Heidi Norton, Artist

“Being a photographer and being an artist working with materials like resin, plants, and glass — those two worlds should not really mix,” says Heidi Norton. “You have the camera and you have film and you’re trying to keep things clean and archival, and then you have dirt and glass shards everywhere.” Such contradictions are at the core of Norton’s work, from the immaculate glow of her photography to the dirt-under-your-fingernails feel of her sculptural pieces, which typically feature houseplants in some form or another. Norton started incorporating plants into her photographic practice several years ago in a series of still lifes. It was partly a way to bring the natural world she grew up with, in rural West Virginia, into the urban setting of Chicago, where she’s lived since getting her MFA at the School of the Art Institute in 2002. Those photos eventually inspired her to make plant-based sculptures that explore how we create, cultivate, and change ourselves. Therein lies the central paradox: “The idea of preservation, and trying to save the plant while at the same time killing it through that preservation, became really interesting to me,” she says. “All of the mediums I use deal with that idea in different ways.”

Even her studio itself, shot by Debbie Carlos for part two of Sight Unseen’s series on Chicago artists, is part of the process. A bright space in an industrial building in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood, it’s a controlled, but continually changing, environment. “It’s always a surprise when I come into the studio. Like, what the hell has happened in here? Oh, that’s dead. That’s alive. That’s melted.” Initially, “it was a source of a lot of anxiety because I didn’t understand what was going to happen. I would come check on the plants, make sure they were still alive, that kind of thing. But as I grew into the work and the work developed, it came to be that the death of the plants was just as significant as the life of the plant, or the regeneration and re-growth of something out of the piece.” Norton’s creations, which often recycle elements from past works, are “in a constant state of flux” but undergo the kind of slow metamorphosis you don’t really see taking place. Nevertheless, when I visited her studio earlier this year, Norton did her best to help me envision it.