Maybe fourth-generation Lopezians don’t need to toot their own horns. Maybe, as Ron Norman puts it, “it’s just being Norwegian.” Whatever the reason, Norman treats his vast skillset—artist; architect; builder; farmer; mechanic; fisherman—as no big deal. “One thing led to another,” he tends to say.
Norman’s great-grandfather, a boat-builder, came to Lopez in the late 1800s. His grandfather captained a schooner in Alaska. His maternal grandma, Sadie Forest, cooked at the fishing shack out on Iceberg Point. She grew asparagus at McKaye Harbor stopping by to cut some on her way to work. Iceberg had a flagpole then, and “when Sadie ran the flag up, it was time to eat.”
As a girl, Norman’s mom, Shirley, walked to school from eastern Lopez, around Lopez Hill, all the way to the Grange. In 1947, she and Norman’s dad, Ed, bought 5 acres for $500, and started the service station that is now the Southender. The next year, Norman and his twin Don were born.
After graduating high school in 1966, Norman and Don joined the Navy, at age 17. “Dad signed something like 250 false signatures to get us in,” Norman says. They were sent to Vietnam, on a destroyer up the Saigon River. Despite “serious misgivings,” Norman served “three years, eight months, 11 days.”
Norman found naval service “unsettling.” They spent night watch dumping percussion grenades over the side every five minutes to prevent swimmers from attaching plastic explosives to the hull. The quarterdeck watch had to guard against venomous, 20-foot long sea snakes that would “try to come up the swimstep at night.” By their second tour, Norman says, the brothers were thinking, “This is a stupid war, why are we here?” They survived Tet, and in October 1969, aged 21, Norman was thrilled to be home: “The ferry landing never looked so good.”
He took a job with the telephone company. Then a blacksmith friend of his first wife encouraged Norman to work with metal in Aberdeen, at far higher wages. After years fixing logging trucks, Norman bought his own and hauled for a while. Then he ran a log-loader in the woods, and finally drove for Mayr Brothers, hauling logs by day and wood chips by night. Norman liked the work and the money, but Aberdeen—not so much. After 14 years, having divorced, remarried, had a daughter, and divorced again, Norman returned to Lopez in 1986.
Brother Don was now gillnetting commercially, so Norman joined him.
“It was always the best fishing on rough nights,” Norman says. The scariest: when his engine quit off Iceberg Point. Don hooked onto his boat and got him out, in the pitch black.
Norman spent one summer fishing in Alaska, but “one trip was enough.” So he went to work doing mechanical repair at Sunset Builder Supply. One day Danah’ Feldman brought in her chain saw. As Danah’ relates, “Ron said, ‘that is one hardworking woman…. stinking like engine oil and filthy dirty.” Norman says simply, “One thing led to another”—i.e., a 30+-year marriage.
Ready to build his own shop, Norman bought the corner lot, and he and Feldman built a new house nearby. For over 20 years, Norman ran his business, now leased to Coro’s Mechanical Repairs. He also became a commercial artist, somewhat accidentally: someone saw one of his creations and said, “I have to have that.” And one thing led to another.
Norman started welding at age eight, “sneaking into the shop, lighting fires.” He and his brothers built go-karts, motor-scooters—a family creativity which abides, as younger brother John just finished a working replica of the airplane Spirit of St. Louis.
“When I’m gonna create something, I get the goofiest feeling,” Norman says, “like I can see the finished product. And I’ll just start cutting with the torch, one thing’ll lead to another…” And his aesthetic? Maybe that Norwegian shipbuilding heritage. Norman’s art features fish and birds, dramatic and fanciful, often in recycled metals. Rock-and-rebar ducks and cows are especially popular—everything on view at ronnormansculpture.com.
In 2011, Norman and Feldman bought 40 acres aside Lopez Hill, on his mom’s old route to school. Norman built a shop and together they built a small home—now being up-cycled into Norman’s “latest art project”: a new house that will surely star in a future Home Tour. Long-centered, with round windows and curvy accents, it feels like a ferryboat.
Norman is also building a 1904 Orient motorbike, whose display space awaits in the new house. And he’s assembling a “ratrod”—a 1927 model-T coupe, with a turbot-charged engine right out of Star Wars: “Just another art project.”
When he finishes the house, Norman plans new offices for Feldman in Friday Harbor and at home, and a two-story treehouse, with electricity and water. After that? One thing will lead to another.