Norman Tinker remembered

By Fran Gonzalez | Jul 11, 2019
Courtesy of: The Tinker Family Archives Norman Tinker in his shop in Connecticut. According to his son Jordan, his first shop was in the garage of their house, then in a building in town, and then their family moved closer to town and Norman set up shop in a barn on the property, shown here.

Belfast — A local artist, craftsman and family man who found beauty in the discarded, and who welded metals into large-scale sculptures that adorned his Miller Street home and yard, has died.

Norman Tinker, 86, died June 25 of complications from leukemia at Waldo County General Hospital hospice care.

His son Jordan, who lives in Brooklyn, said he visited his father after his first round of chemotherapy before Father's Day, then returned to New York.

"He was admitted to hospice care two days after I left," he said.

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1932, Norman lived in Armonk, New York, for the first two years of his life. His family moved to Silvermine, Connecticut, when he was 3 and his parents separated six years later.

Following their divorce, his mother took him and his brother to live at his Great Uncle Joseph B. Tinker's farm in western Massachusetts, on the Connecticut line, until she could get back on her feet, Jordan said.

The farm was like an orphanage, with several children staying there at the time, and his father mentions "raising chickens and pitching hay, shoveling cow manure and milking cows" in his hand-written journal.

Norman and his brother returned to live with their mother in 1945, in Wilton, Connecticut, and in 1950 he graduated from high school and started at the Art Students League of New York, an independent art school.

"Just being in New York City at the age of 17 and 18-years-old, was an education," he wrote in his journal.

His best friend he describes as an African-American boy named Jimmy who introduced him to the Apollo Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom and "a couple of jazz joints." Jimmy also took him to meet his family, where Norman "learned to eat grits and collard greens." It exposed him to a different culture and instilled racial sensitivity, he wrote.

Tinker went on to get his master's at Tulane University in New Orleans and in 1961 taught at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was there he met "Evie," who was a model in his class.

"When I modeled for him," Evie said, "he was married and had three kids. He was 'Mr. Tinker' back then." Not long afterward, she said, he was divorced and her marriage ended. Norman and Evie were married in 1966.

They moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, where Tinker began teaching at Silvermine College of Art, and the couple had two children, Erin in 1966 and Jordan in 1968.

Jordan remembers that, while at the college, his father would take in students who needed help, who perhaps were involved with drugs, and "took them under his wing."

The college closed in 1971 and, according to Tinker's notes, it was the end of his teaching career. Faced with supporting his family, he began an ornamental iron and welding shop called "The Tinker Shop," where he changed his life from being an academic to an accomplished craftsman.

"For the next 22 years I was a tradesman who had neither the time nor the energy to make sculptures," he wrote.

On Connecticut's Gold Coast, there turned out to be plenty of demand for his services. He made several massive gates for the former mayor of Mexico City and did staircase railings, fences and other contract work for clients with similarly unusual backstories.

"That was the soundtrack of my life," Jordan said. He remembers coming home from school and hearing ka-clank, ka-clank, ka-clank with his father banging away at metal scrollwork on an anvil.

"He did a lot with very little," Jordan said.

Through this second career, Norman and Evie regularly visited one of Tinker's former students in Maine, who, on hearing that they wanted to retire here, advised them to look at Belfast. In 1995, Norman retired and the following year moved to Belfast.

"It didn't take long for him to get noticed," Jordan said. "He belonged to a sculptor group and he really felt at home here — something he didn't feel in Connecticut."

He kept going, making one sculpture after another, putting them in his yard where he could enjoy them, and exhibiting his sculptures and collages in several shows.

Evie remembers going on camping trips in their minivan to Aroostook County and how impressed they both were with the farmlands and potato fields.

"Norman would have to wander through the countryside and take pictures to use for his collages," Evie said.

He was in love with the non-pretty sights — the old trucks, abandoned farms and machinery, she said.

Tinker wrote, "I think at best I've tapped into something primitive from my boyhood living on a small dairy farm in Western Massachusetts. I feel connected to hardscrabble people trying to eke out a living with their hands and wit. I see ghosts in the places where they've been, the things they've used and discarded."

One of the many sculptures that line Norman Tinker's front, back and side yards on Miller Street. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
A chopper made by Norman Tinker for his son Jordan. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
In a 2010 description of his process, Norman Tinker wrote, "I found artistic riches in the endless variety of shapes, contours, surfaces, textures and colors of material that have been crushed, rusted, and mangled by forces both violent and gradual." (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
One of the many paintings hanging in Norman Tinker's home shows his appreciation of decay and non-pretty sights. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Patinas of many kinds and shades on display at Norman Tinker's home on Miller Street June 28. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Norman Tinker's metal shop, pictured June 28, along with sculptures that line his yard. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Norman Tinker said, in a description of his process, "As I work, I can also sometimes hear in my mind a work of jazz or a line of poetry." (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
An example of Norman Tinker's ornate scrollwork while working at "The Tinker Shop" in Connecticut. (Courtesy of: Tinker Family Archives)
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