BY CARMEN SIERING
For someone who says he learned about art on the “know as you go” plan, Thomas Norpell, 70, has some impressive credentials. He’s sold more than 200 works through commissions and more in art galleries. His mixed-media bas-relief French Café won the prize for Outstanding 3D Work at the 2016 Hoosier Salon. But the honor of a lifetime occurred this summer when Norpell presented a 1:8 scale miniature replica to former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, a replica the Carters were thrilled to receive.
How did this Martinsville, Indiana, artist acquire the prestigious commission and end up in such esteemed company?
A few years ago, Norpell created a barn miniature for Steve and Caron Morgan of Atlanta, Georgia. Caron is the former daughter-in-law of the Carters; she was married to Chip Carter and is the mother of James Earl Carter IV.
While emailing with the Morgans about the project, Norpell learned that the family had historically been involved in agricultural production, so he added tiny signs typical of those posted on barns advertising such products. “They flipped out over that,” he says with a smile. “It was fun because it connected the project to them in a personal way.”
Norpell and his wife, Maryann, kept in touch with the Morgans, and in January 2016 visited them in Atlanta. During that visit the family asked Norpell if he would create an architectural miniature for President Carter. But the family didn’t have a specific commission in mind. They asked Norpell to suggest something.
“That night I started researching,” Norpell says. The president’s boyhood home was nothing special. “It was just a Sears house,” he says. “Then I learned his father was a grocer in downtown Plains [Georgia] after World War I, and we were looking for something that would resonate with the President.”
Norpell asked his brother, Butch, a professional photographer, to thoroughly document every detail of the building that still stands on Plains’ Main Street, and then he set to work. He says he filled in missing details — what hung on the walls, what filled the bins — with careful research and, sometimes, a bit of whimsy. For example, the food manufacturers’ posters and regional and national brands of products are historically accurate. But Norpell added personal touches, too, such as the wall calendar featuring a photo of James Earl Carter Sr.’s Ford Runabout, the car he drove on his first date with President Carter’s mother, Lillian. The calendar is set to October 1924, with the date October 1 circled in red. That’s the day President Carter was born.
Norpell completed the project in June and looked into shipping the miniature, but realized it would be easier just to drive it to Atlanta. When he told the Morgans his plans, they asked if he would be part of a presentation at the Carter Center and Presidential Library. How could he refuse?
The presentation occurred on July 13. “It was very intimate,” Norpell says of the reception; it included only himself and Maryann, the Morgans, and the president’s grandson, James, and his wife, Sally. When the cover was lifted, Norpell says the President and Mrs. Carter moved forward to inspect the details. “His first reaction was, ‘Oh, my, I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Norpell notes with some pride. “They were genuinely moved.”
The two men talked about the processes involved in the project. “Jimmy Carter is an extremely talented man,” Norpell says. “He’s an engineer and a painter — he must have 100 paintings in the Carter Center. He had a lot of questions about craft.”
Norpell says the reception was a great moment, and nothing he expected. Just creating the miniature was an honor. “For me to do a commission for a person I’ve always admired and who is such a good man, well, we were pinching ourselves for quite awhile,” he says. “It’s probably the pinnacle of my career. It’s really given us a lot of wonderful memories.”