‘A Curious Art Spectacle’
In just 22 paintings, Jay Wilson, known as O.M. Norling, shares a mysterious side of his artwork while fusing together European and Asian influences.
January 30, 2018
Sally Smith walks into the crowded space, surrounded by the busy bustle of enraptured eyes focused on the artwork. Lights shine, illuminating each carefully detailed painting. A piece with a brown bear behind a couch, a hatbox and birds stands out as the most luminous of them all.
People stare at the faces of various animals and chat about the meaning of the paintings, all wondering why O.M. Norling’s pieces are so “curious.”
When Olaf Magnus Norling mysteriously disappeared from his home in Sweden in the 1850s, he left behind his family and everything he knew. He got on a ship, came to America and started his new life as Alexander Wilson.
Now, several years later, his great great grandson, Jay Wilson, carries on that mystery through his art.
“[My great great grandfather] left his family because he felt so passionate about a dream that he had,” he said. “So that is what inspired the pen name.”
Jay Wilson grew up with two brothers, his mother and his father. His father was regularly on the move. As a career army officer, he and his family often moved around, even overseas. Although he was born in the United States in 1971, Wilson spent four years in Germany from kindergarten up to fifth grade.
There, Wilson first discovered his interest in art. While taking beginning art classes in school, Wilson found that his surroundings were his best teacher.
“The things that captured my imagination and attention living over there were the Gothic architecture and the cathedrals that were hundreds of years old, built out of stone,” Wilson said. “The artwork in the castles was very dark and cold and it made an impression on me. Architecture, the historical pieces and the religious pieces that I was exposed to there is what really captured my attention for art in Germany.”
At the time, Wilson had no idea of the influence this would ultimately have on his life or work.
But as expected, his time in Germany did not last very long. Wilson and his family then moved to Wisconsin for five years where he started high school.
Then, for the last two years of his high school career, Wilson lived in South Korea and attended school on a military base where he began to thoroughly study and practice art.
Having gotten almost all of the credits needed to graduate from Seoul American High School in his junior year, Wilson spent the majority of his senior year in the art room with Mr. O’Brien, his American art teacher and mentor.
“I basically lived in [Mr. O’Brien’s] room and ran errands for him but also constantly worked on projects and art pieces,” Wilson said, “so senior year was really laid back and was pretty much all art classes for that one year.”
Extended time committed to art, the advice from his teacher and the influence of art in Asian culture ultimately tipped the scale of Wilson’s creative side.
“Before Korea, art was just kind of a hobby,” he said. “I had no other real aspirations other than I just enjoyed doing it. The really interesting part is that when I was in the states, sports [were] king. If you were a jock, that was really the best place to be as far as being popular so that’s what I did. Then I went to Korea and being an artist is where it was at as far as the attention and all of that. It was a complete 180-degree change.”
With encouragement from his teacher to work harder and focus on art as a career instead of sports, Wilson returned back to the United States to get his degree in graphic design, after deciding not to pursue the fine arts for a while.
“That’s a tough route being a fine artist,” Wilson said. “You never know when you are going to sell paintings.”
But even though he was set on graphic design and had his degree, Wilson felt astray.
“Like a lot of young people when they go to college, I didn’t know exactly what being a graphic designer would be and what that would look like as a job,” Wilson said. “I like doing [graphic design] though so I did it and I graduated. But then, I really had no idea of how to apply what I had just gotten a degree of in the real world.”
So he set out for Atlanta in hopes of finding opportunities and stumbled upon an internship at Turner Broadcasting System Inc.
In just 90 days, he “fell in love with Atlanta.” Later, he married his wife and settled down in Decatur.
After working a paying job at Turner Broadcasting for four years, he was ready to start his own graphic design company, Whobody Inc., where he still creates print designs, product packages and website designs.
“That’s how the bills get paid,” he said. “I’ve made my living all of these years doing graphic design.”
Wilson never let go of his art though.
“I don’t know who I am without it,” he said. “It is such a central part of my identity.”
As Jay Wilson, he started putting out art shows with a much looser style and more playful brush strokes. However, he was soon stalled. Wilson had an art show the same day his second son was born, and afterwards, he didn’t pick up a pencil or paintbrush for four years. He became overwhelmed and his art fell to the side. But things didn’t feel right.
“I kind of didn’t know who I was without it,” he said. “It’s been a passion that I’ve just refused to let go of. So I’ve always painted. Even when I didn’t have time, I made time. To this day, I wake up at four in the morning to paint because that’s the only time I have to paint. I have a wife, three boys and a full-time job.”
After Wilson got back into art, he changed his style, his pen name and put out his first show as O.M. Norling, 10 years ago.
“Mystery is a central part in terms of the mystery that [O.M. Norling] created when he disappeared from the farm,” Wilson said. “Mystery is really the thread because all of the paintings are a mystery and that nothing is going to explain itself in obvious terms. The viewers are going to have to spend time with the pieces and that is the connection, the mystery that I was so taken with when I heard that story growing up.”
Now, after 10 years since his previous show as O.M. Norling, he has composed a pop-up art show titled ‘A Curious Art Show,’ from Jan. 26 to Feb. 4 at the Solarium.
Wilson found inspiration from his past for his latest work.
“What living in Germany and Korea did for me is making me realize that I have borders in terms of where I stop and where the world begins,” he said. “When living in the states, there is a blurry line of where does the culture you’re living in start and stop and where do you start and stop in terms of being an individual. When you go to Europe and Asia, especially because it is such a different culture, you really see clearly where you begin and stop
and start and end. That was the biggest impact that living in those places had on me.”
Now, using those experiences, the influence of animals in Korean art and the influence of Victorian or Renaissance style furniture in European art, Wilson hopes to illustrate the fine lines of life that go unnoticed.
“[The art show] is an exploration of the human experience,” he said. “Life is a very imperfect backdrop, but it is beautiful. With all of the knocks and bruises that you get just living day to day, it is still beautiful. There are so many rich, interesting things that if you just pay attention to the people around you and open your eyes and observe, there are so many wonderful things that surround us. What I try to do with the paintings is identify things that are very subtle. But, if you spend some time thinking about it and don’t let the noise of the day become too loud, you can reconnect with yourself and you can recognize that there are amazing things right in front of you.”
While Wilson had a specific theme in mind when creating his work, he wants his art to be open to interpretation.
“I don’t want my thoughts to drown out the experience that someone else has with a painting,” he said.
Junior Sally Smith, originally had no idea what to expect before entering the art show, but was later very impressed and left with her own interpretation of the paintings.
“I didn’t know much about the artist beforehand so I didn’t really know what to expect,” Smith said. “There was a lot of technical value to the pieces like the detail on the animals and the proportions. He achieved some levels of realism that I hope to be able to do someday. I really enjoyed the similar motifs throughout the paintings like the umbrella with shears on the end and different animals like the sheep were repeated a lot. The three birds and the three eggs in the nest was interesting because there were always three birds, never any more or any less in the [bigger] paintings. I really felt like the whole body of work was really cohesive and there were a lot of good elements coming together there.”
While cohesive, Smith sometimes found it challenging to grasp the meanings of the paintings.
“All of the art was very conceptual so it was a little bit hard to analyze as I don’t have that much experience,” Smith said. “But I did like the juxtaposition of man-made objects with animals. I always like contrast like that because I think comparing and contrasting the human world with animal life is always fruit for deep thought. I liked when the animals would be sitting on the Victorian couches because you see a lion doing that and it says a lot. It appears to be domesticated and it says a lot about power, behavior, and
it is just really interesting to look at objects that don’t necessarily belong together interact.”
Of all of these conceptual images, Smith’s favorite piece by far was the unfinished piece Wilson chose to use to illustrate his process.
“Oh my gosh, seeing the process was so cool,” Smith said. “Sometimes my favorite works to look at are the unfinished ones or the ones that the artist rejected because when an artist doesn’t think that something is good enough to present, it’s usually something that’s really different or not what they were trying to get at. Those unseen works say so much about the artist and seeing them in progress shows the behind the scenes and it shows you the creative process. It makes you look at each art piece differently because you look at it and you think about how it was put together rather than just looking at it on the surface level.”
This is the exact effect Wilson intended to have, especially for young people.
“I know that growing up, I was always intimidated to approach an adult that had a career or hobby in whatever I was interested in,” Wilson said. “I never went up and asked them about it but I’ve found that as an adult and knowing other adults, there is no reason to be hesitant to reach out to someone when you see them doing something that is cool to you. Adults will bend over backwards to share information with somebody that’s genuinely interested. Get over the fear and navigate reaching out and getting out of your comfort zone. I would talk to any young person about any aspect about art if they wanted to and I just try to live every day as a positive influence and role model for anybody who is watching.”
Contact the writer, Isis Amusa, at firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos by Isis Amusa