Douglas Norris Nelsen (1923 – 2010)
engraver, sketcher, painter

By Hélio Schonmann

Douglas Norris (1923-2010) was an outstanding representative of the São Paulo art, in its most underground way. His work came to light only on two occasions - 1982 and 1987 when he held solo exhibitions at SESC Paulista gallery, featuring cutouts of a vast production, among prints, drawings and paintings. Aside from these rare moments, he worked over nearly sixty years almost incognito, driven by a permanent inner need. From our meetings, it was etched in my memory his friendly, assertive and patriarchal figure, as if straight out of a page of the Old Testament.

Douglas was a master of the woodcut engraving, in which he made severe constructive rigor and a deep emotional expressiveness converge. In the drawing he manifested himself with unique resourcefulness, working until a few months before his death. He made also rich pictorial research that culminated in the conquest of air, color and gesture synthesis in recent works. In all these languages, the shape presents itself dense, organizing narratives of evident expressionist affiliation, shifting between the lyrical note and the more explicit drama.

The Brazilian art has significant precedents, with respect to the exacerbation of drama and lyricism - Oswaldo Goeldi and Alberto da Veiga Guignard are emblematic cases. Douglas’s poetics can be considered in the light of these references - especially with regard to their affinities with Goeldi approach of loneliness. But the figure that marked and defined the trajectory of the artist was not an engraver, but a painter, designer and sculptor - Raphael Galvez, with whom he kept a durable and fruitful contact. We can thus situate him as a direct heir of the generation that graduated from the living around the Sindicato dos Artistas Plásticos (Union of Plastic Artists) and workshops in the now legendary Palacete Santa Helena (Chateau St. Helena).


The captivating expressiveness of the characters that populate the universe of Douglas’s imagery has, in its clarity of shape, unquestionable trump, what does not eliminate the mystery that surrounds them - materialized, as a rule, in twilight, merger and backlight. The clarity/mystery polarity has opened for the artist a vast field of artistic research, which propelled him to unfold his work in several languages, including there a significant incursion through the mosaic. His son Igor still has vivid memories of the walks he took with his father in order to collect stones in the vicinity of the house where they lived in Santo Amaro. In the mineral variety of the neighborhood Douglas found the chromatic richness from which he built his images. So, mosaics were born which fully explore the language possibilities - reflecting, in the concreteness of the material, the bonds of connection between the artist and the city.

The emblematic sequence of pictures in woodcut he made - plus the prints which focused on scenes of everyday life – constitute a true mapping of São Paulo’s population, but it is important to emphasize that these works are not limited to the mere registration of a local typology. The gaze of the artist sought in the other, in the different one, the construction of an affective cartography that could situate him before the world.

A poetics of the belonging, defined from the human landscape around him - that is the axis of this approach. In this sense his bond was established, especially with the very diversity - defining characteristic of the metropolis, built by immigrants.

While São Paulo became a giant, inexorably becoming more and more impersonal, a virtually invisible artist as Douglas focused on the city through the multiple individual existences that composed it: in his prints we can feel the life of each character as if it was seen from the inside. We sense, in the geography of those looks, the landscape they inhabit.

A short but eloquent testimony gives us the dimension of the bonds of empathy involving the artist and his models: "Near the Tietê River, I portrayed a little girl named 'Ondine'. A boy who didn't talk much stood there watching us, so I invited him to be portrayed. One day the girl´s little doll fell into the river and the boy, even with his clothes on, jumped into the river to save it. I went back there several times to draw, and found out that the young man was a crook. Ondina left me her doll and the boy, his lighter. Art changes everything "¹. The idea of the belonging gains, in this narrative summary, roominess and unmatched consistency. For Douglas, to focus on life representation of the city’s inhabitants was a two-way street: the artist understood his role not only as an observer and interpreter of the local context, but also as a person who interferes in this context. Art was for him an effective instrument of action and transformation.


As a result of his links with the area, it is natural that Douglas also recorded São Paulo’s physical landscape. In the woodcuts that deal with the theme, we come up with a vision guided by solidity. The buildings remind us of those stones collected by him in the city itself, the raw material of the mosaics - heavy monolithic blocks, emphasize the minimum scale of the population. Collective space that is imposed on the individual, the city presents itself as the opposite of the portraits. In counterpoint between the two poles, Douglas defined a coherent perspective with his time, merging the ongoing research of language into a lucid humanism, free of naivety.

The first canvases where the artist focused on São Paulo’s landscape present the same approach of the engravings - especially with regard to the pursuit of solidity - but the unfolding of this work in the following decades, will tread different paths. In many of his last views of the city - made with egg tempera, in the nineties - the scene consists of a sullen, surrounding magma. A visceral approach, in which the gesture emphasis is balanced by fusions that go building a dense atmosphere. It is worth highlighting the assimilation of Ernesto Fiore’s and Raphael Galvez’s lessons that we witnessed in these paintings. But beyond these pictorial references, a personal vision of the suburban landscape emerges, marked by drama and mystery.

It is important to emphasize, finally, that there was an "elsewhere" in the existence and sensitivity of the artist, who came to define himself as an islander by adoption and heart" ². Feeling this way linked to the coastal context, he made a series of woodcuts engravings, in which color, as a rule, imposes itself. The beach will never be, for Douglas, an exotic tropical setting, but a habitat filled with existential meanings, much closer to human feelings, surely, than the landscape too compact, dense - almost an " object - landscape " of the metropolis he created.


Douglas Norris’s life presents a genuinely impressive versatility, hard to match: beyond tireless dedication to the plastic arts, he was a gymnast, wrestler, model, dancer, opera singer, award-winning film actor - he acted in movies produced by Vera Cruz, receiving, among others, the Governor of the State Award - and television, in the heroic times of that vehicle. In recent decades he also devoted himself to writing short stories and poems.

The visibility enjoyed in the period devoted to the careers of actor and wrestler contrasts with its subsequent isolation. But art does not feed on light – it develops, sometimes silently, amid the most impenetrable shadow. Here is a life perfectly lined with work: reclusive artist by choice, he nurtured a kind of poetics that lays bare, in the most unrestrained way, the beauty and the tragedy of our existence. At the epicenter of such an intense universe, we encounter the essence of human drama - loneliness. In Douglas Norris, life became work and the work manifested life, fully.


1. " Fragments of the artist: Douglas Norris," text by Luiz Ricardo Rufo.

2. Autobiographical text, no title.