The first thing you notice when you walk into Norma Lovell’s Curtis Park home is that every available wall surface is covered with stunning oil paintings. Portraits, tasteful nudes, animals—each image beautifully detailed with a liveliness that transfixes.
When you find out that Lovell painted every single one—many over the last 10 years since she fully dedicated herself to oil painting—the interior landscape becomes that much more impressive.
“Nothing manipulates like oil paint,” says Lovell, seated in a wheeled desk chair (she doesn’t get around as easily these days) in a side room that’s been converted into her studio. The knowing sparkle in her eyes, easy laugh and bright blue nail polish might fool you into thinking this is a much younger woman, but Lovell’s not shy about sharing that she’s 98 years old.
Lovell’s aptitude for oil painting shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows her accomplished creative background. Lovell has held myriad titles, including insurance agent (which was unusual for a woman at the time), telephone operator, draftswoman (for her uncle’s civil engineering firm), set designer, antiques dealer (her mother owned a popular shop in Midtown), interior designer, as well as artist of all genres—excelling at everything from china painting to stained-glass making, violin to electric organ playing.
She’s even designed houses, including one in Cameron Park that took her eldest son eight years to build for her (though it was originally intended for Lovell’s mother). Lovell designed every last detail, from the domed ceilings reminiscent of European churches to the glass stair railings.
“I’ve been a decorator all my life,” says Lovell, noting that she was constantly reading design magazines growing up in Sacramento. She came to California at a year old from Utah and lived in the first houses built in Land Park, Palos Verdes and Cameron Park before settling in Curtis Park 10 years ago.
But it was Lovell’s chance encounter with a young stained-glass artist 50 years ago that would determine the course of her current artistic career. When she was running her mother’s antique shop on P Street in the 1960s and ‘70s, Lovell was enthralled with stained-glass making. She started carrying supplies at the shop, which attracted glass artists from all over. One of those artists was Tony Schiro, a 25-year-old Vietnam War veteran who was himself immensely talented. The two became fast friends—but for Schiro, it was love at first sight.
“Norma is my ideal,” he says. “But so out of my league.”
Decades and marriages passed, but when Schiro got word that Lovell was returning to Sacramento from Southern California, he left his lucrative arts career in Minnesota to woo the woman of his dreams. The two have been together for 10 years and they couldn’t be happier—they poke and tease each other like teenagers, and it was at Schiro’s behest that Lovell began to commit more of her time to art.
“When I saw what she was capable of doing as a painter, I insisted that she paint more,” Schiro says. “I do everything else that needs to be done—I make her canvases, clean her brushes, do the dishes. She shouldn’t waste her energy on anything but painting.”
And that’s exactly what Lovell’s been doing, spending hours each day at an easel painting exquisite portraits of people based on family snapshots taken by her mother, photos of beloved pets, close friends and relatives—all signed “Normande,” Lovell’s artistic alias. Many of these paintings hang in her home, filling the walls with dancing eyes and glowing skin, but many more live in the houses of neighbors and family who have commissioned Lovell to paint everything from wedding portraits to animals.
The wide range of subject matter suits the nonagenarian, who says she’s “always up for change” and a challenge. We can’t wait to see what she does next.
For more information, visit normalovell.wixsite.com/portraits.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.