FOCUS: Local Legend Sirron Norris

Posted on: Thursday, May 14 2009

by Zoe Banks, Web & Social Media Strategist

On the verge of mainstream success, artist/educator/palindrome Sirron Norris discusses walking away from fame in the fine art world, why technology is impacting graffiti, and the hypocrisy of hipsterism . . .

What do you do at BAVC?

I'm an instructor for the Digital Pathways program, teaching 3D animation and video game production to 15 SFUSD high school kids from all different walks of life.

Are they unruly?

It's just part of teaching high school kids. It comes with the territory. Part of my responsibility for being a teacher and a leader is to handle those rough personalities and get something good out of them. All of my kids are good. We have worked our problems out and now have a pretty well-oiled machine.

What kind of projects do the youth work on?

They are making a video game that is a metaphor for their life. It will be a world that they create. They have a building, with a maze in it. They start inside their world-- this is all first-person three-dimensional-- and they have paths which will be their terrain. They are going to pass all the signs and the signs will be goals that they have accomplished. Along the maze there will be all these goal objects, like a high school diploma or a globe, all these goals they want to attain that they haven't yet. By the time they go through all the goals and collect points, they achieve a final score and they win. It teaches them how to make a game but it also reflects on their life and their future. It's a great idea, where we can make our dreams real in a physical way. Learning these 3d applications, and being able to immerse yourself in the three-dimensional world that you are the genesis of, is a great metaphor and very cathartic. They are thinking of the technical and gaming side, but it is a time for self-reflection.

That's really great. How'd you get involved in the gaming world?

When I first moved to San Francisco from Cleveland I interned at a software development company in San Rafael, then was hired as a production artist for games like Sesame Street, Madeline, Dr. Seuss, Super Mario Brothers Teaches Typing, stupid little educational games. I just worked in Photoshop and made sprites. I had experience working in the industry, but all in 2D. I started branching out and getting involved in the 3D software that was coming out. In the past couple years Unity has become a great software application, it's super intense if you want it to be but it's also accessible. I'm into my art but this is definitely something that I'm motivated to do.

Speaking of your art, uh, you're famous

In San Francisco!

Yeah, famous in San Francisco. Can you tell me about that?

Well, the economy started to get bad in September last year. I was getting married, went away on my bachelor party by myself-- just me and my dog, up in the mountains by Mendocino-- because that's what I wanted my bachelor party to be, a time for contemplation about what I'm entering into. But I spent that whole time wondering what I'm gonna do. I've been an artist for ten years and I've had a bunch of residencies, shows. I don't do gallery shows anymore, I've completely stopped that for the last four years, I'm done with the gallery/museum lifestyle. I find it very inauthentic, and one thing I found out too is that I don't need it. Everybody knows who I am, everybody knows what my art is, and they can call me up directly and cut out the middleman. One thing people use galleries for is to get their art out there, but my website does that and my 14 murals throughout the city do that. I can cut that out of my life, and not have to deal with the wine-and-cheese thing, and not have to be nice to people that I don't necessarily like. I've built a nice business [online] and been able to live just from doing commissions. So when September rolled around, things are getting shaky and I'm getting married, I knew I had to step it up a little bit. I started writing curriculum for City College and started getting into my old roots with the game stuff. I sort of put my art on hold, but the art kept getting bigger and bigger, commissions and commissions that haven't stopped. Then I got the deal with Fox a few months ago and things kept rolling...

"The Should Bees"

What's the deal with Fox?

It's an animated series for Fox, everything in the show I animated. I didn't write it, Loren Bouchard who did the show "Home Movies," wrote this. He's got a history of doing dialogue-driven shows. It's about a family that owns a restaurant called Bob's Burgers. Jay Howell, an artist in San Francisco, did the characters and I Fox-ized them, made them commercial. I did the backgrounds; all the houses are my houses, Victorian-style.

What's the show called?

"Bob's Burgers". I don't know if you can put that in... (laughs) Well sure you probably can! It's a working title, I always hated that title. It was a lot of work, 15 hours a day animating and teaching for three months, but as of two weeks ago my part is mostly done. My life has been pretty crazy. If I had time to make art, for no specific reason, that would be glorious. But, if I did, I think I would change my art. It would be great to have a painting that's digital, that people can walk through with a joystick. That would be a great way to see a painting. I'm a painter, I'm an artist through and through, I paint with a brush but I have the ability to not do that, to use technology and embrace technology and not all artists can do that.


I get emails from kids, all the time, every single one comes from graffiti backgrounds and they say "I see your work and I want to get past graffiti" and I always say "that's great, but drop that brush and get on that computer". That's what's going to come. There will always be new artists, painting has been going on forever, but you have to figure out a new way to look at art and view art and we have to get past that. No one wants to ever hear it. Everybody likes to paint because it's easy and accessible but these days, to make it, you have to do something that no one's ever seen before.

Where'd you pick up your art skills?

I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but I don't know if I learned anything other than how to do computer work when I was there. Andrew Schoultz taught me a lot about what painting is, especially murals.

I really pulled away from the fine art world. I was so jaded by it. If it was a level playing field, where you're going to be as successful as you are talented, great. But it's not. It's all about keeping everyone's attention all the time, whose ass you're going to kiss, and that's a lot of work. I'd rather spend that energy on creating something that no one's ever seen before. Being an artist, you have to be so self-motivated, you have to believe in yourself. In the art world, you have to watch other people believe in you, or you have a gallery owner who believes in you-- for a month. I'd rather believe in myself. I did it, I played the game forever. I had shows, I had an artist-in-residency at the Yerba Buena Center. I've had a wonderful, successful fine arts career, but I find that just doing commissions is a lot more powerful and a lot more enjoyable. When I get older, maybe I'll reintroduce myself into the fine art world, but I'm still a little bitter about it.

"Delicious Duplicious," Jay's Cheesesteak at Guerrero and 21st.

Your work is so distinctive, and all over the city, seen by everyone. I love the pieces at Jay's.

Those are so old, maybe 7 years old. All my work is public, the one down the street is so old [20th Street and Bryant]. I have all this old, horrible work and people just love it.

No way.

Balmy Alley, I had one up for years and it was horrible, self-indulgent. You know, Precita Eyes runs that whole Balmy Alley thing and it's a very traditional, figurative, Latin American vibe to doing murals, which is the style of the Mission in general. As someone who doesn't come from the Mission but who's been here forever, I walk in there and say "Ok, I'm doing something different". Because I don't have a Latin background and no one in my family has gone through some kind of land struggle, when I'm going to express something figuratively the only thing I felt of any kind of intrigue is my personal life, my relationships were the only kind of drama that I had. I had a big mural about that, really self-indulgent, but I felt Balmy Alley and the Mission deserved something that was a little more appropriate and representative of the consciousness of the Mission. So I painted over and made "Victorion", which is a giant robot made of six Victorian houses, kind of the defender of the Mission. Its a comment on gentrification, the old taking back the new, and its also largely cynical in terms of the Mission.

"Victorion", Balmy Alley 

In what ways are you critiquing the Mission?

People in the Mission are constantly fighting something. I've been hanging around the Mission for 12 years officially; I've seen it change a lot. It's also a comment on the style of the Mission, the people of the Mission, the Mission hipsters who think they're the pinnacle of style. It's funny because they all look the same, dress the same, which is the antithesis of what they want to be. Its not so pro-Mission that it's sickening. In the Mission there are so many coffee houses. They put these coffee houses in there and say "oh it's organic, it's free-range coffee" and they play within the sensibilities of the Mission hipsters so they don't say anything about the fact that they just totally threw out all these people that were living in this place to build another coffee house when there is another one just down the street or a block away. Nobody knows, everybody says "oh, Mission, gentrification, that's wrong", I want them to look into it to see that's it's more sarcastic and cynical than that. But I deserve a right to comment on that, I lived in the Mission when it was outskirts and no one was coming out here.

Where were you living?

I lived on Bryant and 20th, that's been my studio for years. I was able to open my windows everyday and see people taking pictures of my murals. I could also protect them at night from people trying to spray paint them, I could just run out there.

There's so much detail in your work, so many relationships with subtle dimension and emotion...

My work is called cartoon literalism. I try to use cartoon as art but also as vehicle. I try to express things that are very complex and very adult. By using cartoon, you can kind of express yourself over the top or in a very deep way, but people aren't going to take it that way. They are going to take it soft, because of the vehicle. I think that when I'm expressing my work through cartoon literalism, and my later work is very autobiographical about my day-to-day experiences and relationships with women. My new work, I'm so established that it's difficult to do that, people say "I want a bear and I want a rabbit and I like that building over there" so I can't do that.

"Everyone has there thing.... Some more than others!"

I did this thing for the longest time, it was called "I EAT KIDS". It was this bear and he had a shirt that said "I Eat Kids"; it was on t-shirts, it was on paintings, I sold a ton of this stuff nonstop. That was the token piece, that was the definition of cartoon literalism. It was really cute bear who had this horrible sentence on his t-shirt but no one looked at that as creepy or bad, it was just funny because it was two juxtaposed things. But the question is, what if you took that tshirt and put it on a lascivious, scary grizzly bear with blood dripping down his teeth, or on a 50 year old man, then that means something different, then what would you be thinking? Cartoon literalism is all about softening something that you really want to say. For me, it allows me to be a lot more honest in my expressions because I'm hiding behind this veneer of cartoons. In the end you see what I'm trying to say but you won't be offended by it. But really, it is super offensive. I pride myself on making cartoons have expressions that cartoons normally never have. I'm messing with people, giving them something familiar that they can't necessarily put their finger on.

It sounds like you need a vacation.

I'm so happy that every day I wake up and I'm doing what I'm doing... but if the show gets picked up, it's going to be a nightmare.

More information about Sirron Norris' work can be found at You can also check out Sirron on an episode of SPARK on KQED public television this weekend. Click for schedule.