Creative wave  |  Local artist makes a splash with seascapes, cartoons

Norm Daniels sticks out like a creative thumb when he plops down at San Diego beaches—an easel and canvas in one hand, paints and brushes in the other. He might as well be an alien in the land of surfboards, sandcastles and sea gulls.

“I love it when kids come up while I’m painting on location and ask me what I’m doing,” the Pine Valley resident said. “Always, it is the same conversation:

“Kid: ‘What are ya’ doin’ mister?’”

“Me: ‘I’m painting.’”

“Kid: ‘Are you an artist?’”

“Me: ‘Do you think I am?’”

“Kid: ‘Hmmmm. Yeah, I think so.’”

“Me: ‘Are you an artist?’”

“Kid: ‘Oh yeah!’”

At this point, the self-taught painter and sea lover becomes impromptu teacher.

“I lower the easel and hand them the brush and let ’em paint,” Daniels said.  “Always makes the parents nervous, but it is so fun watching these kids paint. Sometimes the parents buy the painting, even. But always, it makes a big smile for everyone, and oil paint is easy to, ehhh, fix—if it needs to be adjusted a bit.”

The forgiving power of oils is not lost on Daniels, a longtime believer who still marvels at the forgiving power he’s found in his Christian faith.

“I know that I am a big goof,” he said. “I make such huge messes and selfish mistakes. In God there is forgiveness, acceptance and hope.”

Daniels has put that hope into overdrive in recent years as he’s coped with a series of small strokes that impacted his speech and the left side of his body.

“That was a scary time,” he said. “There was lots of pain in the back of my noggin.’”

The health scare prompted Daniels to resign his post as executive director of Pine Valley Bible Conference Center, where his wife of 32 years, Patsy, remains conference coordinator. With the stress of administrative duties behind him, and after following the doctor’s orders, changing his diet and weaning off of steroids, Daniels is nearly healed.

“At last I’m really close to being back to my goofy, old self again,” he said.

The professionally trained architect spent a season of his life in the Sierras with his family while he served as artist/architect for Hume Lake Christian Camps. During his tenure with Hume, Daniels designed several buildings for the facility and honed his art skills creating scenery, posters, and production art for youth-led dramas. Daniels now focuses full time on his art—an unintended, but vital, component in his recovery.

“Just working and practicing and growing as an artist takes lots of time, so actually I’m thankful that the stroke gave me the gift of time,” he said.  “Kinda weird, huh?

“If I never sold a painting again, I would still paint and draw. Of course, I’d go hungry, but I would still paint as long as God gives me breath. Indeed, it is a passion. How thankful I am for this opportunity.”

Doodles to fine art
Daniels’ first commissioning of art came by way of his childhood peers who watched him doodle during class. It wasn’t uncommon in those days to find a Mad magazine tucked into his science textbook.

“I was always being asked to draw posters or sketches for all the other kids’ projects,” the father of three grown children said. “It was fun.”

Decades later his notebooks and journals still boast sketches and cartoons, a visual testimony to his father’s influence.

“My dad was a pretty good cartoonist, so I’ve loved and drawn ‘toons’ since I was a youngster,” he said.

It would be a mistake, though, to box Daniels into a single style. While his “Hula ToOnS” line has a cheery, whimsical side with nods to the Aloha spirit and Southern California’s early love affair with the VW beetle and bus, his repertoire includes Plein Air impressionism of local landmarks and breathtaking surfscapes and other marvels of creation that he calls representational impressionism, “meaning things look like what they are, not abstract, and not photo-realistic.”

Each style of his artwork seems to capture an element of his personality. For instance, he maintains his Hula ToOnS are “not to be taken too seriously, so if you are, then stop it right now!” A self-confessed “reformed fundamentalist,” Daniels said it took years for him to realize being a Christian artist didn’t require him to focus his work on the artifacts of the faith.

He likened it to Scottish athlete Eric Liddell, upon whom the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” was based. As shown in the movie, Liddell was able to carve out a place in life for both missionary work and running.

“I love the quote from ‘Chariots of Fire’ where Eric Liddell says: ‘I know that God made me for a purpose, for China, but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.’ So cool. When I paint, I feel His joy and pleasure.”

Pursuing color and light
Daniels delight with the ocean, nurtured by his once-daily surfing exploits as a teen living in La Mesa, is a hobby he still pursues “now and again.” His tidy garage-based studio— situated in the foothills a good three-quarters of an hour east of the closest shoreline—boasts the expected art supplies, a retired surfboard designed for the big waves he no longer chases, a poster celebrating the colorful pageantry of the VW bus, and a commercial sign paying tribute to Rick Griffin, the late “surf artist” and illustrator who is one of Daniel’s artistic influences.

“There is something so special about the salt air and sand and the sport of surfing,” he said. “It is extremely peaceful and pleasant, although the peace can be interrupted by the occasional sheer terror of the reality of not being at the top of the food chain out there—or getting your keister pummeled.”

At the center of it all is vibrant color, a medium he uses to recreate that which was created by his Creator, giving him a voice without words.

“My vocabulary has so few colors,” he said. My art palette is unlimited,” he said.

Daniels channels those colors in his quest to reproduce light, the main thing he observes when he studies nature.

“(Its) the way light reflects color and shape,” he said of his view of creation, particularly the pull of the ocean. “The impact of light upon your eyes. Every one gathers to watch a sunset because of the light. Sometimes there is spontaneous applause, too. We all see it. Maybe an artist doesn’t really see it better, maybe we just take a little longer to look at it and study it, then attempt to capture it with paint on canvas. And sometimes there is spontaneous applause (of his own work).”

Although Daniels seems to major in self-deprecation, his work is seriously appreciated. In addition to numerous high-profile surfers, his work has been purchased by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, La Jolla resident Fernando Aguirre, founder of Reef Sandals, and the San Diego offices of DPR Construction. Overseas, collectors of his art hail from England, Australia, Costa Rica, Austria and Puerto Rico, where his work is featured in a gallery in Rincon.

Closer to home, his pieces are represented in galleries in San Diego, Laguna Beach, Hawaii, and, as Daniels deftly points out, in the trunk of his car. His work has also been featured in the trade show booth of Big Wave pioneer Greg Noll and in the Noll Surf Shop in San Clemente.

He has also illustrated for Surfer magazine and several children’s books.

The artist’s large studio paintings command $500 to $2,000, while his smaller framed plein air works sell from $300 to $700. His Hula ToOnS pieces are $100 to $500. He also has a box of small unframed studies that are available for under $100 apiece.

“I don’t imagine that I’m changing the world with my paintings, but it is quite satisfying and humbling when someone comments that the painting reminds them of a special place or time or simply makes them happy. Sometimes,” he added, “they even will buy a painting—and that makes me happy.”

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