1921 - 2003
The obituary referred to Norm Slater as "Architect & Artist." Architects are easily produced but an artist is a rarity. Norman was, above all, an artist, in the fullest sense. That said, it becomes impossible to describe him - to come to grips with who and what he really was. Artists are different; they defy definition, and in many ways, Norm lived at a slight angle to the universe.
He was also, many other things. Like his Jewish name, "Shepsel," he was a gentle lamb. A loving child, brother, uncle, husband, father and friend. But he was also a gifted photographer, a superb architect, designer, sculptor, and craftsman in metals. In addition, he was a social activist, a kind and generous person.
Perhaps something about Norm's background might help us understand him. His family eked out a living in a small downtown corner store selling newspapers, sandwiches and milkshakes. His father was killed accidentally and his mother proceeded to raise the two children on her own. This was the 1930's during the great depression. Norm developed a passion for photography, and, with no money around, his mother got him his first camera. He learned to view the world through a lens- and what views he portrayed. His portraits of people making up the fabric of the city were powerful and always beautiful. Remember that this was a time of the Spanish Civil war, of Mussolini and the rise of Hitler, of militant trade unionism, of soup kitchens and of families subsisting on relief. Norm saw these things, recorded them on film and in his mind. To the end he was unshakable in his commitment to social justice.
His upbringing was not typical. His mother had purchased a rooming house on Lincoln Ave. leaving Norm to roam the downtown streets. He lived near the Forum and became familiar with the jazz clubs, the restaurants and whatever it was that made the city hum. He was more cosmopolitan than most. In this context, he saw poverty and he saw excellence. The area was filled with drunks and hustlers, with musicians and athletes, with the desperate and the down and out. But it also had the art galleries, the universities and the mansions east of Guy. It is difficult to know which had the most influence, but in the end, the attraction was to the excellence Norm could see in all human endeavours.
He joined the Canadian army and served overseas. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at McGill University in the School of Architecture where he ended up among the top of his class in design. The competition was tough: it included such luminaries as Arthur Erickson and Doug Shadbolt. While still in his second year, the school set up a darkroom and Norm was appointed instructor in photography. In this role, as in his other accomplishments, Norm was very good. He was modest about his skills and happy to share his enthusiasm for photography with all of us.
After graduation, Norm spent some time in Europe soaking up the renaissance and taking pictures. While most of us will take about 100 shots to get that one decent one, Norm could sit in a Greek taverna with his favourite Rolleiflex and shoot a dozen frames of passersby. Each one was a winner and all of them found their way into exhibitions. He did the same with the bronze horses of Venice.
While at McGill, he designed a desk lamp of which thousands were ultimately manufactured and won him a Canada Council Award for excellence in design. He made no distinction between designing large buildings or small objects. He brought the same unerring sense of refinement and essential simplicity to everything he created. When his architectural studies were completed, Norm was not quite satisfied, and went off to Chicago to the Illinois Institute of Technology to study industrial design. There, in typical Slater fashion, he spent over a year designing a single chair. It was a magnificent chair; lush with polished leather and stainless steel. Still seeking excellence, he then enrolled at ICI in London England to continue honing his industrial design skills. It was while living in Russell Square that he met Inger who shared his life for some 50 years.
He would refine the most complex problems down to their essentials and like all good works of art, the end product was startling in its simplicity. Like a theorem in geometry or a line of Mozart, when he was through, there would seem no other way to create or to understand things. The sophistication was, of course, deceptive. It was arrived at through hard work, good taste and artistic skill.
Artist that he was, Norm could be maddening while being lovable - a bit like Gully Jimson in the Joyce Carey novel, The Horse's Mouth. Norm could stop driving at an intersection in order to make a point while his passenger would twitch nervously as the light would change from red to green two or three times before he would move. He could fall in love with tools and cameras, spending large sums on items that were rarely used. He would be lost to the world while hammering a sheet of aluminum and watch in awe as it changed shape. He could abandon earning a livelihood for months at a time in order to learn all about the world's waste disposal problems, or its oil supply. He could bring the same enthusiasm to bear on a steak at Schwartz's as he would to a piece of his own exquisite metal jewelry. In later life he undertook to record some of Montreal's finely crafted facades and turned to the computer to modify his photographic techniques. Until his final illness, he never really stopped evolving as an artist.
He left a considerable legacy. The fountain at the Brussels World's Fair, the metal wall sculptures of Place des Arts, the fountain of fire for the gas industry in Alberta, the great staircase at the Governor General's mansion in Ottawa, the pharmaceutical buildings in Lachine. And of course, those wonderful photos. All his works were touched by excellence, and we are all the poorer for his passing.