SANTA FE, N.M. — You’ve got mail, but it’s stainless steel.
Artifacts of the snail mail era are the focus of Elliot Norquist’s new exhibition, “Mail Room,” which opened at the Charlotte Jackson Fine Art gallery on Jan. 10.
There’s the manila envelope, the security envelope and the ubiquitous (to some) bright orange envelope enclosing the overlooked bill, which Norquist has playfully dubbed “Past Due.”
A resident of Carbondale, Colorado, a once-gritty mining town that is close to Aspen, Norquist’s ruddy face is a familiar one to Santa Fe art aficionados.
He lived here for 20 years beginning in 1978 and has been showing his art in the area ever since.
Norquist moved to New Mexico not long after earning his MFA from the University of Oregon in 1972. He made a stop on the way between Eugene and Santa Fe, teaching at the private Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.
He ended up back in Carbondale later in his life after his son Fred announced he wanted to attend the school. “My wife and I said, ‘We’re coming with you.’ ”
In New Mexico, Norquist burst onto the art scene in 1978 with an installation called “Waterline” at the bottom of an abandoned irrigation pond that had been leveled near the Shidoni Foundry in Tesuque. “Waterline at Shidoni put me on the map,” said Norquist.
Norquist said “Waterline” was in existence for a decade until Shidoni decided to build its gallery. The work consisted of 32 8-foot-by-8-foot steel squares that resembled giant tiles.
In between the squares, which were laid out in a 180-foot-by-50-foot grid, were “grout” lines of sand where visitors could walk through the installation. These pathways were groomed daily, Norquist remembers.
“Waterline” was surrounded by trees that provided privacy for picnickers and lovers, Norquist said. One day, he overheard a young man telling his girlfriend, “You know, the guy who built this thing was really Zen.”
Norquist said he responded to the man, “I know the guy, and you’re right.”
The installation’s location in a former irrigation pond was prescient, as Norquist would later spend time in Miami, New Mexico, acting as a mayordomo for an acequia.
Despite Norquist’s fascination with steel fabrication and industrial-looking art, his roots lie in ranching and the many chores that come with raising livestock.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Norquist said he spent lots of time on his father’s ranch in Council Grove, Kansas, as a youth. Asked why he has combined animal husbandry with fine art, he quipped, “If you want to live on the land, you have to have a skill.”
Norquist said he gave up his full-time teaching position and moved to Santa Fe because he was spending more time helping his students than working on his art.
Santa Fe was attractive to him because of its vibrant art market and its proximity to wilderness. “I’m not one for big cities,” he said.
Many of Norquist’s followers know him for big metal pieces that eerily parallel the style of the late Donald Judd, whose works are housed in a museum run by the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.
Norquist, 73, said he and Judd never met. Among his main influences is his teacher Mowry Baden at the University of Oregon. An American sculptor, Baden moved to Canada in 1975 and has lived there ever since.
Norquist also credits the late Dale Eldred, a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, where Norquist earned a BFA in sculpture, with teaching him how to weld.
During his time in Santa Fe, Norquist worked part-time teaching at the College of Santa Fe and the Albuquerque Academy.
What’s new about Norquist’s latest work is that instead of geometric figures, he’s fabricated what are nearly flat pieces with intricate folds and edges out of stainless steel.
He said the eureka moment for his latest body of work came when he was cleaning off his desk and tore an envelope with a glassine paper window in half in order to use it as note paper.
Rather than throwing the other half in the trash, Norquist found the inspiration for his next project, “Mail Room.” “Having a messy desk is like having a pile of scrap metal to work with,” he said.
For those pining after Norquist’s “Manila Envelope,” a 36-inch-by-24-inch painted steel piece that was priced at $6,000, you can still look at it. However, it sold even before his show opened.
Perforated steel figures in some of Norquist’s pieces, such as “Six Boxes of Invitations.”
“Love Letter” was originally pink and silver, and was photographed that way ahead of the show at Charlotte Jackson, but, at the last minute, the artist decided to paint the pink parts blue. “I was getting tired of pink,” he said.
Asked how his process of creating art has changed as he has aged, Norquist said he’s more conscious of his physical limitations. “I’m also looking at things in more detail and I’m more thoughtful about what I’m doing,” he said.
Those who used to exult in a trip to the old-fashioned office supply store or who worked in mailrooms will no doubt enjoy Norquist’s mastery and sense of whimsy in recreating these objects.