In the summer of 2018, local artist Cordelia Norris was traveling through the Atlanta airport with her 6-month-old son in tow. News programs looped the current administration’s decision to separate illegal migrant children from their families at the U.S. southern border.
“[They] were held in execrable, horribly abusive conditions,” Norris recalls. Those images embedded in her brain and moved her soul. It was then the idea for “Hatchlings” was born.
“It struck me like a lightning bolt,” she continues. “The subject of the coloring book, nesting birds and their young, alludes to the beauty and sanctity of family, and love between parents and their young.”
The artist devised a coloring book that would include her own illustrations, as well as 25 or 30 contributors she secured through the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators and the illustration department at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), where she received her MFA. Norris curated and organized the selections after collaborating with co-authors to make the book informative and educational with every depiction. More so, 25% of proceeds benefit the Young Center, which provides social and legal services to migrant children.
The artist has a clear passion for activism, specifically environmental conservatism and the natural world. She volunteers with or hosts fundraisers for numerous organizations, like the NC Coastal Federation and NC Audubon. Reared on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in a waterfront home raised on stilts, Norris’ fascination with the shore’s numerous wildlife and landscape came inherently, as did her curiosity in art.
“I was a creative and rambunctious child, and created elaborate Valentine mobiles, as well as cards, paintings of my neighbors’ houses, and songbooks with misinterpreted lyrics of Christmas carols,” she remembers. Norris constantly drew and wrote through school, and ended up with college degrees in art history, interdisciplinary studio art, graphic design and illustration.
After a brief year as a city slicker in DC, working for a federal agency as a graphic designer, she moved to Wilmington in 2017. Reconnecting with nature was a necessity.
“It became my lifelong ambition to leave the gray, the concrete, the long commutes, and return to the coast,” she says. “We’d visited multiple times since 2009, and just loved the combination of a historic riverfront town and some of the nicest beaches north of Florida.”
During her first year as a Carolinian, she showcased a body of work at the now-shuttered Expo 216. The “Plastic Ocean Exhibit” highlighted the threat our world’s most precious bodies of water faced with plastic pollution and featured multiple artist’s works.
“[My piece,] ‘Hybrid Ocean,’ imagined the consequences of transforming life in the ocean with consumer plastics,” Norris explains, “the evolution of strange, synthetic hybrids.”
While Norris has participated in group shows and nonprofit silent auctions in town, on March 27 she was supposed to launch her first local solo exhibit, “Wild Cape Fear,” at Aces Gallery, run by the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County. Governor Cooper’s executive order to social distance and close businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19 went into action. Thus Aces closed until further notice, and under the mandate to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, the arts council canceled its Fourth Friday Gallery Night. Rather than give in to loss, Norris launched the show on her Etsy shop, Local Love Boutique, with 30% of sales benefiting the council.
“Arts organizations, typically underfunded at the best of times, often suffer in times of crisis, but their work is vital to our community,” Norris tells. “It’s important to me the show is able continue in a way that benefits the arts council. . . . I think it’s a way for us to stay connected with work that helps lift us up and sees us through new terrain.”
Her show consists of more than a dozen new paintings. Norris spent a year taking photos and studying the natural world of southeastern NC as inspiration. From the marshes to the swamps, the barrier islands and ocean, to maritime forests, each stroke and brush holds her love for and hope of protection for our natural world.
“Most of the paintings highlight iconic species, like loggerhead sea turtles, black skimmers, great blue herons, and oysters,” she explains. “It also explores the relationship between our dramatic skies above and the water below.”
She points to black skimmer chicks and adults, and common tern chicks that came directly from her field work with local environmental organizations. As a bird steward for NC Audubon, she spent Saturday evenings last summer behind her scope at the south end of Wrightsville Beach.
“It was like being in a nature documentary and was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my adult life,” she tells. “I’d been watching a pair of common tern siblings for some time before catching a sweet moment when the very tips of their beaks met. They were waiting for one of their parents to return with fish from the inlet, and I think they were checking in with each other to see if either had food to share.”
Also in the Etsy shop is her second coloring book, “All Along the Atlantic,” showcasing flora and fauna of the North Atlantic. Earlier this month it was released at Wrightsville Beach Brewery as a fundraiser for the NC Coastal Federation. “It’s inspired by my desire to learn more about diverse coastal ecologies,” she tells. “The organic forms and mathematical relationships expressed throughout the natural world are an ongoing inspiration. The more time you spend observing a place or a species, the more you understand and appreciate it.”
Norris hopes the power of wonder emanating from “Wild Cape Fear” eventually will see its way to the walls of Aces Gallery. Until then, she will develop and expand her knowledge, despite having to cancel numerous volunteer opportunities, conferences and events.
“I’m continuing the good habits I developed while working on this exhibit: painting every Sunday, watching tutorials by experts, reading about technique, and reading a lot of books by naturalists,” she says. “I’d like to grow as a naturalist, and be better at capturing the light at different times of day. This strange season, this ‘Great Pause,’ is really the time for developing meaningful projects. Without that sense of mission and urgency, it’s very easy to be distracted or uneasy.”