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ON THE SCENE: Reconnecting with Norman

October 27, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

The last time I saw Norman Aberle, it was around 1977. He was a gifted artist, my college roommate, and we were contemplating sharing a loft together in Amherst, Massachusetts, as I was considering enrolling in the MFA graduate program at the University of MASS, Amherst.

Instead, I enrolled in a Hunter College MA program in New York because, well, New York was the capital of the arts.

From an economic and job security standpoint, Amherst would have been the smarter move. But, Hunter led to exhibitions in New York and being represented by the Zolla-Liberman Gallery of Chicago, one of the hottest galleries in the country at the time. It then led to a career that took me to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and on to 12 years at the Dartmouth Medical School under the auspices of Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. surgeon general.

Article Photos

Norman Aberle and Naj Wikoff
(Photo provided — Naj Wikoff)

Norman's career ranged from being a sought-after landscape gardener to managing a successful gallery in Key West. Tough on us both were the many friends and colleagues lost to AIDS. We learned that we both once were activists in raising the profile of and funding for those afflicted; he through exhibitions mounted at his gallery and me through performances held at the Cathedral.

Before all that, though, before I contemplated Amherst, we spent a summer sharing a barn on Averyville Road at the bottom of the dip just past the WIRD radio tower. Our barn was a mecca for kids from the neighborhood along with actors from Joan Franks's summer theater in the round. We created paintings for the new condos built alongside the Whiteface Inn Golf Course and several motels in town.

"At the barn, we had the time and income to be just able to sit down and paint," said Norman. "It was pretty wonderful."

Norman hails from Glastonbury, Connecticut. We were college roommates at Pratt and became very close. Norman came to Pratt far more technically proficient than me. His high school program was far better than anything that was then available in Lake Placid, and he was and is very gifted. What struck me most was his generosity. He would share everything he knew with me and others.

Many at Pratt were highly competitive, especially those coming out of New York City's high schools that specialized in the arts. Not Norman. He was open and generous and being so helped me relax and focus on my growth and not worry about how others were doing, or how I was doing in comparison to others. He also could do a lot of things, such as sew together his leather pants and cut out the side of a claw-footed bathtub, then tufting it with leather turning it into a mini sofa.

One time we decided to wear each other's clothes to class. We all tend to have our fashion sense. We tend to wear certain outfits such as Steve Jobs being known for his black turtlenecks and blue jeans. I don't remember which one of us came up with the idea. It was well into the year, and as we were the same size, so it was easy to execute. Norman was a redhead, so his color sense was more toward the browns and rusts of fall and mine is more towards a L.L. Bean version of bright winter then augmented by the Brooklyn Navy Yard's surplus store, paint splattered of course.

We did not anticipate the reaction. Some of our classmates were freaked out, most especially our girl-friends. They made us go to the restroom and change back into our own clothes.

Norman now lives in Clifton Forge, Virginia, a Blue Ridge Mountain town. A neighbor needed his car driven to Florida, and that struck me as a good way to catch up with some friends en route. So this past Sunday, I headed south. I came down Interstate 81 along the Blue Ridge Highway. One feels as if one is driving along the top of the world, a bit like the Green Mountains of Vermont on steroids as the base of the Appalachians is so big. He lives in the middle of a small town and greeted me in front of a building notable for the long list of people forbidden to enter tacked on the front door. Fortunately, my name wasn't one of them.

We hugged, I noted he was looking a bit more like his father, and we settled down for a long chat over a big pot of black tea as the rain pelted the outside. We caught up on our life's journey, news about our parents and siblings, and wondered about the whereabouts of various classmates from Pratt.

"Pratt was sheer high pressure, high quality, creative time," said Norman. "You had just to crank it out. It became like a pump, like priming a pump of creativity. That's what they were really doing, that and giving us some additional skills. They gave us a lifetime of work in four years."

"You had Hall, right?" I said referring to our first-year drawing instructor.

"He was a pain in the ass," said Norman. "He was a big wet blanket on absolutely everything. He had to make sure there was no joy left in life. He was cruel."

"And all for one credit!" I said.

"The teachers at Pratt gave us more work than we possibly could do in a week, forcing us to focus on the process as getting to a finished product was impossible," I said. "One of the things I came away from Pratt was not being afraid to say yes to anything. Can you do this? Sure. What I remember best out of it was friendships like ours and the relationship we had with our instructors."

"They were giving us a lifetime of work in four years," said Norman. "After you left there, you knew you were going to be doing those same projects for years to come."

Of course, we both have a few aches, pains and scars from the bumps and wrong choices made along the way, but much more present was the strength of the deep friendship forged so many years ago. The only pity was that we had been apart so long, but parting, we pledging to reconnect shortly.

"It was a real treat spending some time with you today after all these years," said Norman. "We could tell stories. We could tell lies. I made sure I got a good hook into you, and you certainly got one into me. Let's do it again!"



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