MARILU NORDEN, ARTIST

When one looks at an artist’s work, what can one learn about its creator? A review of painter Marilu Norden’s latest pieces reveals a great deal about this artist’s life and passions.

Ancient pueblos and their people, crumbling adobes, stunning Southwest sunsets and the grandeur of New Mexico/Arizona landscapes—all are sources of inspiration for Scottsdale, Arizona, artist Norden. Infusing her oil paintings with pulsating color and strong compositional elements, she captures on canvas the beauty and “spirit” of a scene, “telling a story” and inviting viewers to engage their imaginations and join her on a journey far from the maddening vagaries of everyday life.

The Early Years: Art and Show Business

Born in Calais, Maine, and raised on the East Coast, Norden’s personal journey as an artist began in Columbus, Ohio, when, at age four, she rendered with her crayons a red schoolhouse against a blue sky on the floral wallpaper of her room. Despite the then negative reaction of her minister father and dietician mother, she knew art was a satisfying way to express herself.

“I remember drawing every chance I could get,” says the petite, blonde artist. “But I also went on to discover the joys of acting, singing and dancing in plays in my grammar school in suburban Philadelphia, in high school, college, and in all of my life. So, for me, the visual arts and the performing arts have always been intertwined.”

While in junior high in Baltimore, Maryland, Norden was chosen by her art teacher to represent the school at Baltimore’s renowned Walters Art Gallery. “As a junior docent at the gallery, I led tours of the Renaissance Art collection there,” she says, “and was featured with other student docents in a documentary narrated by Lowell Thomas.” The experience provided the young artist with an appreciation of art though the ages and she yearned to learn more. Her watercolor, pen and ink, and colored pencil renderings showed a strong interest in women’s fashions of the day and of portraiture.

“I’ve often wished I’d persisted in pursuing a professional acting career, starting out when I was younger, but I felt strongly my parent’s disapproval of such a venture, so went along with their support for my studying to be an artist,” says Norden. Graduating from Baltimore’s Eastern High School in 1943, Norden proceeded to study Fine Arts at Syracuse University for two years. “I was enjoying my classes and getting good grades from my art professors. But I remember watching another girl student I admired when she tried out for a play, and although I was not a member of the Drama Department, I wished I could try out, too. There was always that allure, that propensity, which remains today, to express myself both in the visual arts and the theatrical arts.”

New York City and the Genesis of an Award-Winning First Novel

Braving the world of commercial art in New York City in 1945, she shopped her portfolio around to advertising agencies. Here, she was met with affirmation as to her talent, but with no offer of work in that field. So, needing a job, she became a model and salesgirl in the Junior Miss Department at Saks Fifth Avenue by day and in the evenings was a volunteer painter of charcoal portraits of young World War II wounded veterans at one of the city’s hospitals.

In 1946, Norden married her first husband in Stamford, Connecticut, and helped teach classes in his dancing school. She performed ballroom exhibition dancing, provided art for all the programs, met some of the famous people whose TV shows in New York featured her husband’s pupils, and was a star vocalist on New York television’s “Broadway Open House.” She also became the mother of a son and a daughter. When the marriage of five years ended, Norden spent six weeks at a divorce ranch in Reno, Nevada. In 2008, she wrote and published a fictionalized version of that experience in her first novel, UNBRIDLED: A TALE OF A DIVORCE RANCH (Amazon.com), which won two awards for Best Women’s Fiction, both nationally and internationally.

After the divorce in 1951, Norden went to Denver, Colorado, with her two young children and concentrated on her art education by enrolling in a program offered by the Famous Artists Course. Every week, she would study and complete an assignment, then mail it in to receive a return critique of her work from some of the most respected and successful art professionals of the era. This way, she continued with her artistic growth as she cared for her four-year-old son and year-old baby daughter. She also volunteered during this time singing for wounded vets at an Army hospital in Denver.

The Los Angeles Years

California beckoned in the form of Norden’s sister suggesting they share a house together in Brentwood, a suburb of Los Angeles. Here, Norden’s visiting uncle, a missionary to Iran, introduced her to a professor of Oriental Languages at UCLA who hired her to paint a large-scale model of the Himalaya Mountains for a film project. This she accomplished to the professor’s high praise, also painting for him several large Himalayan and Tibetan masks.

Moving with her two children to Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley, Norden pursued a career in television and film as a model, singer and actress and landed her first professional stage role in a musical in Hollywood, where she created large individual pastel portraits of the cast which—during the show’s run—were displayed in the theater’s lobby.

A talent manager arranged for her to study with an eminent vocal coach and this led to her making a recording at Capitol Records in Hollywood with a thirteen-piece orchestra. The recording was a success but its promotion was not. So, with her development as a visual artist on hold while she raised her two children on a small monthly alimony, Norden worked part-time in various sales and medical reception jobs, and was lead singer for a two-week engagement in a show at the Riverside Hotel in Reno, Nevada. During this time, she also was a lead vocalist with the Leighton Noble Orchestra in Los Angeles.

San Diego: Art and Theatre

In 1959, Norden married a clinical psychologist—who was also an artist—and moved from L.A. with her young family to La Jolla, California, near San Diego. Soon, another son was born, followed by two more sons. In between her many duties as the mother of five, and encouraged by her husband, Norden studied with art instructors such as Fred Holle, Sheldon Kirby, Guy Williams, Malcolm McClain, and Eleanor Antin at the University of California at San Diego La Jolla School of Arts, now known as the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Here, she created many abstract impressionistic works in acrylics and oils, also working in clay. Through all this new adventuring in the visual arts, she grew in knowledge and accomplishment while also enlarging and developing her participation in the art of theatre.

In Del Mar, California, where she lived for 20 years with her husband, raising their family, Norden designed and painted stage sets and participated in community theatre productions, acting, producing, writing, and directing. These endeavors garnered her considerable local press recognition and numerous awards. She also was featured in a number of print ads and commercials for local and national TV, as well as productions at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and Starlight Opera.

“When my husband and I bought commercial property on Del Mar’s Stratford Court, he built a busy therapy practice in one section, while I developed and ran The Stratford Studio-Theatre, a center for the arts, which was housed in a large garage on another part of the property.” says Norden. “From 1970 to 1980, people of all ages enjoyed the dance, fitness, theatre and art classes there, as well as plays, shows, and musical recitals.”

Norden continued to paint, had a televised one-woman show at Del Mar’s Channel 37 cable TV station, and studied painting with Dan Camp and Robert Perrine at Del Mar’s Mira Costa College. Charitable organizations solicited her art talents and she designed and produced many brochures, posters, and programs. Hired as a muralist, she completed two large separate wall murals, still enjoyed in each of her clients’ San Diego homes today.

Santa Fe Beckons: Vibrant Spirits of the Southwest … and a Second Novel

In the mid 1980s, a visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico—and a visionary experience there—dramatically changed Norden’s perspective. “I knew then, without a doubt, that I had finally found my true artistic muse,” she says. “Future visits to Taos also spoke to me and I found the shapes and subtle yet vibrant hues of the landscape, the people, and the pueblo itself, mysterious and endlessly fascinating. I love it. I’m drawn to it. And it takes me to a different world. It appeals to the actress and dramatist in me. Maybe I lived as a Native American in another life … who knows? But it’s really important to me.”

In 1989, she and her husband, then retired, moved from Southern California to Santa Fe, New Mexico (“The City Different” in “The Land of Enchantment”), where they lived for ten years. Here, portraiture classes with Bettina Steinke, pastel painting with Albert Handell, and oil painting with Howard Carr furthered Norden’s art education and she had several one-woman art shows. She was included in the 1995 edition of “Who’s Who of Women in America,” and was active in Santa Fe’s theatre community as an actress and director. She also served as a board member of Santa Fe Performing Arts, as a board member for the Resource Theatre Company founded by Karen Grassle of Little House on the Prairie, and as a member of the Steering Council for the Greer Garson Theatre at the College of Santa Fe.

“The matchless mystique of Northern New Mexico’s skies, luminous light, juniper-dotted mountains, native people, and adobe dwellings will always be, for me, significant sources of inspiration,” says Norden. “I love rendering realistic and impressionistic imagery of the Southwest. As I paint in oil, pastel, watercolor, or acrylic, I aim for a lyrical quality that connects the viewer with his or her own imagination and deepest feelings.”

In 1999, her husband’s health necessitated a move back to California, first to Santa Barbara, then to San Luis Obispo, settling in Avila Beach. Here, she was an active member of an art group and continued to paint and receive awards in local shows.

After her husband passed away in 2007, she moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she had a one-woman show called “Sunsets and Show Tunes” featuring vibrant Southwest sunset scenes painted to and infused with the soundtracks of various Broadway musicals. This increased her coterie of enthusiastic collectors.

In 2012, Norden published her second novel, THE GHOST PAINTER (Amazon.com). 

Santa Fe summoned again, and she moved back, living there for another two years, further developing her body of work, exhibiting and selling.

Norden’s New Phoenix Studio

Now based in Phoenix, Arizona, Norden continues to create, “telling a story” in her bright, richly hued oil paintings on canvas that predominantly feature the Southwest Indians, their architecture, their spirit and their way of life.

“My painting allows me to express and be a part of something,” she says. “That’s why I like theatre, playing a different role each time, becoming part of another world. An abundance of experience in the performing arts combined with my visual arts talent has given me an appreciation of the art spirit in all of us, and the need to nurture it. This I hope to perpetuate as I explore new facets of my painting, for I believe that art is life, providing food for the soul of both the creator and the viewer.”

For those touched by Norden’s art, she has this to add, “My collectors have often told me how much it has meant living with my art in their homes year after year, how precious it is to them and always will be. One even said that in case of a fire, the first thing she would grab to rescue from her home would be my painting!”

An investment in Norden’s art is a wise and true one, providing a lifetime of pleasure and enjoyment for you that not only speaks of who you are and what touches you emotionally, but also enriches your life and the lives of all who know and love you.

To contact Marilu at her Phoenix studio, please call (602) 441-3158

or email her at marilunorden@gmail.com.

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