Heidi Norton’s work presents nature in a suspended state. This summer, Norton is producing a multi-part installation consisting of custom-made window inserts, sculptural objects, interactive hot houses and living plants. Inspired by Elmhurst Art Museum’s history and park setting, its light-filled, glass-enclosed architecture and its relationship to modernism, Norton’s project will fill Hostetler Gallery, Mies van der Rohe’s McCormick House and the corridor that links these two prominent and transparent spaces. As EAM’s second artist-in-residence, Norton is developing several public programs focused on ecology, gardening and photography and designing a Field Guide to Elmhurst, a takeaway map and self-guided tour that locates and describes places, objects and histories related to her exhibition.
Norton’s artistic practice, informed by her 1970’s upbringing as a child of New Age homesteaders in West Virginia, reveals her deep connection to the land, plant life and nature. Her sculptural work seeks to “preserve” and present organic materials by encasing them in glass, wax, resin and paint, often resembling enlarged microscope slides of scientific specimens. Though they may seem fixed, the resulting constructions change as the plants decay, alluding to Norton’s interest in transformation and the passage of time. When placed into the window bays, the transparent screens punctuated with plant segments, photographs and other ephemera become a mutable threshold marking the surface of the building while visually merging what is inside and what is out.
Mies van der Rohe stated that, “Nature, too, shall live its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the color of our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses and human beings together into a higher unity.” Sharing Mies’ awareness of the relationship between nature and architecture, Norton explores how these worlds, often seen as polarities, can work together harmoniously. In converting the McCormick House into a combination greenhouse/sunroom/library/museum by comingling indigenous plants, mineral specimens from the Lizzadro Museum, books, modernist furniture and her own artwork, Norton creates a hybrid space of light and knowledge.
A series of hot houses designed to resemble Mies’ architecture will contain plants, seeds, rocks and other gardening resources and become an outpost that connects museum visitors and local residents. The public is encouraged to swap seeds and stories over the course of the exhibition. In Norton’s words, “Plants bring people together—for caring, for harvest, for cooking—they are communal.”