Polly Norman: ‘Dancing Through Glass’

Polly Norman is definitely her mother’s daughter. From the same facial features and body type she and her mom share to the anxious minds they both bear, Norman considers her mom her “soulmate.”

“I inherited anxiety disorder from my mother, which over the years has occasionally led me to suffer from panic attacks that left me paralyzed with fear. Then there was depression – long periods of it,” she said.

And that wasn’t all. For Norman, there was also craziness and chaos as she struggled to deal with mood swings she didn’t understand until she sought treatment.

Norman was eventually diagnosed with manic depressive disorder, also known as bipolar disorder. The illness can be devastatingly debilitating, but fortunately, in her case it is not. Norman believes that is because she has sought out and received professional help to deal with her disease and because she has an outlet – a “voice” for it in her artwork.

According to a September article in the Huffington Post, Norman is on to something. The article, “Creativity Tied to Mental Illnesses Like Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia in New Swedish Study,” noted that people with mental illnesses use the arts as a way of expressing themselves more often than people without them. It also stated that certain mental illnesses – in particular bipolar disorder – are more common among artists and scientists, from dancers and photographers to researchers and authors.

Norman fits the bill, because she is a visual artist, a photographer, a dancer and a former neonatal nurse. In her recently published book, “Dances Through Glass: A 25-Year Retrospective of Work by Photographer and Painter Polly Norman,” she shares her path to recovery and invites fellow sufferers to join her in the quest for wellness.

The book begins with Norman’s essay, “Soaring and Crashing,” where she reveals her struggles with mania and depression and how she deals with them.

“To deal with the chaos in my life, I escape into the prism of glass, dancing to the visual music in my mind,” she wrote. “My photographs express my interior movement from darkness into light and back again.”

Pool inspiration

Norman can trace that escape to a visit she made years ago to a Chicago health club.

“I went down to the pool area, swam some laps and then slipped into the club’s hot tub,” she said. “I looked up at a large bank of glass block that lined one wall of the pool area and the images that came through were amazing. I went back to my hotel room, grabbed my camera and went back to capture them on film.”

When she returned home from Chicago, Norman printed the images in the darkroom. Later, she began adding papers of different transluscencies as well as everyday objects such as string and feathers to form a photogram layer. The enhancements made the photos even more dimensional. The works perfectly expressed how she was feeling – calm and happy one moment, chaotic and crazy the next.

The main collection of art in “Dances Through Glass” is Norman’s unique abstract photography made with a process of her own invention. Because Norman is also a painter, she uses that skill for hand-coloring select pieces.

These “polly-graphs,” as they are often referred to, receive whatever enhancement Norman deems necessary. “Some are left simply black and white, some have an additional layer of images and/or are painted. I let the piece dictate what it needs,” she said.

Passion for dance

Norman began her career as an artist by photographing dancers. A dancer herself, her abstract work took on a “dance-y” look, reflecting her great passion for dance and the music that moves it.

“Dances Through Glass” is arranged as a series of three dance movements: Cecchetti, which focuses on clean lines, specific postures and exacting technique; Tango, which swings from composed rigidity to the surreal in a single gesture; and Tarantella, which is a frenzied dance of transformation.

Norman, who lives with her husband in Edina and has two grown sons, now helps and advocates for people with mental illnesses.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one in four adults, approximately 61.5 million Americans, experience mental illness in a given year. One in 17 – about 13.6 million – live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

Norman said that if her artwork can inspire even just a small percentage of her fellow sufferers to seek help and better deal with their own illnesses, then creating the book was worth it.