Norm Magnusson studied poetry in college, but after moving to New York City he embarked on a career as a painter, starting with symbolist images of animals in the early 1990s. Post 9/11, he shifted to making political art, including site-specific historical markers that addressed such issues as illegal immigrants and child poverty. It was heavy stuff, so three years ago, in a kind of counterpoise, he began his “decorating nature” series following a trip to India in which he discovered it was more fun painting with watercolor on some large dried leaves than on the paper he’d brought with him. Since then he’s painted dozens of leaves, along with stones, pinecones, seashells, flowers, and even bark, afterwards photographing the painted object in its natural setting (occasionally, he’ll paint the object in place, such as the dotted leaves on a burning bush, which creates many more challenges). He shows and sells the prints, which may be blown up to 60 inches tall (a scale popular with interior designers), on his website www.greennatureprints.com.
While the series encompasses thick, rubbery leaves from Key West and Cape Cod clamshells, the majority of Magnusson’s subjects are discovered and photographed in the streamside yard of his house on Mink Hollow Road in Woodstock, including the autumn leaf shown on the cover. Magnusson transforms the diminutive, curved surfaces into a variety of effects, from bright-colored patterns of stripes or polka-dots to trompe l’oeil leaves-on-top-of-leaves to Eastern arabesques to pixilated effects that play with the photographic image itself, as if the stone or leaf were the face of a whistle blower or abuse victim “pixilated out to protect the innocent,” as the artist puts it. A similar conceptual play is suggested in the painted image of the color bar, a device used by photographers in the old days of film to ensure printed proofs achieved the right hues. Magnusson photographed his delicate, ephemeral artwork in dappled light, which created a resonating pattern on the dead, crumpled leaves that surround the brilliant maple leaf like silent, fallen specters. “In autumn, some leaves will use color bars to help get everything perfect” is the caption Magnusson wrote to accompany the image on his website—as if foliage, like human societies, had its own hidden hierarchies.
- Fig. 38: in autumn, some leaves use color bars to get everything perfect