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Episode 28: Normando Ismay - A Loving Trickster
Episode 287th July 2021 • Change the Story / Change the World • Bill Cleveland
00:00:00 00:39:49

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Normando Ismay – A Loving Trickster

Normando Ismay was born in the city of All the Saints of the New Rioja in northwest Argentina. As a young adult, he came to the United States, settling in Atlanta to pursue a career as a visual artist. Since then, he has worked in a variety of media including metal, painting, sculpture and installation art.

He built a barn-like structure in his backyard and began the operation of the Little Beirut Art Space, a gallery/performance venue for visual art exhibits, poetry readings, storytelling, film, music and dance.

At this time, he also began an integration of visual and performing art, combining Andean flutes, drums and stories of magical realism into large- and small-scale performances and performance installations. Normando creates work in Spanish, English and in a bilingual blending. Some of his works include “The Last Inca”, about Pedro de Bohorquez who passes as an Inca and controls northwest Argentina; “Contralabias”, about a North American smuggler, the invention of lipstick and the birth of Argentina.  

Normando’s large-scale performance installations accommodate other performing artists and combine paintings, signage, sculptures, video projections, masks, seating, lighting and a stage. Café Bizzoso, Café Cultural de Chamblee, The Condor’s Next Hotel, Bannaland, The Mattress Factory Lounge and Dumpsite, to name a few. 

Normando’s work has been presented throughout Atlanta and the southeast, as well as in New York, Argentina and Europe. The New York Times, High Performance, the Atlanta Constitution, Art Papers, Mundo Hispanico, and other publications have written about his work. He has received grants from the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Fulton County Arts Council, Georgia Council for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1991 he received the Paul Robeson award in Cultural Democracy.

Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes

What is Cafe Bezzoso?

Well, Cafe Bizzoso, it was a traveling performance space, an art installation specific to the site where I was creating it. Bizzoso came out of a proposal that I made to the Arts Festival of Atlanta. They had invited me to perform in this huge stage. … And it's like me and my solo storytelling act and my public is like twenty feet away from me like no intimacy possible because of that. So, I made him a proposal to build a small performance venue for storyteller’s poets. and like that, and they liked the idea

Was the Crack Attack an art exhibition?

And then two or three nights after that, Steve Seaberg hanging with me, and he was like uh, "We have to do something." You know, and we started making art about it. And we started filling up the lot and between my house and the crack house with art. And we kept working empty lot, and we'd turn it into a, do an art show. We called it the Crack Attack Show.

Who was the Last Inca?

Oh it's, it's, an amazing story straight out of history. And The Last Inca is the story of a Spanish soldier who ends up in Peru and he gets in trouble with the Viceroy and they banish him and to, send to a fort Copiapo in Chile, that they know, is about to fall to the indigenous people from there. And this young man goes there, and he builds a cannon out of wood. That was only good for like a couple of explosions. And then the Canon fell apart, but it wasn't enough to signal to the Araucanos that the Spaniards now had a cannon and they decided to leave. (And that just the beginning)


BC: [00:00:00] Hello,

Normando are you there?

Normando ismay, could be described as having a transcendent spirit.

Hello Normando,. Let's see.

I think you're there somewhere. Oops. Not there.

A painter. A poet. A pirate. A conjurer of stories.

There you are.

 Uh, But above all a trickster, a serious trickster shapeshifter.

Can you hear me?

Who's enigmatic stories, some would say.

NI: [00:00:32] Do you see me?

BC: [00:00:33] are hard to believe.

I do not see you.

Yes. Hard to believe. But true.

There. you are.

my word. You haven't

changed a bit

NI: [00:00:42] I have

BC: [00:00:43] a hundred years. It's good to see you.

This is Change the Story / Change the World, a Chronicle of art and community transformation.

Now. I've known Normando Ismay, since the time of corded telephones and dollar-a-gallon, fossil fuel. He's one of those people whose story needs absolutely no spin, just a little air and an ear tuned to listening and learning and laughing, which we did together at the end of April 2021.

With me in Alameda, California, the ancestral home of the Ohlone people, and Armando, at his relatively new studio. I went to Taccoa, Georgia, the traditional lands of the Tsalaquwetiyi (Cherokee East)

Along the way we're introduced to ephemeral places like Chilecito and the Mattress Factory. Cafes with names like Beirut. Bizzoso and Success, And an extraordinary cast of characters. That includes Papa Bizzoso, the one-time child, preacher Contralabias, the smuggler, the last Inca, Pedro Borjehas. And Danimite the drug dealer who's the comes in the legendary Atlanta crack attack.

Part One Bizzoso, the Mattress, Factory and Chilicito

I'd just like to give you a few questions to set the table and we'll see what happens. So the first one is what is your work? How do you describe your work in the world thus far?

 NI: [00:02:19] The first thing that I would have to say is my work. Isn't just one kind of work. You know, I've gone through all kinds of medias and work that I've done. I think it was Erich Frome a book I read of him and something that got me was about specialization and dependency. And I think at that point decided I wasn't going to specialize in anything and that's how I've approached my life. You know, working on new skills and sometimes making dramatic shifts in what I was doing. And. So it's hard for me to define what my work is in like a couple of words.

BC: [00:03:11] Yes, I hear that. And actually, you have a lot in common with almost everybody I've talked to, which is A very strong intention to follow a winding path that is in service to something more than just a discipline or a skill, but something else. So if you Looked at the horizon line what have you been moving towards with these various paths?

 NI: [00:03:36] To live. Right. I always say, try my best, not to exploit or be exploited. And of course, you can't be a hundred percent on that. You will get exploited and you will exploit. Trying to keep a degree of honesty in that I think has been here where I've been hanging for years,

BC: [00:04:00] yeah. Actually, that echoes what Alice Lovelace said when I asked her the same question; is to try really hard to learn from her mistakes and try not to repeat them with the goal of not causing bad trouble, but just good trouble. Yeah. I was thinking about your move for a long time. You established yourself both as a maker, creative person, but also as a location with Cafe Bizzoso also, and Little Beruit. And I'm wondering if you've imported those to your new space

 NI: [00:04:37] It does have elements of all of it, so there's the space.

BC: [00:04:45] So the idea of Cafe Bizzoso so you know, it, it's not just a performance space, it means something to you. What does it, what does it mean?

NI: [00:04:54] Well, Cafe Bizzoso, it was a traveling performance space, an art installation specific to the site where I was creating it. Little Beirut was a space. Bizzoso came out of a proposal that I made to the Arts Festival of Atlanta. They had invited me to perform in this huge stage. It was like four feet up in the air. And it's like me and my solo storytelling act and my public is like twenty feet away from me like no intimacy possible because of that. So, I made him a proposal to build a small performance venue for storyteller’s poets. and like that, and they liked the idea and fully funded it. And Cafe Bizzoso took over spaces, turned it into a performance space and then disappeared. it was uh, a really sort of quick, act.,

BC: [00:06:02] What is the story of the name?

NI: [00:06:04] it's stolen.

BC: [00:06:05] yes. So, what's new.

NI: [00:06:08] I had been working with performance spaces before Cafe Bizzoso. And it was funny because, you know, there was the Mattress Factory shows in Atlanta and it was like there were huge warehouse shows with a couple of hundred artists. , I ended up building places that were places where people could sit. That was the first sort of adding of that. But of course, then I started adding performance spaces and I started adding food and stuff like that. So, there were several, the Mattress Lounge was one, Cafe Success. I had a couple of those.

BC: [00:06:53] At this point in our zoom conversation, Normando turns and points to the back wall of his studio, which is covered with dozens of sculptures paintings and masks.

NI: [00:07:04] And some of the artwork right up the top. There there's series of faces sort of like brown line of faces that came from one of the Cafe Success that I did in a big warehouse. And the, the pictures that you see up top are the autographed photographs of the people that came to the cafe and became successful and never came back.

The funny thing is it that particular show got me into a group show that traveled to Sweden and there, I built a town inside the museum, the same techniques and stuff that I used with Cafe Bizzoso, in Sweden, there were a lot of people who had run away from Chile because of Pinochet at the time. So, I called it Chilicito little chili or loving Chile, and I felt that was necessary to make a statement about that. And it was also a statement about appropriation of culture. Because I had been in several museums in Europe that just blew me away. I was in a museum in Paris and there were things from my hometown, in Paris, that was, you know, touch the heart. What are these things doing here? What are these temples doing here? You know?

BC: [00:08:34] So was that city and an attempt to bring hometown to, Sweden for the people who had to vacate their loving space,

NI: [00:08:42] yeah, I think it was a statement about that. it was because there were a lot of people that came through at the time that I met that were part of that. that's how that piece came about.

BC: [00:08:56] Part Two: The Birth of a Trickster.

So, given all the different streams and pathways that you followed w how did you come to be this sort of three ring circus of an artist? What made you decide? Oh, this is what I want to do in my life. As a kid, were you a person who people said, oh There's a young artist just waiting to blossom or was it something you were encouraged to do?

NI: [00:09:25] No. No, I remember my mother saying something like, "Art you want to be, you want to do art that's for rich people, not for you". What's what she told me. I think that statement from my mother was, in reference to what I was going to study in college. And I was good at math and good at chemistry and physics and stuff like that. So, I ended up studying biochemistry. It was weird because every once in a while, something would just burst through you know, I remember at one point I made a wood sculpture and it just came out of, nothing. And I just made a wood sculpture while I was still studying you know, college. In Argentina, the education system is different than here. So, you don't have what I got a general bachelor's path in education. And, pretty much, when you leave high school, you decide what your career is going to be.

BC: [00:10:22] You have to declare.

NI: [00:10:23] It's a European model and if you're studying biochemistry, that's going to be your focus. So, at one point I decided that I wanted more than that. And I had to become part of another college. Which was the college of literature. And I started studying literature at the same time. And that's where I started going back towards a creative style in my life. it really was linguistics that sort of opened up my, way of perceiving the world. It was actually structuralism did that., it was, Saussure.

BC: [00:11:07] Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist and philosopher whose ideas laid the foundation for many significant developments in linguistics and semiotics in the 20th century

NI: [00:11:21] And I was pretty much an example of what his studies had been. You know, I was from many generations of Scots that I've lived in Argentina. So, when I came to the states, I spoke a really old English, an English that arrived in Argentina in the 1800’s. And I you know, I got laughed at a few times here and this day using inappropriate words.

 BC: [00:11:55] Not far off from the Appalachian

NI: [00:11:57] And there's a reason why I really like southern talking, I like Appalachian talking you know. Because it has a richness that I don't find in other English-speaking areas.

BC: [00:12:11] It's in service to the story. More than the structure of the sentence, it's lyrical.

 NI: [00:12:17] It has second person plural, which the rest of English doesn't, they, y’ all, that is a normal form in Spanish. So, I related that a lot.

Once I was in a, an African-American neighborhood that was really close to where I lived and I used to produce a festival there too. I was hanging out with, a guy that I had done several years and worked with them. So, we were close you know, we done the same festival. And this woman came, and she was from Cabbagetown and Cabbagetown basically got populated by people from Appalachia.

So, the way people spoke had a lot of relationship to Appalachian English. And she came and she asked my friend a question. And he looked at me and he couldn't get it. So, I translated. And then he answers her when I could tell she didn't understand him. So, I translated it back to her. Then she left because she got the direction she needed. And I like looked at my friend. and I said, "Do you realize what I just did?" I had interpreted many times from Spanish to English but never, never Appalachian.

BC: [00:13:33] That's beautiful. So, that sort of brings to mind. When I look at your work and I'm just going to talk about paintings right now. The story is preeminent. The story is super important sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. You even say you, want to paint paintings where the story is manifest in a single painting. Could you talk about that and what that means for you?

NI: [00:13:58] When I came to the States, I didn't have much control of English. It took me years before I got good enough to where I could tell a story in English. So, I focused on visual arts. At first, I started on crafts because, really quick I, started realizing that um, was going on in Argentina was going to last a long time. That the dictatorship was going to be in power and I wasn't going to be able to go back. So really that meant my education was out the door.

 And the first thing that I had to do was find a way to make money. So, I started with crafts. And I went to school and learned how to, form metals, which eventually led to a job in a jewelry store. And nobody in the class wanted a job as a polisher, but I went, yes, I'm doing it. And that was my entry into the jewelry world.

There was a building in Atlanta, the Carnegie building, and there must have been about 10, 15 jewelry workshops there. And I started as a polisher and eventually I was setting diamonds and doing repair. And then it was a way to live at first.

And I had gone to, to school and I had picked up this concept of making miniature sculptures, which is the art that I was doing at the time. So, I started working in a world that was a foot by a foot.

That was my, art creating world at the time. And things started to change because I started interpreting and doing voiceover work. So, the jewelry worked at and make that much sense anymore. At some point around there, I had a studio in Nexus.

BC: [00:15:55] The nexus center for the arts in Atlanta has been true to its namesake as a catalyst and incubator for artists and their ideas for the past 30 years. Back in Normando those early days. It was small and funky. Now it's much bigger with a new name. The Atlanta contemporary art center

NI: [00:16:16] And I think that having a studio nexus sort of redirected me as an artist because now I was around other artists. I was learning all kinds of techniques from them. And I was getting interested in other forms of art.

And it wasn't long that I was making installations, which was a form of art that I was very comfortable with. So, my art, creating the world, went from a foot by a foot to a fairly large footprint. And then I started volunteering to make sets in the theater at nexus. And Ian McCall was running that theater at the time. and he was bringing, what is it? PS 122. Is it called?

 BC: [00:17:08] Yeah. The legendary New York art space.

NI: [00:17:11] He was bringing them, and I built a set for them, and it involved workshops and they suggested I take the workshops and work with them, do the exercises. And I enjoyed a lot. And at one point was sitting the front row and he went, "Speak to me."