The Life and Sculpture of Ann Norton
Publication Year: 2014
In 1929, the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors, showing the astonishing paintings of Picasso, Matisse, and other avant garde artists. Young American artists quickly responded by experimenting with impressionism, cubism, and abstraction.
In Monumental Dreams, author Caroline Seebohm tells the riveting story of how Ann Norton (1905–1982)—a child of the South who had eschewed her Alabama roots to become a sculptor in New York City—joined this new guard. She studied with John Hovannes and Jose de Creeft and was studio assistant to Alexander Archipenko. Her work was well received, and by age 35, she had already participated in group shows at MOMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Despite her burgeoning career, Norton found New York a difficult place to live. In search of paying work, she moved to Florida, where she became a teacher at the Norton Gallery and School of Art, founded by retired Acme Steel president Ralph Hubbard Norton. The two built a relationship based on love as well as common aesthetic values, and after his death, she built her finest and lasting work. Today, her monolithic sculptures—in the spirit of Stonehenge, Henry Moore, and Buddhist temple art—can be admired in the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Published by: University Press of Florida
Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright
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About a twenty-five-minute drive from Selma, Alabama, at the spot where the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers meet, lies a ghost town. Once this place was the first state capital of Alabama, but nothing is left now except some traces of streets, ruined buildings, the odd foundation stone, a crumbling...
Part I. Southern Roots: Selma, Alabama, 1905–1930
1. The Origins of a Great Alabama Family
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Ann Vaughan Weaver was born in Selma, Dallas County, Alabama, on May 2, 1905. Her parents belonged to the three dominant families in Selma at the time—the Weavers, the Minters, and the Vaughans, all of whom who lived in the center of the South’s black belt, so-called for its rich, fertile, cotton-loving...
2. Childhood in Selma
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If Philip J. Weaver founded a dynasty, it was the female line that most
distinguished it. His granddaughter Clara Minter Weaver was born in
1861, at the start of the Civil War, on the beloved Emerald Place plantation
in Dallas County, which belonged to her mother’s family.
While most old Southern families struggled to keep their...
3. Early Success
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In 1923 Annie Vaughan Weaver started her undergraduate career at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts. She did well there. She was secretary of the Junior Class, and in her senior year she was a member of the student council, the Physics Club, and the College Song Committee. In her senior year she was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1927, she...
Part II. The Art World in Turmoil: New York, 1930–1942
4. A Tumultuous Education
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With Aunt Rose cheering her on, Annie Vaughan Weaver slipped the
chains of her southern childhood and headed for the city. On September
17, 1928, she applied for a place at the National Academy of Design in New
York. She was admitted a week later.
The founders of the Academy in 1826, who included Samuel B. Morse, Asher B.Durand, and Thomas Cole, wished...
5. The Emergence of an Artist
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The timing of Ann Weaver’s apprenticeship as an artist in New York
could hardly have been more challenging.
First of all, the early 1930s saw the start of the worst economic depression the country had ever experienced. Unemployment, bankruptcies, foreclosures, meltdowns, stock market collapses, suicides—from the cities to the countryside, nobody was...
6. A Rare Friendship
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“In 1938 I worked for several months in the stone carving shop of John Howard Benson at Newport, Rhode Island.” This simple sentence reflects a large chunk of Ann’s experience that deeply affected both her personal and artistic development. For it was here that a young woman, Adelaide de Bethune, lived and worked, and it was with Ade (as she was known) that...
7. Career Challenges
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During Ann’s New York years, she visited Selma regularly over the summer months. If Newport was becoming the center of her new intellectual life, Selma remained the emotional core of her identity. One of the issues their mother was struggling with back in Selma was the behavior of Ann’s younger sister Rose (born fifteen years after Ann), who was showing...
8. A Turning Point
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According to John Lapsley, when Ann left New York, she had fifty cents in her pocket, a battered suitcase that wouldn’t close until Lapsley supplied some rope, and little else. When she arrived in Florida, she was almost forty years old and had been working as a sculptor for most of her adult life. What, at this time, did she have to show...
Part III. From Annie Vaughan Weaver to Ann Norton: Florida, 1943–1953
9. The Savior from Chicago
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When Ann Weaver moved from New York to Florida, the Second World War was raging and America had finally entered the conflict. However, Palm Beach, then as now, was not exactly in the mainstream of contemporary international politics or culture, and Ann soon found that it was not the war that preoccupied people there but a social world that was...
10. A Reticent Romance
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When Ann arrived to teach at the Norton School in 1943, Ralph Norton had already added to the Gallery’s holdings, buying, among other lesser-known works, a Courbet, a Childe Hassam, a Gauguin, a Joshua Reynolds, and a sculpture by José de Creeft. He also built two new galleries (without air-conditioning) to house the expanding collection, including...
11. Marriage and a New Life
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Ralph Norton proposed to Ann on the afternoon of April 11, 1948.
Almost immediately afterward, she rushed over to the Hunters’ house to
tell them. “She was white as a sheet,” Robert Hunter remembered. “I told
her, ‘Say yes quickly before he changes his mind!’”
Ann did not take his advice. The momentousness of Ralph’s proposal was too overwhelming for any such rush to judgment. She started running a fever. She...
12. A Growing Confidence
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As the winter of 1948 approached, the widows of Palm Beach dusted themselves off and began preparing for the busy round of parties that opened the season. “There probably will be great social doings there,” Ralph told Ann, “but fortunately I think we will be on the outside, looking in.” If they were—happily—outside the Palm Beach social set, within the...
Part IV. The Journey to the Source: Florida, 1954–1982
13. New Freedom, New Work
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On January 18, 1954, Robert Hunter returned to the Norton Gallery of Art to deliver a eulogy for the man with whom he had worked for so long and so happily. Mentioning Ralph Norton’s approachability, his eager quest for knowledge, and his aversion to publicity, Hunter said, “His very reasonable and down-to-earth philosophy was ‘Why should I miss...
14. Figures in the Landscape
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In late 1954, Ann and her mother made an extensive trip out west. It was the first of several trips they were to take together in the coming years, for after Ralph’s death, Ann’s mother spent much of every year with her daughter in Florida. This trip was to be transformative for the artist. Ann saw for the first time the spectacular rock formations and buttes, the...
15. East and West, New Relationships
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In 1964, Gene Leofanti and his wife, Anita, left Staten Island and moved full-time to West Palm Beach. Semi-retired, he was persuaded by Ann to come to her so that he could help her on all of her future projects. As an incentive, Ann gave him land at the northeast corner of the property for him to build a house for his family. The Leofantis’ good...
16. Dreams of Selma
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While her mother was alive, Ann made annual trips to Selma. There she would see her young nieces, Edith and Lane, the daughters of her beloved brother, William. The girls admired and enjoyed their aunt “Deat,” as she was called within the family. (No one knows the origin of the nickname.) Ann often brought with her a set of sculpting tools and pieces she...
17. Time Runs Out
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In early 1977, Ann Norton was diagnosed with leukemia, the disease
that was to kill her.
She was just coming into her time of greatest success as an artist. Now, as she celebrated her seventy-second birthday, the commissions were coming in, the critics were recognizing her, and she was seriously making her mark in the art world. Her tenacity and vision were finally paying...
18. The Garden as Legacy
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Ann’s will was dated April 28, 1979. In it, she left $25,000 and Ralph’s piano to her sad nephew, William, and $50,000 to Gene Leofanti. Other small bequests were made to Gyani Maharani in Kathmandu ($1,000), her sister Rose ($5,000), her old friend Grace Jones ($2,000), her traveling companion Richard Beresford ($1,000), and her longtime black...
List of Exhibitions
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First and foremost I wish to thank Ann Norton’s two nieces, Edith Weaver Haney and Lane Weaver Byrd, who shared their memories and archives with me with unstinting generosity and patience. Edith, the family archivist and historian, pored over Weaver family papers for years, teasing out the necessary facts about Ann’s background, following up leads, and...
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About the Author
English-born Caroline Seebohm has published books on art, architecture, and gardens including Boca Rococo: How Addison Mizner Invented Florida’s Gold Coast and Under Live Oaks: The Last Great Houses of the Old South. She has also published...
Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2014