottles and old whisky bottles. They’re about drunkenness and suicide. It’s just a little bit weird. People today have a tendency to believe we invented all of these weird and unusual things that people are into. All you had to do is read some old newspapers and you’ll see that things have always been very odd.”
Bottling up this oddness is exactly what Normand does with his boxes, which he started making in earnest a little over a year ago. They work like surreal poems filled with leaping images. “I like to take things that are one thing and put them in a different context so that they become something else.”
Triggering memorieseSome of Normand’s boxes can be read like fractured narratives, asking the viewer to examine the encased artifacts to figure out a storyline. Many of these even have stories written by Normand pasted on the backs, like the rules to a board game printed inside the lid. Other boxes offer sparse clues that create a feeling through the viewer’s associations to the objects.
“Sometimes, I want the boxes to be somewhat enigmatic and let the viewer bring to them whatever they see. The objects and things that are in these boxes — there are all kinds of associations you bring. Some of them are iconic. Whenever you see a cigar label or something, whatever connotations are going to come with that. Or the religious figures that I use sometimes. Or even the old photographs of people. That immediately triggers 100 memories,” he says. “That might be based on the experience of the viewer when they look at this object — having nothing to do with what I was thinking when I put it in the box.”
Also like poems, his boxes function as a way to capture time — taking life’s moments and feelings and experiences and bottling them up as frozen images. “So many of the places I’ve been in — a lot of the buildings in Detroit and a lot of the buildings in Indianapolis I was in shortly before they were demolished or as they were coming down,” says Normand, who has worked his entire career in historic preservation and currently lends his expertise to South East Neighborhood Development in Fountain Square.
“You know that the people who constructed those things 90 or 100 years ago really thought they were building something amazing that was going to last for a very long time. They had this grand thought. To see how quickly it’s reduced to refuse, it’s amazing. It kind of gives me a much better feeling for my position in the world and the position of humanity as a whole. We don’t have a long time. It’s humbling and exciting at the same time.”
Even with his strong feelings about preserving the past, Normand doesn’t usually set out with a specific agenda for his boxes. He just starts them in the studio with a little of this and a little of that. “It’s sort of the audition place. It’s fun to play with the stuff, it really is — moving it around,” he says.
For Normand, the collecting and pairing up can be the most enjoyable part of the project. “Sometimes I think of myself as an editor or an art director. There’s this huge collection of stuff everywhere. I might walk into an old building and find this one scrap of paper on the floor that somehow is saying something to me,” he says. “Or I might just like the color. Often times, it’s triggered by a word or some piece of text or image. I just enjoy the process because it’s so much more than making the box. The process, for me, is the collecting of the objects and the images. The box just becomes the product of that.”
Dirt under fingernailsNormand finds the pieces for his boxes in a variety of ways. Much of it comes from “trash picking.” Sometimes friends make donations. “People have started just leaving things on my front porch,” he says. “Sometimes I come home and there will be offerings.” He also gets material from Tim Harmon of Tim and Avi’s Salvage Store — as well as buying occasional items at flea markets and junk and antique stores.
“I would love to create this romantic fantasy that I find these things. But I really do go out and buy things,” he says. “Sometimes I end up spending quite a lot of money on things. But the majority of it is things that would be valueless to anyone else.”
Just as he constantly searches for and collects items to put inside of his boxes, Normand is always looking for boxes — or material for building boxes. “Sometimes I’m really lucky to find some that I can move into easily or build onto and sometimes I have to make them from scratch,” he says.
It’s nearly impossible to tell the found boxes from the ones made in his studio. “I am really careful to cover the edges of the plywood so you can’t tell,” he says. “I want to make these boxes kind of ambiguously old. I want it to appear that you can’t give them a fixed date.” So he’ll add older materials to the newly made boxes — maybe some crown molding salvaged from a torn-down home. “I always embellish them in some way. I might take what started out as a dresser drawer or an old cheese box and add moldings to it or add finials and somehow make it more architectural,” he says.
As a person who works part of his days in front of a computer in a cubicle, Normand loves the hammers-and-nails aspect of building his boxes. Like their contents, the physical construction connects him to his past. “I love to make stuff. I enjoy getting dirty. Sometimes I cut my hands on broken glass or get scratched by a piece of rusted metal. I love that,” he says.
“My dad was a welder. When I was a kid, I went to kind of a snotty high school and I used to be embarrassed by the fact that under my dad’s fingernails was always black. His hands were always dirty. My mother’s father was a mechanic as well and his hands were always dirty. And it’s just now that I look at someone with dirty hands and see that as a badge of honor. You’ve earned that.
“It’s something that I really like about the physical work of making these things. Granted, none of them are useful in any way. They’re just little amusements. But I really feel I’m part of that process of manufacturing. Doing this is very gratifying for me.”