SIX YEARS AGO, WHILE VISITING my family in the former steel town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I saw something unexpected in a vacant lot. Someone had built a large wooden sculpture and, in front of it, had planted tomatoes inside an artful arrangement of tall, blue plastic cylinders of various heights. To the left and right of this audacious act of vitality, none of the buildings looked inhabited. Most of the windows were boarded over. I asked my brother, who lives nearby, if he knew who was behind the multiple sculptures on Horner Street.
“Who do you think?” he asked, “Who else except Norm Ed would do that here?”
I was surprised to hear Norman Ed was still in town. I hadn’t seen him since the late nineties, when he taught art at the local public school I attended. Ed was the only teacher I ever heard respond when students used a racial slur in class. “That’s not cool,” he would say each time. “You don’t sound cool at all when you use that word. You really don’t.” His calm yet uncompromising response was so unlike anyone else’s at the time that I recalled it immediately, three decades later, at the mention of his name. I’d assumed he must have left Johnstown by now for the same reasons I had—to live in a place where racial slurs were not an accepted part of daily conversation, and where it would be easier to find other people who saw art as integral to their sense of self.
Intrigued at what had kept him here and what he had in mind for the sculpture lot, I called Ed. He invited me to come to his studio the next day. He didn’t explain on the phone that he had accumulated four decades’ worth of astonishing mixed-media sculptures inside the former auto parts store that he and his wife, Mary, had converted into a work and living space. I’ve now been visiting Ed in his studio for six years. His ability to translate Appalachia into subtle, large-scale sculptures has radically altered my outlook on this region, what questions about life here remain artistically underexplored. “If a curator for the Whitney Biennial came out and saw what Norm’s doing,” Pittsburgh-based art historian and museum curator Vicky Clark told me, “They would be wowed. His work deserves a far larger presence than he’s had. But who from the Biennial comes out here? No one.”
Ed makes visual translations of coal country from its discards. He uses old mine cribbing, sewage pipes, stacks of broken school chairs. Cribbing is particularly symbolic for this region. Slabs of wood cut like Lincoln Logs, cribbing was long used to stabilize mine roofs, many of which are now collapsing and causing sinkholes. “We’re basically living on that cribbing,” Ed says, “that’s what’s under us, and a lot of it is rotting.” He follows updates on local sinkholes, some large enough to swallow a house.
How the subsurface past keeps wreaking havoc here is a question Ed continues to answer differently in each new work. When I visited his studio in the summer of 2021, his latest sculpture was a response to a recent school massacre. He’d carved a burned plank of wood to resemble a choppy river, then suspended the plank between two equally burned school chairs with a small fragile boat adrift between them like a lost student, or a bewildered teacher caught in the divides. For months after, whenever the subject of rural voters came up on the news with the usual flat generalizations, I thought of the vulnerability of that lone boat, floating in the charred water between opposing chairs.
Chuck Olson, a renowned painter based in the Allegheny Highlands, has been a champion of Ed’s work for years. Olson likened the potential impact of Ed’s underrecognized work to that of Thaddeus Mosley, a Black sculptor and former postal worker who lives on the north side of Pittsburgh and whose abstract carved wood sculptures weren’t known beyond western Pennsylvania until he was in his nineties. At ninety-four years old, Mosley’s stunning large-scale oak sculptures are now exhibited all over the world.
As with Mosley, Olson predicts Ed’s work could alter how people think about Appalachia in contemporary art, countering assumptions that artists off the grid here tend to be out of touch with the pressing questions propelling art elsewhere. “What Ed’s doing with industrial waste in Johnstown, how he takes it out of context and reinvents it as collage,” Olson said, “it gives you that feeling in your shoulders, that energy that comes with seeing really good work.”
Ed grew up in a family that has long stood out in Johnstown. His mother’s parents emigrated from Russia and his father is from Syria. On Ellis Island, the family’s name, Assad, was shortened to Ed. He recalls his crew of eight siblings being the only kids in town who knew how to swear in both Arabic and Russian. “Our family was different,” he says, “and we still are. But who isn’t an outsider here in some way?”
How the subsurface past keeps wreaking havoc here is a question Ed continues to answer differently in each new work.
Ed left the region after high school, as did I. On my visits to his studio, we speak often about the bigotry we both witnessed, and experienced at school, where classmates often brought up my Jewishness in a derogatory way, or used “Jew” as a verb. I didn’t know anyone else who coped with the strain of daily bigotry through making art. Ed, however, returned each day to an exceptionally creative and supportive family large enough to become a realm of its own, with their artistic mother at the helm, who carved dogs out of the extra dough from pie crusts and taught them to make figures out of old matches. I’ve met some of Ed’s siblings, and when they are together, the creative energy is so strong it’s like witnessing a force field. Nearly all his siblings have stayed in the area, buttressing each other’s artistic instincts.
Their mother, 102 years old now, still whittles figures out of string and wood. Ed is the most publicly recognized visual artist among his siblings. After graduating from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 1977, he had early success placing pieces in group shows. For a few post-college years, he remained in the Philadelphia area, working in construction and freelance design, but the careerism required to succeed in the market-driven art world turned him off. “I didn’t need that,” he told me, “I wanted to make public art that anyone could see and touch.”
“Like the art you made growing up?” I asked him, and he said yes. In a family of ten, whatever they made became immediately public, touched by all.
When Ed moved back to the Allegheny Highlands in the eighties, Johnstown was still a producer for Bethlehem Steel, the county’s population around 60,000. The mills closed a decade later, in the nineties, while I was growing up, and every year since the number of shuttered stores and houses continues to multiply. In the early aughts, the U.S. Census rated our hometown the least likely city in the entire country to attract new residents, which now number under 12,000. The county regularly ranks among the highest in the state for opioid-related deaths and poverty levels.
During this sharp decline, Ed became fascinated with the sudden sinkholes giving way over deep mines. The sinkholes as a visual metaphor for the psychic state of the region spoke to him. He began buying up old mine cribbing for a few dollars a slab. As with all his work, the appeal was both conceptual and aesthetic, as much about the history embodied in the cribbing as the striking crosshatch shape the slabs form when stacked into towers. The discarded cribbing was also ideal for public sculptures that could be installed outside. Any viewer could stop and consider the cribbing anew, resurrected as art.
After purchasing four hundred slabs of cribbing, Ed called some friends and siblings with box vans and asked if they would help him build a guerilla sculpture. They decided to erect it during a Steelers game, when hardly anyone was on the road. He chose a spot under a billboard at an intersection downtown. In two hours, they made a massive pile out of the cribbing in what remains the only spontaneous collaborative art event that has ever taken place in Johnstown.
A writer with the local paper suspected Ed who erected the sculpture. He called Ed for a comment. “It’s my gift to Johnstown,” Ed told him. “It belongs to everyone. It’s this city’s history.”
Later, Ed declined to respond to a published comment calling for him to be put in jail for vandalizing a public area. Other readers expressed contempt, and confusion, about what would motivate a group of men to dump a bunch of wood at an intersection—responses Ed had expected and found amusing. What he didn’t expect was a quote from a man who’d worked in the mines for thirty years who said he recognized instantly what the wood was. He told the Tribune-Democrat that the way the cribbing was stacked reminded him of how they’d all leaned against each other underground. “Making art here,” Ed said, “you never know what might happen.”
Norm has an irrepressible conviction in the transformative role that art could have in Appalachia’s future.
Most often, what happens to art in Appalachia is nothing. “The indifference to art in this region runs deep,” Chuck Olson told me. “You can drown in the indifference, but not Ed. He’s never stopped. He’s created a whole coral reef with his art here and all these other things feed off of it.” Like many of the world’s most vibrant coral reefs, the forty years of abstract sculpture Ed has amassed here in the Allegheny Mountains has occurred out of view, under the known surface of American art. Ed has no interest in the known surface. “I’m interested in what gets junked,” he told me.
Olson described Ed as having a Quixotic aspect to his artistic practice, and I agree. He has an irrepressible conviction in the transformative role that art could have in Appalachia’s future. He objected to the Quixote comparison, though, and claims he has no delusions about rescuing anyone in particular. “I don’t have a savior complex, or at least not anymore,” he added with a laugh. He said he and Mary chose the auto parts store and adjacent lot because it was what they could afford to buy, and also where they could build outdoor sculptures as large and weird as they wanted, and nobody would object. “Nobody cares what goes on in this part of town,” he said, “and I don’t need to live around other artists. I’d rather sit down and talk to my neighbors.”
Occasionally, passersby stop and pick tomatoes from the planters that Ed and Mary fashioned out of plastic sewer tubes. Sometimes people just pause and stare at the immense rusted wheels Ed salvaged from a junkyard and erected in a looping line along the perimeter of the lot. Mary keeps adding sections to a fetching row of old doors and window frames painted in tulip hues of purple, red, and yellow, as if the repurposed doors and windows are blooming, living things rising up from the gravel.
The experience of such artistic daring amid so many vacant, condemned buildings is profound. Nothing remains open on their street except for one tiny bar, 3 Reds, that sells Bud Lights for seventy cents a can.
Occasionally, if asked, Ed has shown a piece in a regional or local exhibit. In 2019, five of the Ed siblings held a group show together at the Community Arts Center of Cambria County. Norm exhibited one of his mine cribbing sculptures, one with a pair of rusted wheels from a discarded cart on top and inside it, a large steel plumb bob suspended on a chain. As with the mine cribbing, the solid raindrop shape of the plumb bob is easily recognizable to anyone who’s worked in construction and knows the tool’s single yet crucial function. Hanging from a string or chain, the plumb bob will swing until it locates the line of gravity that a human eye can’t establish on its own. Hidden inside the chamber of the stacked cribbing, the plumb bob brings to mind the partial visibility of a heart inside a rib cage, the pulsing, living truth.
“Norm takes the vernacular and says something significant,” curator Vicky Clark told me. Reflecting on the decades of regional work she’s seen while curating shows for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Carnegie Museum, she said a lot of art with found objects doesn’t say much. “Ed’s sculptures offer an alternate history that’s a powerful experience, but it’s subtle work,” she added. “He has a stealth way of trying to change the dialogue.”
Years of visiting Ed, taking in his stealthy way of reimagining Appalachia in his work have compelled me to attempt the same, in fiction. His work has a striking lack of indictment. His sculptures never hector or condemn, yet they still address larger questions about class, capitalism, and who historically in this country has been considered disposable. Ed achieves that rare kind of visual translation that art critic Dave Hickey described in his book The Invisible Dragon, a translation of “thundering historical resonance,” into “a subtler and more intimate awareness of what art can do.”
For Ed, the “what” of art is inextricable from the “where,” and I’ve seen a new intensity in his work as the political divides in the area have increased. He continues to be fascinated with sinkholes, labor history, and class tensions, but he’s also begun to create sculptural collages addressing the legacy of racism in Appalachia and the sickening incidents that have occurred recently in Johnstown. After the 2016 election, several locals attached an effigy of Obama to the back of a truck and dragged it through town. Ed took part in the local protest in response.
Amid the turmoil, Ed and his adult daughter Nelly painted a bright, enormous mural on the side of the auto parts store that says LOVE LOUD. Inside the safety of his studio, Norm felt an urgency to grapple with racism more explicitly and with discarded objects he hadn’t incorporated before—wooden piano keys that a friend had brought to him in a large plastic jar after dismantling an old piano. The white piano keys were made of ivory, the black from ebony and he told me he was initially turned off at the thought of using the ivory keys, even if they’d arrived unbidden, from a piano built before he was born. Yet he also felt uneasy about placing the jar of keys out of sight and out of mind. “These ivory keys, the ugly history of the ivory trade, all that already exists,” he told me. “These keys are here. We have to deal with them somehow.”
Over the next few months, he configured the wooden keys into Dis Cord, a haunting, subtle evocation of school segregation, with six ivory keys nailed to the right side of a crude piece of wood, and a smaller, vulnerable-looking cluster of ebony keys nailed to the left, the space between the two groups of keys empty except for a row of uneven nails, holding up nothing but a temporal sense that the two groups of keys have experienced this piece of wood quite differently.
Johnstown’s Heritage Discovery Center, whose stated purpose is to exhibit the city’s history, has yet to showcase the racist expulsion in 1923, the largest in Pennsylvania history. I’d never heard about the expulsion, and Ed hadn’t either, until the publication in 2020 of Cody McDevitt’s oral history, Banished from Johnstown: Racist Backlash in Pennsylvania. Ed recommends the book to everyone he thinks will be open to reckoning with the shocking history it reveals. The Tribune-Democrat never covered the book or its own role in the expulsion as the local paper willing to print an illegal decree from the mayor. The paper ordered two thousand Black and Mexican American people, many of them at gunpoint, to desert their homes and flee Johnstown by sundown in a single night while local Klansmen burned crosses all over town.
After reading McDevitt’s history of the expulsion, and out of anguish at the rising number of school massacres in the country, Ed began work on a whole series of sculptures involving discarded school chairs. In one sculpture, titled Nuclear Family, chairs rise over the viewers’ heads in an arc that abruptly stops like a truncated life. On the school chair affixed to the ground, the seat is covered with a loose pile of salt and two unfired clay cups, pending completion. “A chair is about conversation,” Norm said, “or at least the prospect of sitting down to talk, attempting that.”
When I asked him if the number of finished sculptures that he continues to cram into the second floor of the auto parts store ever impact his desire to keep making art, he shrugged. “I don’t care about desire or drive,” he told me. But an hour later, on the same visit, he acknowledged that this was a tough question and told me about his mother, now approaching her 103rd birthday, who arrived at a recent family gathering with a doll she’d made from folded paper springs. “She just wanted us to see what she’d been doing,” he said. “She worked on what made sense to her.”
Read more about complicated hometowns, salvage art, and post-industrial Appalachia in Idra’s new novel Take What You Need.