Norma Conroy: A sketch from life
by Leora Baude
| Norma (Helmen) Conroy’s career as an artist started early. "I can remember drawing pictures on the wall under the davenport, and my mother would spank me for it," she says, recalling her childhood in South Bend, Ind.
Before long, Conroy, BA’40, was attracting somewhat more favorable attention for her work. By 16, she was teaching art classes locally and fielding questions about where she had received her training (answer: in high school and under the sofa).
At IU, where she enrolled as a freshman in 1936, she continued to paint and sketch, maintaining a secret studio on campus where she would sometimes hole up for days at a time. In 1940, she became the first student to have a solo exhibit of her work mounted at IU. Hung in a gallery at the Indiana Memorial Union, her show, which the IDS reported had "won high praise from many art critics," created something of a stir, in part because she was already known for her cartoons and caricatures, which had appeared in various campus publications, as well as for her unusual habit of wearing pants. "After the exhibit," says Conroy, "I told my boyfriend, ‘take me out in the country as far as we can go. I feel like I’ve been exposed.’ And I was. That was my soul."
Only one of the paintings from that show survives. The rest fell victim to Conroy’s father, who burned them some years later, after Conroy and her then-husband had moved to Texas, leaving the paintings stored in her parents’ attic. "He didn’t like artists," Conroy offers as an explanation. "He liked art, but not artists. He thought they were bums. I kept waiting to have a terrible sense of loss, but I don’t. I’ve forgiven him for it, though I’d kind of like to have them for mementos."
Now, at 80, Conroy looks back on that time of her life without any more regret than she feels for her paintings. She’s too busy for more than a passing nostalgia. And she remembers some things too clearly to miss them. For example, she recalls crossing campus in the company of an exchange student from Turkey and being hailed by a passing acquaintance, who said, snidely, "Well, Norma, I see you’ve stopped drawing the color line." She also sheds no tears for the attitudes that were current about women in those days. "They expected girls to get married and have families, and that was it, except for ‘bohemian’ girls."
Without being particularly bohemian, however, Conroy defied the expectations. Her father, she says, always expected her to become a doctor, although he did not offer much overt support. A surgeon himself, he had met her mother, a nurse at the Bloomington hospital, at IU in 1913. After graduating from IU with a degree in psychology, Conroy earned a master’s degree in the same field at the University of Buffalo. Afterward, she held several different jobs, including one as a research assistant to Bruno Bettelheim at the University of Chicago, for which she interviewed kindergarten and first-grade students about their drawings. But finding Bettelheim difficult to work for, she decided fairly quickly to enroll in the Chicago Medical School.
For almost 50 years now, Conroy has been practicing medicine in Texas, where she moved in 1952, when the early onset of arthritis drove her to seek out a more congenial climate. She worked both as a general practitioner and as a psychiatrist, and for seven years appeared weekly on a television program to discuss issues of mental health and sexual problems. In 1983 she moved from San Antonio to the small town of Kerrville, where she performed psychiatric evaluations for criminal cases. Although she officially retired in 1988, she continues to work as a consultant, as well as pursue her hobby of remodeling old houses. "Right now," she says, "I’m in the middle of 1912" She is also caring for her son, who is ill with Huntington’s Disease, which claimed the life of her first husband in 1965.
In spite of her gift for painting—which she has never returned to since her days at IU—and in spite of a life spent well ahead of the curve, Conroy says, "I had no idea in the whole wide world of doing anything special."