Art Attack

Stand clear: A young St. Louis sculptor named Moses has entered the building

Bullet Flag now languishes, wrapped inside plastic and plywood, inside Moses' midtown studio. He failed to sell it for $25,000, and now the 27-year-old sculptor considers the piece merely a rough draft and plans a larger version.

Moses is known in the St. Louis art world as an audacious self-marketer, with an ego as hubristic as his name and his art. "What do you do with somebody who wants to be something?" he answers his critics. "I think if you talked to the Michael Jordans of the world, all of them always thought they would be somebody."

Moses is always reaching for the high notes. He thrives on excess and moves on overdrive. To woo a girl, he'll bake a mountainous chocolate-chip cookie cake, enough for twenty. At an auto scrap yard, he'll gravitate to a double-decker bus. Last year when he won the most prestigious prize for a St. Louis artist — $15,000 and a ten-week exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis — he threw his hands in the air and cried to a fellow artist, "Fifteen thousand? I want million-dollar budgets!"

Whoever buys Boombox needs an immense 
empty wall — the installation measures eight-by-eight 
Whoever buys Boombox needs an immense empty wall — the installation measures eight-by-eight feet.
Moses thinks some galleries never bothered looking at 
slides of his work (such as Revolution, pictured) 
before rejecting him.
Moses thinks some galleries never bothered looking at slides of his work (such as Revolution, pictured) before rejecting him.


“The Audiophile Series” on display through March 26.

Where: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
How much: $5 adults; $3 seniors. Free for children and students. Free for all visitors all day Wednesday and Saturday, and after 5 p.m. on Thursday.
Contact: 314-535-4660 or

No matter how many times Moses hears an art dealer, curator or critic remark that perhaps no St. Louis artist besides Ernest Trova can making a living from his art, Moses grimaces and vows, "Fuck that. I am going to."

Moses was barely three years old the night his father nearly shot him with a .357 Magnum.

Jeff Nornberg was working at Red Crown Liquor, the family package store and bar in Madison, Illinois. It was February 20, 1981, and the Nornbergs were digging into a cake to celebrate Dad's 37th birthday. Just then, Curtis, an employee Nornberg planned to fire the next morning, burst in and demanded to charge some beer to his account.

Nornberg sacked him on the spot, and Curtis punched him in the nose.

"I went up under my arm and grabbed my gun, and he saw me and turned to run, and pow!" Jeff Nornberg recounts. "Everyone was screaming and dropping beer on the floor, and it was all fucked up. And there was Moses sitting up on the bar — in the direct line of fire. I thought I'd shot him."

The Nornbergs closed Red Crown Liquor in 1986, but the shop maintains mythic status in family lore. It was a place where black steelworkers nicknamed Roach, Bull and Superman smoked Kools and listened to hip-hop, where lovers' quarrels played out in the aisles, where it wasn't unheard-of to watch a woman drop her skirt in exchange for a half-pint of whiskey.

"The kids were there for all this weird shit," remembers Nornberg, who, with his frizzy brown ponytail, looks a decade younger than his 62 years. "They saw a different side of life."

Moses and his sister, Vanessa, never felt they fit in, growing up in a working-class clan on the unincorporated fringes of Creve Coeur, yet attending public schools in Clayton and spending weekends at the liquor store.

When the Nornbergs got into the home-building business, they sometimes let Moses play hooky so he could follow his father around construction sites, stuffing his pockets with nails and staples to create miniature sculptures. His foraging interests were likely passed down from his great Aunt Charlotte, a Ph.D. in physiology who studied salivary glands at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

"We'd go to visit her every summer," recalls Vanessa, "and she'd take us to garage sales and flea markets, and we watched her barter for the most amazing little treasures, with all these trinkets she'd stashed in her purse."

The youngest Nornberg became Moses his freshman year at Reed. (He uses his full name on legal documents.)

"I thought it was awesome," says Jeff Nornberg, describing his and his wife Rita's delight with Howard Fast's historical novel Moses, Prince of Egypt. "When we had him, Moses was the natural name. But you can't name your child Moses, just like you can't name your child Jesus. You can't do that because people are going to fuck with him."

As a gangly teen, Moses says, he was often ridiculed for his loud clothing, his ponytail, and the earrings and leather bracelets he wore. Some classmates also made fun of his slight lisp. Adopting the Moses moniker, he says, "was a way of starting anew, a way of creating a new identity, and a powerful one at that. I was trying to be somebody else."

Motoring through life as Moses, concedes the former Aaron Nornberg, does have its disquieting moments — not to mention having to endure jokes about burning bushes and parting seas.

While waiting tables at a Lafayette Square restaurant, he'd introduce himself as Moses to patrons who would often reply: "Oh, hi, I'm Jesus."

"The funniest thing is, a lot people ask me how to spell it," Moses says with a grin.

"I've had a lot of people in the art world tell me I'm shooting myself going by one name. They think it's retarded. Or they interpret it as arrogant. It's not like I think I'm somebody fucking special."

At Reed College, a place he characterizes as "full of castoffs and misfits," Moses thought of art as "a horrible career choice" and initially studied Greek and Latin. He changed his mind in his sophomore year after seeing a Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum.

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