Ann Norton

Sculpture Gardens restoring works of heart

By RON HAYES
Palms West Monthly
Posted Sept. 5, 2016

WEST PALM BEACH — On that morning in early April when the crew arrived to begin work, a technician studied the sculpture for damage.

“Oh,” he said, “this man put the rebar too close to the surface.”

“This lady,” Kelly Ciociola corrected him.

Ciociola is a senior conservator with Rosa Lowinger & Associates, a Miami firm that specializes in restoring art and architecture. She has worked at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum & Gardens. She helped restore the weather vane on Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

“This lady” was Ann Vaughan Weaver Norton (1905-1982), a celebrated sculptor of artworks big and small whose work has been shown in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

And the sculpture to be repaired was “Gateway #5,” a towering 20-foot cantilevered monolith in red brick – one of nine that needs to be cleaned and restored in the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens.

This is good news for the sculptures, but disappointing for those who planned to visit this lush space during the summer. After months of restoration, the gardens will reopen for the season on Sept. 1.

Like all great parks and gardens, the former home of Ralph and Ann Norton has that magical ability to make a visitor feel miles away from the city’s distracting clatter, right in its midst.

Situated on 1.7 acres along South Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach, the 1925 home where Ann Norton lived and worked for 34 years is now a museum that hosts temporary exhibits by other artists, as well as the framed sketches and pastels that Norton would later realize in her large garden sculptures. Her studio is behind the house, nearly as it was when she died. Her clay is there, her armature and unfinished models, her hammers and chisels.

Ann Vaughan Weaver was born in Selma, Ala., and attended Smith College, the Art Students League and Cooper Union in New York.

In 1942, she arrived in West Palm Beach to teach sculpting at the newly opened Norton Gallery and School of Art, founded by Ralph Norton, who made a fortune in steel. After retiring here in 1939, Norton had established the gallery as a way to share his extensive art collection with the public. His wife, Elizabeth, died after a lengthy illness in 1947 and he and Ann were married a year later. At last she had a place to create the large sculptures she had long pondered and a yard in which to display them.

Their marriage was brief, however. Ralph Norton died in 1953.

In 1977, she established a foundation to preserve and conserve the studio and gardens, and today it’s a nonprofit organization with an annual budget of about $700,000, supported by an open membership and an elected board of trustees.

“Ann Norton’s idea was that as you walked through the gardens you would be surprised by the sculptures,” says Karen Steele, the gardens’ executive director. “It was much more wild in her day, but we’ve put in paths to accommodate guests.”

Ralph Norton had collected about 100 species of rare palms before his death. Today, the gardens are home to more than 250 species of palms and tropicals from around the world, including  Brazil, Guatemala, Australia, Cuba and The Seychelles.

Winding paths lead visitors past the sculptures. Here’s the Himalayas, an abstract form of angles and peaks, and “Seven Beings,” ghostly beings of pink Norwegian granite, 12 feet tall, inspired by the natural rock columns Norton had admired on a visit to Bryce Canyon, Utah.

The restoration of all nine sculptures is an ongoing project.

“Gateway #5” is now complete, thanks to a gift from Leslie Rose, a member of the gardens’ board of trustees. In early June, work began on “Gateway #3,” funded by the Gochman family, and “Gateway #1,” restored in honor of Frances and Jeffrey Fisher, was completed in mid-July.

“It took a lot less time than we’d anticipated,” Steele said. “I went away and came back about July 18 and they were out of here except for the scaffolding.”

The Restore-A-Sculpture campaign is expensive. “Gateway #5” cost about $37,400. “Gateway #3,” estimated at $34,200, wound up costing closer to $40,000 when additional repairs were discovered, and “Gateway #1” was relatively inexpensive at $9,000.

Ultimately, Steele said, the entire restoration will cost about $165,000. With three of the nine sculptures cleaned and restored, the remaining six are awaiting donors to underwrite the work.

“We’re very grateful for the generosity of these supporters as they’ve enabled us to move forward on this critical art conservation effort,” Steele said. “As stewards of Ann Norton’s life work and historic property, we’re fulfilling her mission and vision of preserving the gardens for the enjoyment of the community.”

Pictured above: Rosa Lowinger & Associates conservation technician Junior Norelus works on the interior support structure of “Gateway #5” in April at Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach. With three of the nine sculptures cleaned and restored, the remaining six are awaiting donors to underwrite the cost of repair. Photo courtesy of Rosa Lowinger and Associates

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Palms West Monthly covers Palm Beach County's Western Communities of Royal Palm Beach, Wellington, Loxahatchee Groves and The Acreage, as well as West Palm Beach.

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