By Will Broaddus
---- — MARBLEHEAD — If ever an artist was aptly christened, it is Norman LaLiberte, whose surname can be translated as “freedom,” a principle he exercises throughout his work.
There is freedom in his vivid use of color, in his adaptation of sources from the range of art history, and in his experimentation with new media.
“Norman is his work,” said Charles Allen, who curated a new exhibit of LaLiberte’s work at the Marblehead Art Association. “He’s a very colorful, magical man.
“He’s very interested in your life, and he’s excited about life in general. It’s almost childlike, and I mean that in a positive way.”
As a former high school and middle school art teacher, who worked for 27 years in the Hamilton-Wenham public schools, Allen knows a lot about the connections between childhood and creativity.
He also taught art education at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly and thinks LaLiberte’s appeal is universal.
“All children, I would say, from very young all the way up to their 80s, will enjoy this exhibit,” Allen said.
The show, the first held by the art association that will occupy all seven of Hooper Mansion’s galleries, is as aptly named as its subject: “Exuberance 2013: The Varied Expressions of Norman LaLiberte.”
The exhibit is also a fundraiser, with a percentage of all sales going to support the Marblehead Arts Association, and to scholarships at Montserrat, on Thursday, May 2, from 5 to 8 p.m.
Allen, who met with LaLiberte over several months to discuss the work in his show, said most of it has never been seen before.
It includes painted wooden pieces based on totem poles, paintings on sheets of tarpaper, and “textiles that have been created from his work, he’ll be showing those as hangings,” Allen said.
LaLiberte, who was born in Worcester and lives in Nahant, attributes his origins as an artist to the moment he became free from the culture in which he was raised.
“I’m from Montreal, I lived there until I was 20,” he said. “In Montreal, every painter painted in gray, because Montreal is gray. After leaving, it was almost like a revolution, I started using color.”
Natural elements that are characteristic of LaLiberte’s work, especially birds and flowers on long green stems, were also things he discovered by escaping from the city.
“We used to go to the country in Quebec. My parents lived on big farms, where you could see animals, birds, flowers you don’t see in Montreal,” he said. “When I started painting, that’s what I started doing.”
LaLiberte’s first group exhibition was in 1948 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where he also earned the first of several degrees.
Some banners he created to adorn walls at the Vatican, which were also displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, were his first pieces to attract commercial attention.
“The architects loved the idea, they were bidding like mad,” he said.
Since then, in addition to totems, he has also created artists books, prints and various types of collage, many of which will be seen for the first time in Marblehead.
When Montserrat held a solo show of LaLiberte’s work in the summer of 2008, Leonie Bradbury, director and curator of the galleries at Montserrat, also displayed work that was new to the public and included totems and artists books.
“He has a tremendous output, but he has a number of different series within that,” she said. “Things he does between paintings. He’s more experimental in terms of the media he uses, but the vocabulary, the imagery is the same, it’s recognizable as his.”
Bradbury said that this restless exploration of new media was instilled by LaLiberte’s training at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a master’s in art education in 1954.
“He went to school with the New Bauhaus,” she said, “founded by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. A bunch of people had fled from the original, German Bauhaus, to the U.S.”
“The Bauhaus ideal was very much the well-rounded artist. You were encouraged to apply your ideas across media. It was influential on his entire career.”
In addition to trying as many forms of art as he can imagine, LaLiberte also absorbs and expresses a wide range of content.
“All his work deals with history, he’s obsessed with the history of art, with ancient cultures, with archaeology and different phases in art,” Bradbury said.
This was evident in a “giant drawing” he did on a gallery wall at Montserrat last summer, which was based on a book called “30,000 Years of Art: The Story of Human Creativity Across Time and Space.”
“He’s into different symbols, iconography and symbology, lots of gods, masks, totem animals, birds,” Bradbury said. “He combines it as he wishes. He thinks of it all as a tremendous resource where he can pick and choose.
“Aztec temples, Picasso masks and some feather headdresses, he combines it all into one piece and comes up with something uniquely his.”
If you go
What: “Exuberance 2013: Varied Expressions of Norman LaLiberte,” exhibit of artworks in mixed media
When: April 27 through June 2, reception with LaLiberte on Sunday, April 28, from 2 to 4 p.m. “An Evening With Norman LaLiberte” will be held Thursday, May 2, from 5 to 8 p.m., with 25 percent of sales going to MAA and 25 percent going to scholarships at Montserrat.
Where: Marblehead Arts Association, 8 Hooper St.
More information: Gallery hours Tuesday and Wednesday, noon to 5 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Visit www.marbleheadarts.org or call 781-631-2608.