The walls and ceilings of the small Peaceful Valley studio testify to the range of a creative life – an artistic life, an inquiring life, a life filled with the best forms of strangeness and potency.
All the life that Norvel Trosst, longtime public-radio presence and photographer, left behind when he died in March. That’s the title – “Left Behind” – for the intimate and fascinating exhibit of Trosst’s work tonight at the Shotgun Studio.
“Yes, there is a sadness, when you think about the title,” said Denae Veselits, a longtime friend and neighbor who helped put together the exhibit. “But really, it’s not about death. It’s about life.”
Trosst lived a fascinating one, though it was not unmarked by sadness. He grew up in Spokane, attending local schools and graduating from Eastern Washington College in 1964. He went on to teach in California and the Seattle area for several years, before returning to Spokane. That return was marked by his struggles with a longtime illness that was also accompanied by depression, his friends said.
He landed a job as an announcer/producer for Spokane Public Radio in 1991. For many years, his was the distinctive daytime voice of the station. His life partner, Zan Deery, said people would hear him talking from across the room and approach to see whether they knew him. If they asked him, he would simply recite the call letters KPBX – people would recognize him instantly.
He produced the long-running program Soundspace for 19 years. As a tribute, the station is replaying one of his more playful shows – a program from 1995 in which he offered to send listeners a stick of incense to light while listening to the music. That playfulness, and that tendency to find unexpected combinations of experience and expression, was a hallmark of Trosst’s photographic art as well.
“That’s one of the greatest attributes an artist can have, is to be somewhat childlike in their way of looking at things and playful,” Deery said.
Deery, a local poet, met Trosst in 2006, and they formed an instant attachment. They knew a lot of the same people and had a similar interest in art and soon became a couple. Trosst was in seemingly good health last year when he found a lump behind his ear. It turned out it was an aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; he died March 16 at age 71.
As Deery went through his things, she was struck by how meticulously he had catalogued his various photographic projects – and how lost to the world the work might now be.
“I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to see this,’ ” she said. “It will stay in these boxes.”
So she, Veselits and others put together “Left Behind.” The show, in a small gallery on West Water Street, reflects the range of style, subject and technique that Trosst brought to his photography, which was compiled into several shows during his lifetime. If you’ve heard Trosst but never seen his work, the show is a revelation.
Working mostly in black and white, but with a range of printing and photographic techniques, Trosst’s work highlights industrial scenes and bare landscapes, often at night and often from startling or unexpected vantages. His subject matter ranges from abandoned warehouses in Seattle and Tacoma, to vintage theater signs in Portland, to the Roman colosseum. He made large, beautiful silver prints and small, simple Polaroids.
“He never went digital,” Deery said. “You’re looking at a guy who stuck with film.”
Among the most fascinating of his works are his conceptual series – strange, surreal photographs that play out themes or narratives. In “Exposure to Light,” Trosst photographed himself in a series of abandoned-looking industrial landscapes, nude and wearing wolf masks. The photos are not explicit, but they are startling in the best sense – jarring and strange and powerful, like a vision from a place on the outer range of experience. Shown at EWU in the early 1990s, the show created a minor dust-up among the easily offended.
Veselits said the photos show his ability to connect – poetically and metaphorically – to dark, fearful places of existence. Deery said this grew, in part, out of his long battles with illness and from his insistence on making the best of them. Veselits said he was making art out of his experiences with difficulty and darkness – though he was not a morbid or gloomy person, and she described him as a friendly, funny conversationalist.
“Norvel was fearless,” she said. “He was one of the most fearless individuals I’ve ever met.”
His last solo exhibit was “The Telford Chronicles” at the Lorinda Knight Gallery in 2008. In it, Trosst again put himself as the subject of the photographs, in the alter ego of a survivor of an apocalypse. Trosst wears a turtleneck and goggles and is posed in scenes of abandonment that he found: an overturned chair with a torn seat, an office desk sitting in a dirt field, a cemetery at night.
The show at Shotgun Studio includes lots of personal objects, as well, including the goggles from the Telford series, Norvel’s first camera, his teddy bears and a couple of pirate flags. The flags were a symbol he used to reach out to his friends, Deery said – if a friend was struggling, he would give them a small pirate flag and tell them: “Hang it high if you need any help, and I’m there.”
And the most personal item of all: an urn with Trosst’s ashes, sitting right near the stack of well-handled prints that visitors are invited to peruse.
“Norvel’s in the house,” Deery said.