Norbert Blei – Watercolor Artist | by Jude Genereaux

16 03 2015

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Norbert Blei | Watercolor Artist by Jude Genereaux

I wonder how many of Norb’s readers know, along with all else he accomplished, that he was a prolific water color artist?

Particularly in the late 1970-80’s, Norb turned to painting when he needed to refresh his spirit or give his driven energies a break from the keyboard. On a narrow, tall table behind his writing desk, he laid a simple 23”x 18” flat board where he stood to paint. The only photo I’ve ever seen of him so engaged is found on the back of his book “Paint Me A Picture, Make Me a Poem”, taken in a time zone when he wore his hair long, falling to his shoulders.

The most well known of his paintings may be his collection “Die Mauer”, a series on the Berlin Wall. After returning from a trek to Germany at the time “the Wall” was being dismantled, Norb was haunted by the artful grafitti covering the west side of it. What began as a simple painting to commemorate it for himself, grew into an obsession – in the end he found he’d amassed 46 paintings! Arlene LewAllen, Norb’s close friend and art gallery owner in Santa Fe, was so excited to learn of Norb’s creation that early in 1993 she had him send them to her to be framed and hang in her gallery in Santa Fe. In April, 1993, Norb flew to Santa Fe to host an Opening to show his work, presenting a narration of how the series came to be and talk on the individual pieces.

I later found buried under piles of video and cassette tapes, one of only two VCR tapes that were made of this notable event; be assured copies were made, initially VCR, then transferred to CD’s for the family, a few friends and – history. Many of these provocative and moving paintings were sold, but a number of the Berlin Wall series remain in storage.

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Prolific as this collection was – there were others … SO! many others, ranging widely from the whimsical to the erotic, from his early years of experimental dabbling:

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through borrowings from his favorite artists, Henry Miller, Ken Patchen, Marc Chagal:

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Cover of “Once I Loved Him Madly” | click the image to enlarge…

Over the years Norb’s work evolved into adept expressions of his experiences and personal history. He used painting to express emotional zones he was prone to, naming his collections as he became gripped by them. Some exposed dark side fascinations, as in the “Mr Death” collections:

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One collection sprung from years of growing up as a “Catholic Boy”:

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Others he referred to as the “Angel” series, “Southwest”, “Santa Fe” and “Three Women”.

Norb worked poetry and emotion into much of his work:

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The “Tango Dancers” are among my favorites –

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Norb also painted expansively of Eros … anyone knowing Norbert Blei recognized he was a romantic, a poet, a man in love with life and art; his water colors reflect this.

Norbert Blei

Coyote Woman

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The King and Queen of Bohemia” | click the image to enlarge…

Much of Norb’s work has been sold, but probably far more was given to friends and fellow writers, becoming treasures in private homes from here to California. Some remains in storage. All of his work is a treasure, and “Another facet of Blei”, not everyone knew existed.

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“These paintings are not souvenirs. They are small joys, dreams, meditations, mystical journeys, adorations of the private sort for those seeking what they know not. It is not my business to paint. Just paint.” “The Watercolor Way” Norbert Blei





Jude Genereaux | New Years Eve. Our Way.

29 12 2014
Jude Genereaux & Norbert Blei

Jude Genereaux & Norbert Blei

New Years Eve. Our Way.

There are those of us “quiet people” in the world who’ve spent lifetimes avoiding the hardy HOoHaH of New Year’s Eve. We choose instead to scurry off together after the festivities of Christmas slow down, to savor the peace of just being a duo again. To seek out some place special to share hours of reflection and renewal, in the quiet of winter evenings infused with beauty and light.

This was our deeply held tradition, Norbert’s and mine. We tagged New Years Eve as our own, and escaped to: Milwaukee! The best kept secret in the mid-west. Milwaukee. City of old and treasured buildings and architecture, abundant with ethnic restaurants of every culture, gifted with the world famous Calatrava addition to the Art Museum – and boldly glittered & lit as festive as a city can be. Most surprising: there was somehow a quietness that cocooned the East Side as we walked the snowy sidewalks at night.

As much of a Chicago person as one can be, Norb still came to love Milwaukee. It was something we discovered and made Ours together. More negotiable in scale (and expense), and an easy drive from home in Door County. We could be there in a three short hours, to check into our favorite corner room at the (former) Park East, where we could walk to the museum and numerous galleries nearby. Walk to breakfast at the Plaza or the old Knick; walk past gracious brownstone homes and glorious churches, through the beautiful neighborhood of the East Side. Walk to dinner at the Lakeside, the County Clare Irish Pub or if we were lucky enough to be there on a Friday – through the city square’s brightly lit park to Elsa’s for giant shrimp and broccoli & honey-mustard sauce.

Afternoons were for bookstores. The old Schwartz bookstore (now Boswells) on Downer and the classic “Woodland Patterns” on Locust. Once inside, Norb could only be lured out by a good movie ~ or two … all the films that never made it north to the Door, we’d catch up on at the Oriental or on Downer Street. In between, to wander through Sendiks wonderful grocery to oogle the beautifully fresh produce, and never! missed stopping at Glorioso’s on Brady Street – an Italian deli loaded with wonder.

New Years Eve dinner itself? Only one place for that. “Three Brothers”- from Serbia. The Burek and Serbian salad – incomparable. Not everyone might “get” the ambience of its old country charm, but Norb cozied in like a cat in a cushion. Before all the new road work, it was nearly impossible to find – our first time, we drove in circles through south Milwaukee until nearly giving up, though thankfully we did not. Just a few years ago, one of the founding brothers, Branko Radicevik (now 91), joined us at our table to talk history and recipes with Norb. We did not know it would be our last time.

Norbert Blei & Branko Radicevik

Norbert Blei & Branko Radicevik

One crucial stop remained before returning to our room to watch the New Year’s Eve ball drop in New York. A cab ride took us to the Pfister Hotel for after dinner scotch in the luscious golden lobby, relishing the beauty of the room and Jeff Hollander on the baby grand. Then to the top – the Blu Room, where a jazz trio normally held forth. We finished our kind of New Year’s Eve surrounded by just the right amount of glitter, soft sexy jazz, city lights and – the quietness we treasured, just the two of us.

Time is a river, rolling and roaring and whisking away our days … days that rush at us in abundance, tumbling forth one after another as if they’ll never end. They do. Our New Years Eves were high in treasure, and memory. Friends have followed our lead and some now walk these same paths; I’d ask that you remember us in our favorite haunts ~ that’s what I’ll be doing on New Years Eve.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection” ~Anaїs Nin.

Alchemy: a mingling; the medieval chemical science, object of which was to transmute base metals into gold, to discover the universal cure for disease and means of indefinitely prolonging life.

Alchemy

A frosty New Year’s morning
from a corner window, our favorite room
we watch the Calatrava salute
a new morning sun.

Sea smoke rolls off Lake Michigan,
the famous blue flame flags our cold walk
to the Plaza for coffee & eggs & early chatter.
Streets lined with brownstone mansions,
gothic churches and cafes steeped
in scent of the old country.
We wander through bookstores
the riverfront; the Oriental at two o’clock.

City lights dot & glitter the night sky as our
cab delivers us to the warmth of golden lobbies
beckoning “come inside”;
Pfister’s piano man teases longing and
memory from ivory & shadow
the tower turns, blue jazz on top.

We start again
open as Calatrava’s wings.

~ Jude Genereaux

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei





Warren P. Nelson | Poem for Norbert Blei

14 12 2014
Warren Nelson at Big Top Chautauqua © Sophia Hantzes

Warren Nelson at Big Top Chautauqua © Sophia Hantzes

This is a poem for Norbert Blei, great friend of mine, a soulmate of Wisconsin transported from Chicago. Norbert lives in Door County where for many years he has practiced his great writing art in the conscience of our times. I admire (as do so many) his incredible voice lifting through his writings, and his presence in the landscape of what was and could be. Norbert has SPINE! Like his books written under the hat of his name. He is a Wisconsin treasure with a hark to the nation. Besides his own incredible works, he has published through his Cross+Roads Press many books of poems and prose of other writers who deserve attention. He works out of his “Coop” but he’s no chicken of a voice. More like a rooster crowing to the day to wake up! Google Norbert and begin your way into his world if you aren’t yet familiar.

NORBERT BLEI – March 26, 2010

Codger, a dodger, confidence trickster-
Keeper of Wisconsin.
Writer, let’s know, of great Wisconsin wrongs.

I would lay light that his work
Unpaving a road through Door County
Will whisk dust up for young writers to come to
Find voice and camp there in their own
With a consciousness of no conciliations,
Follow their bare bones loosening the bullshit
To fit this new world that frighteningly forgets the old.
Prose man, poet blender.
Sender off to the world
His great working gifts.

A presence lifted from Illinois
Took the flyway of Lake Michigan
And built a nest as eagles do north
Where all can be seen from.

Perched in his coop to
Sway swoop down on any day.
Craft steeped like how-ever-old-he-is whiskey.
You can smell it on his breathway-
The truth.

Honor to the deep in shallow politics.
He is editing our time,
The anger all behind a voice of sweetness.

Plow the road.
Like that crazy crooked county road
That hauls all to the landing across from
Washington Island.
Jesus, who platted that?
Only one who can laugh along the way.

Norbert Blei ferries himself across
All of us.

Warren P. Nelson





Paula Kosin | On Losing a Teacher, Losing a Friend Norbert Blei (1935-2013)

13 12 2014
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Stories at birth, before birth, every moment of our lives to the end. We breathe telling tales. And then what happened? The story ends? The story never ends. We are immortal. We are myth. We remember. — Norbert Blei (August 23, 1935 – April 23, 2013)

Your coop in the woods,
so like you,
stacked floor to ceiling
precious books
unfinished manuscripts
correspondence from friends
a million compelling projects.
You had a bucket list
decades long,
driven by intense urgency.
So many things to do,
to learn to write to teach
and, always, to challenge.
So many conversations to savor,
seasons to welcome,
seasons to weather
in your beloved Door.
You used to wish me:
Nazdar! Be well!
Now I pledge to you:
Na shledanou!
Until we see each other again.

I knew Norb through his articles in the Chicago Tribune during the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was in high school and college, and this man’s writing made that kind of impact on me. I had always wondered what happened to him, since his byline disappeared from the paper. (Of course, that’s when he moved up to Door County.) In 2003, in preparation for my first trip to the Door, I eventually came to The Clearing’s website. Scanning the list of classes, I clicked on Writing Workshop — and there was Norb! I immediately emailed him, asking if he was available to meet with me to discuss my possibility of attending his class that next summer. That weekend we met over a beer, and talked of both his class and of “the old neighborhood.” You see, my grandparents and parents – and large extended family – are from Cicero, Illinois, the ethnic Czech/Bohemian/Polish culture so beautifully captured in Norb’s Tribune articles and book, Neighborhood. Since then, I have had the opportunity to be in several of his classes and a couple of weekend workshops up on Washington Island. I knew from the minute I saw his picture on that Clearing website, I had been given a second chance. And I took it.

To leave this world with a perpetually unfinished long list of things you still want to do — and no unfinished business with the people in your life…well, I think that’s the way to go. — Paula Kosin

 





Warren Bluhm | The spirit of Norbert Blei remains in this place

12 12 2014
Norbert Blei

Ralph Rausch – Photo taken from the back cover “Adventures in an American’s Literature by Norbert Blei – The Ellis Press, 1982

They came to remember; they came to praise; they came to celebrate a man; they came to celebrate this place, and they came to remember the man who described what a special place it was as it was becoming what it is — often with alarm, always with love.

Saturday was a beautiful Door County day, the gardens at Peninsula Players Theatre were growing lush in the early summer sun, and the highways were comfortably filled with travelers on their way to a destination and friends coming here to pay tribute to Norbert Blei, who died April 23 at age 77.

As the Rev. Michael Brecke put it, Blei was a newspaperman, teacher, artist, poet, and critic, “calling us to task when we stopped loving the land and the water in this place,” and a writer.

“He wrote about the characters in this place and then became one,” said Brecke, who also noted Blei’s gravestone reads, “Find me in my books.”

And for an hour or so, they did: Each of the speakers who shared personal experiences about how he had moved their lives also read a bit from his books.

When Tim Stone first came to Door County, he was told by the locals that “if we ever had a prayer of being one of them, we had to read his books.”

And in Blei’s books they found wisdom — Robert Zoschke read “It’s good to pause now and then and see where the hell you were at” and advice not just for writers but all of us — “the important thing is to get the work done.”

They spoke of the man who would write in his converted chicken coop and teach about the writer’s passion at the Clearing and sit at the counter at Al Johnson’s with a cup of coffee, listening and talking.

“I know that there is a coffee table in heaven and I know that they may have a seat for Norb, but I’m sure he’ll elbow his way in and take over in a short time,” said Annika Johnson, who brought along one of the family’s goats named Beelzebub.

“I love his words, I love his voice, I love his mustache,” Julian Hagen said simply before launching into his song “Northern Light,” and Jeanne Kuhns sang “A Song for Norb,” and Pete Thelen and Jay Whitney led a rousing rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” adopted to Door County.

Stone noted that when the Clearing was struggling for survival in 1985, Blei wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune, “Door County’s Clearing: A Secret School in the Woods for Adults,” the reservations began to come in and Jens Jensen’s amazing vision was secured for another generation. There was much talk about the iconic teacher who worked hard to prepare his classes and stayed late at the Clearing to give each aspiring writer personal attention.

But then Bridget Buff came up, and her voice struggled against the tears as she talked about the man who would read to her as she sat in his lap, and make enormous breakfasts and walk her to the bus stop, and mail letters to her even when they lived in the same house, and how “he loved winter and I did not.”

And that was when we remembered the legendary icon was also a man who loved his daughter and his son Christo. The poet who captured the soul and the people of Door County was also a daddy; in fact Norb Blei first came here in 1969 to give them a special place to grow up.

“His home, his heart and his spirit are here forever, and he wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bridget said.

Nor would we.

Warren Bluhm – Wednesday, July 3, 2013





Richard Purinton | NORBERT BLEI 1935-2013

12 12 2014
Detroit Harbor, Washington Island

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island

I’ve got things to do today, but I find it hard to start on any one of them before first getting this out of my system, if that is possible to do with a few words. But, it’s the best way, for now.

When word came that Norbert Blei passed away yesterday morning, an event many knew was only a matter of days, even hours in coming, a sense of peace came over me. He had struggled with life itself these past months and seemed frustrated at not having his energy back to do the many things he had started or mentally committed to doing.

Thinking back on what grabbed me most about Norb, it was his passion for taking on more than he should, or could do at one time, then quickly building enthusiasm for his next project. And sometimes it was “their” project, or my project, not necessarily his own. He was not a fence-rider or wall flower. He had both feet in, at once, and something about this rubbed off on me, his need to get on with what seems to reside deeply within in order to provide an avenue for expression.

He was both friend and teacher, not that he taught me in any formal sense, and not that we often got together to visit. But, when we did visit the conversation flowed easily and his eyes lit up over nearly any topic, and he became both teacher and friend. Even when his emotion was disgust or anger, his eyes brightened and his words flowed until the subject changed, then he started on the new topic. He was quiet, thoughtful and compassionate, too, but it was the way in which expressed passion for where he lived, and the people he came in contact with, the literature he was reading at the moment, that sticks with me.

As for teacher? I never received a critique from him, never any comment specific enough to make me want to start over or head in a new direction. A few questions from Norb seemed enough. In this unassuming way, he pointed me in new directions and gave me resolve to try harder and dig deeper.

I wouldn’t be writing this piece today – or any essay for that matter – if it weren’t for his silent encouragement, the idea that it is possible for me to write and publish. Write to make a difference, and write to give expression to ideas. There was that pair of dark eyes, and a soft voice muffled by mustache, over my shoulder then, as now. He became a comforting critic, a voice inside my head.

In recent years Norbert took photos and posted them. Some of his photos were excellent, others ordinary, but each showed he was on the job, still working, still an observer. These mostly arrived on my computer screen without words, other than his one-line description. A noticeable loss of energy was seen in those photos, but he still satisfied an urge to be out there, using all of his senses to connect with those he knew – and they were hundreds, if not thousands, in internet terms. On line, this teacher of poetry and literature had a huge audience.

On this day I choose a photo of hundreds of ducks along the shore of Detroit Harbor, remnants of ice still lingering here and there. I think it might look this way in Europe Lake today, too, near Norb’s home, or wherever he drove on his morning rounds when thinking about this place, the seasons and the cycles of life that take place in and around us.

My file photos of Norbert are from the past two years, a time when he was either sick or recovering from serious illness, and they won’t do justice to this man of vigor, energy and quickness. Instead, I’ll retain his image, a vital Norbert Blei with his quiet voice, in my head. – Dick Purinton, Wednesday, April 24, 2013








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