Ninety-five year old knows about restoring youth – Empty Nest by Curt Swarm

EMPTY NEST- BY CURT SWARM

Outside his apartment in Keosauqua sits his 1961 Chrysler Imperial, waiting. The Chrysler is in showroom condition (maybe better). Its jet airplane tail fins tell you all you need to know about 95 year old Bob Norman—flamboyant and in no danger of showing his age.
95 year old Bob Norman of Keosauqua is a conservator, appraiser and lover of life. Soft classical music plays on Bob’s stereo as we talk, or as he talks and I listen. He is a conservator, a person who restores artwork, and an appraiser, a person who appraises the value of artwork and collectibles. His restoration is not limited to artwork. He also restores cars, boats, motorcycles, houses, furniture, chandeliers, or most anything that needs restoration, even, yes, you guessed it—people. A few minutes with Bob Norman is like drinking a high energy health drink.
You may have met him if you ever stopped at the Pittsburg General Store in Pittsburg, Iowa (west of Keosauqua in Van Buren County on the Des Moines River). He was the “artist in residence,” restoring the two-story structure—walls, floor, ceiling, with the help of his neighbor, a Baptist minister. Although an artist, Bob knows hard work. (He worked his way through art school at SMU by upholstering furniture.) He has since moved to an apartment in Keosauqua. He’s slowing down a tad.
Bob has restored artwork for Iowa Wesleyan University, the Harlan-Lincoln House, and the PEO building in Mt. Pleasant as well as libraries and government buildings in Fairfield, Burlington, Des Moines, Iowa City, Selma, and Eddyville. Before he moved to Iowa, he restored artwork from all over Texas and for famous people like the Rockefellers and Kennedys. He has restored artwork by Rembrandt and Salvador Dali. Two people want him to do restorations now, but he is waiting out the pandemic. He will be restoring artwork as long as he can be propped up—which might be quite a while since he had an uncle who lived to 104.
A lady brought a 19th century portrait painting to him that had a hole where an eye was supposed to be. When Bob was finished restoring the painting and she picked it up, he asked her if she could tell which eye was repaired. She could not, and guessed the wrong eye.
Another fellow brought him a dozen 19th century paintings to be appraised. The fellow had purchased the paintings from a gallery in Munich. The paintings were fine examples of contemporary classical realism. However, Bob had a problem with the last two. The fellow asked him what the problem was. Bob told him the last two were giclées: copies produced by a computer and an ink jet printer shooting oil. The fellow was very upset. Bob asked him how much he paid for the two. It was a considerable amount. The fellow asked him how much the “copies” were worth. (The fellow still didn’t believe Bob.) Bob told him the frames were worth more than the giclées.
It takes about a year-and-a-half apprenticeship under another conservator to become proficient at restoration. (There are very few conservators around and Bob might be the only one in Iowa.) A fellow came into Bob’s studio and asked if Bob would teach him the trade. He told Bob he could spend three months. Bob told him he could teach him how to clean his brushes in three months.
How does Bob restore people? His wife, Dorothy, had been married before to a homebody. She made Bob promise her that their marriage would not be dull. On a two week vacation, they were going to go to Vicksburg. They had a ’73 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible at the time. While at Vicksburg, he said, “Honey, let’s go to the coast and see what’s shaking in Savannah (600 miles). So they went. When they got there, he told her Charleston was pretty at that time of year. Off they went. Then they hopscotched to Newburgh, New York; Georgetown; Baltimore to see his daughter; and then made their way home through Harper’s Ferry. They had been gone six weeks. Dorothy learned real quick that they would get home when they got home. Nothing dull about Bob. He had kept his promise.
BTW: Bob still drives at 95. Amongst his many activities since his wife passed away is giving rides to the Amish—not in his ’61 Chrysler Imperial, of course. He has a van for hauling artwork and people.

Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at curtswarm@yahoo.com or visit his website at www.empty-nest-words-photos-and-frames.com

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