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The year 2023 has been one of firsts for Georgia-based veteran painter and educator Navin Norling. This summer he had his first solo show at the Johnson Lowe Gallery, was featured in Spike Lee’s collection show at the Brooklyn Museum, and is making a glass structure for Derrick Adam’s artist residency in Baltimore. When Navin isn’t busy creating art, he’s hard at work educating the next generation of artists as a full-time professor at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) where he teaches painting and foundations of art to undergraduate students at the college’s Atlanta campus.
Now coming on five years in Atlanta, Navin looks back at his own career which started with a degree in illustration at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco in 1995, and says, “My professor Raymond Saunders at CCA really took me under his wing and opened up the world of painting to me.” After graduating from CCA, Navin worked in the nonprofit space using art to activate youth around various social justice initiatives like clean water and gun violence before moving to New York to pursue a master’s degree in painting at Hunter College. He then spent the subsequent years teaching in the New York Public School system and in 2018 moved to Atlanta for a faculty position at SCAD and laid down roots in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood, purchasing a four-bedroom home that doubles as his art studio.
Visitors to Navin’s home are often surprised to see a large, rusted piece of farm equipment proudly hanging on his walls. To the unfamiliar, the piece may seem out of place, but to his family and friends, it represents a piece of the Norling family history and identity. The large, rusted drum is joined by a plow, wrench, and other tools that belonged to his grandfather, located throughout the home. Navin says, “The tools represent the working of the land and how my grandfather helped so many in his community by giving surplus food or materials to family and beyond.” He shares that the pieces serve as a reminder of “his DNA” and says they add a much-needed aspect of texture to his white walls. He says, “I like to have that element next to the clean white or gray wall” and then laughs and continues, “I like that sort of banged-up dirty thing even if it’s, you know, so-called trash in a way that ‘one man’s trash is one man’s treasure.’”
Where & When?
Navin acquired the farm tools in the late ’90s, shortly after his grandfather’s passing. His grandfather was a sharecropper who moved his family from Bowie, Oklahoma, to Bakersfield, California, and eventually saved enough money to purchase his own piece of farmland. Navin and his father went to visit the farm before its sale to save mementos, including these tools. Navin shares that his family came from very humble beginnings, and both of his parents were raised in rural parts of the country. He says, “We didn’t have a lot of things to pass on: very few photographs, some quilts, some things like the tools.” When asked what initially attracted him to the tools, Navin notes, “As an artist, I am inspired by how many people my grandfather touched throughout his life. These rusted pieces also show age, wear, and tear, but instead of throwing them away, he would continue to fix and reuse them. These pieces bring me back to the farm and my family roots.”
Now a parent of a preteen, Navin sees the objects as more than just decor or something that reminds him of his summers as a child visiting his grandparents; they have become an heirloom to pass on. Navin makes an interesting connection between his tools and the posters and tickets that people often hold onto. He says, “I think they’re interesting when they’re taken out of context like a movie or show ticket that you went to. These are things that we hold on to that that are captured in our time and our place. Maybe they need a little explanation to the viewer when they’re in your home, but they are a conversation piece just like a nice, fine piece of artwork you might have to explain. So I don’t look at putting a tool on the wall as a strange thing as much as it becomes an object of observation, and for me, also an idea of enjoyment and warmth.”