A Century in the Arts: Norval Gill (Class of 1937) Reflects

Norval Gill (Art Education 1937) was born in Stockton in 1914. He began his artistic career during the Great Depression, and today, approaching his second century of life, he is still working and enjoying his craft.

Along the way he was on the Federal Art Project, worked as an illustrator and draftsman at an aircraft company, and has been a teacher, a graphic designer, a painter, a sculptor, and a devoted family man.

Gill is reluctant to differentiate between art for illustration, exhibition, personal enjoyment, and advertising. “I’ve always felt that art is art, and art that is done for a particular purpose does not make it less worthwhile.”

His influences have included the writings and philosophy of the British type designer and sculptor Eric Gill as well as his CCA(C) professor Glenn Wessels, who first exposed him to Lewis Mumford’s book Technics and Civilization and connected him with the Federal Art Project after graduation.

A Career Begins at CCAC and the Federal Art Project

At CCA, Gill rented an apartment on College Avenue near the Oakland campus with roommates Ferd Schleiman, Al Atwell, and Alexander Nepote. It was also at CCA that he met his future wife, Patricia Waltz (1915–2006).

Waltz was pursuing an Art Education degree as well, with an emphasis on crafts and weaving, but left before graduating to work for the prestigious Dorothy Leibes weaving studio in San Francisco.

The Federal Art Project was part of the New Deal initiative to wed the talents of artists in need of work with public buildings in need of art. Hundreds of post offices, schools, libraries, and hospitals throughout the United States commissioned works.

Gill began in the FAP in Oakland: “It was brimming with activity: painting, sculpture, mosaics, murals. I worked on a stained glass window designed by Edgar Taylor and a mosaic designed by Joseph Sheridan.”

He created paintings, a wood sculpture (Walnut Torso, still in his possession), and a tapestry exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island.

Tucson: On the Banks of the Rillito

Gill continued at the FAP, teaching crafts at Hayward High night school on the side, until moving to Arizona to teach at Tucson Senior High School. “We arrived on New Year’s Eve, 1938. Living in Tucson was a wonderful experience,” he recalls. Gill has lived in his present home in South Pasadena for more than 60 years, but he admits to still feeling rooted in Tucson.

Through his FAP connections, he and Patricia met many members of the art communities in Phoenix and Tucson. “We were immediately accepted as the new artists in town. Everyone was so hospitable.” Work was going well at the high school until the outbreak of World War II, when the students’ interests were diverted to nursing, physical education, and ROTC.

To aid the war effort, Gill took a summer job with Consolidated Vultee as an illustrator and draftsman. The aircraft company specialized in B-24 bombers, the most widely used planes during the war. “I enjoyed the job so much that I resigned from teaching,” Gill recalls. He worked for Consolidated until 1945.

Meanwhile, he was constructing a new home for his family, which now included a son, Eric, and a daughter, Mary. “I used recycled stuff since it was hard to get building materials during the war. We were right on the banks of the Rillito River, and we would get these great flash floods during the summer.

"The rain would start in the mountains and roll down the riverbed looking like a wall of concrete, rising and rising, transforming into huge waves almost topping the banks. It was wonderful -- frightening and fascinating!”

The turbulent environs of southern Arizona were often the subjects of Gill’s watercolor landscapes. “Southeast of Tucson is wonderful hill country. The summer’s green fields turn dry in winter -- a platinum blonde that beautifully contrasts with adjacent burnt fields.”

He participated in traveling shows sponsored by the Tucson Watercolor Society. He sold a painting in a competition sponsored by the Public Works Administration, and Haggin Museum in Stockton hosted a solo show of his watercolors.

During this time his wife, Patricia, continued painting, and also taught weaving and did fashion illustration. One of her works in egg tempera was purchased by Arizona’s foremost art collector.

From Cabat-Gill to Studio G

After the war Gill formed an art service with Erni Cabat, a colleague from Consolidated. The response to their two-color mailer was overwhelming. In time they became the prestigious Cabat-Gill Advertising Agency. Their clients were primarily in the tourism and leisure industry, which was then booming in the Southwest.

The business thrived.

Around 1950 Gill realized his interests lay more in art and design than in advertising, so he moved to Los Angeles seeking new possibilities. He soon made a connection at Foote Cone & Belding; they were impressed by Gill’s portfolio. They assigned him a dream gig: full-color illustrations for four road map covers.

Simultaneously, he established a desk at a compatible art service, and subsequently moved from there to a busier one, then to a higher-quality design studio.

He met Alan Grant, with whom he would found Studio G, and their firm, which grew to a dozen employees and did great work throughout the 1960s and early 1970s for many clients that are still household names: Max Factor, Baskin-Robbins, Carnation Foods, Sizzler, ARCO.

In Los Angeles, Patricia worked as a designer with a costume jewelry manufacturer, and continued with bead necklaces (with the Bead Society) and photography. She was involved with the Immaculate Heart College Art Department when Magdalene Mary and Sister Corita were there. She led a weekly dance group into her 70s.

Goodbye Carport, Hello Home Workshop

Gill retired in 1972. “I had a great career, but I loved getting away from the stress of managing a studio.” With his son’s help, he turned his carport into a workshop, began remodeling his house, and started making sculptures out of recycled materials.  The first one, Totem, was built of planks from a broken-down redwood picnic table and benches.

Gill’s sculptures range in size, and are inspired by items given to him or found over the course of his wanderings. He describes a few recent projects: “I inherited a large, uncomfortable recliner -- curved aluminum -- which I combined with Douglas fir beams I’d collected.

The resulting piece was huge! For another I used steel I-beam scraps from the retrofitting of a block of buildings along Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.”

Gill still works long hours in his shop and studio. He also creates beautiful cards and gifts there.