I have known Norton since around 2015 when he started uni in Manchester and became a well known figure in Cambridge Halls as a cultural juggernaut and indisputable lovely person. He has come in and out of our lives throughout the years and we have seen him develop into the new iteration that we see before us today. Through artwork, expression, throwing the best parties and now heading up a multidisciplinary bio-arts company, he has really lived a life we like to read about from a distance.
Norton has struggled with mental health issues, drug addiction and sometimes even sabotaging behaviour but the Norton so many of us have known is a loving man that only wants to make people smile through art, poetry and creation. His travels across the world gave him a new view on giving back to the world and the way that he can communicate with nature and help the new world of biodiversity.
At this point he is reaching the end of the time within the machine that is university and he is ending in a way that is so commendable, by creating his own bio materials that he grows in his own DIY laboratory in his own bedroom in Levenshulme.
I find it hard to write this introduction because I feel that you simply need to listen to everything that he has to say from his own mouth to truly understand the beauty of this one man and how his story has unfolded over the years. One word to describe him would be esoteric.
Let’s start at the start, Norton. I met you in your first year of uni, 2015 but what was life like before uni?
Life before that was growing up in Harrogate, Yorkshire, which was a beautiful place. It was very much rife with drugs as it was lacking with the opportunities that you can have now as a young person. There is a much older demographic and the joke was that it was where people went to die. It's a conservative town but there is of course a poorer demographic of people stuck in the middle of that place with limited options. I think that was where I first really got into my drug use predominately and then when I got to uni people saw me as a destructive character but really it was a much tamer version of myself.
The National Crime Agency referred to Harrogate as an 'area of concern' in 2017 and Leeds Live said 'Harrogate is North Yorkshires worst for county line heroin and crack gangs' in 2019.
When I was younger in Harrogate I went to college really just as a distraction away from drugs. I never thought seven years ago I would become an artist. When at college I’d planned on being a masseuse and thought it would make Libby -my girlfriend at the time- really happy. Of course the college didn’t offer a massage course so I picked art, "that should be easy right?". I was put onto this idea by a friend who was asking me if I wanted to be a hairdresser, I took this idea of college and made it my own in the end choosing that I should do art. I think I had drawn from a few photos that year that made me think I could do it. I had never really done it in school because I was thrown out of school in year 8 and only got to learn the key subjects. I did a Duke Of Edinburgh and did some basics like 'How To Dress'. There were people who weren’t fit for school and some that couldn’t go and I was one of them. I look back and those times really affected my social anxiety, going to uni and those social situations really became very alienating. I suppose we met like 6 years ago and I’m a different person now and that’s from going to uni over these years.
So going to uni and studying art, what happened in that time?
The first two years of uni were not productive, it was low attendance but a different environment to do things. That educational environment took a lot of getting used to and I really struggled with writing about what I did (now I feel quite confident in my writing). Thankfully my tutors know that and really understood, they gave me time and really did help me. It is very much to do with those people and the people around me that have changed my moral standards. I always had a lot of care for the people around me but did not really know how to show it, my actions have never been malicious but it could be without thought or respect for myself, i think now it was very self destructive, there is always something underneath that.
Artwork by Norton
I have people back in Harrogate that I consider as my mothers away from my actual mother and they really helped me to get the right things in place because I really need that, it was real good structural support. In my second year of uni I lived with a group of girls, which was a crash course in a lot -cleaning was not my strongest suit, but I’m certainly not the weak link in my house anymore, (they also definitely helped me along the way with some of my moral standings)
Do you have any fond memories of creation across that initial part of Uni?
I had been doing quite a lot of writing through my first and second year (of college) and in my first week in Cambridge Halls I met Connor Seed and we were all sharing what we did, why we were at uni. Connor shared some of his poems and it enthralled and encouraged me to get into poetry. So over my first year I really had a discovery of narrative, telling my tales through a way that wasn’t as visceral and abstract as my paintings, a clearer way of storytelling. Storytelling has really become an important part of my work.
Artwork by Norton
For the last two years it has been a world building project building around my ideas of the Anthropocene. My work has now become a mixture of science, art and storytelling confined to this topic, in the development of future societies. It’s nice to have some constraints on my work as before they were quite un-tailored. If things are too limitless you end up not knowing where to look and maybe end up procrastinating and maybe not producing.
What happened after those two years of uni?
Well this was a particularly destructive part of my life. I remember I hadn’t applied to resit my second year and instead decided I’d go travelling. I had saved up some money working jobs at hotels and working festivals. I hadn’t been on holiday since I was 16 and had the wrong impression of what a holiday really was, it was the idea of a brit abroad with a pint and a full English. If I wanted to sit and drink and take drugs then I could do that at home so I wanted to do this differently and I flipped it on its head.
So I got a ticket to Poland and then another flight to Honduras. I went from a Baltic winter environment to Honduras. I knew I wanted to go to South America because it was cheap and one of the most dangerous places in the world to visit, this going back to this idea of the self destructive mindset. I got out to Poland with a load of summer clothes, I had to put on all of my clothes, shorts and pants. When I got to Honduras it was truly a different world, there were a few experiences that weren’t positive, my phone was robbed from my hostel, I was about to be robbed and then they realised I had nothing but they were the few small negatives.
I arrived at the airport in San Pedro Sula and I was like ‘I’m in a place I don’t know, I’ll stay outside the airport until it’s light’. Of course I got the cheapest flight that got me there at like 2am and I didn’t know where I was or how to get to the hostel. I was speaking to my now friend Manuel when I was sitting outside the airport. He had left the airport with me and asked if he could have a ciggy whilst he waited for his friend to arrive to pick him up.
The Guardian said 'San Pedro Sula is the most violent city in the world. The city in Honduras has a murder rate of 173 per 100,000 residents, reportedly the highest in the world outside a war zone' back in 2012.
Images by David Bacon
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an American airport, but when you are changing flights it generally takes about 3 hours because of the amount of queues and the VISA checks. So I spent my whole time in the airport rolling cigarettes, so I was okay giving some away because I had loads!
Long story short, Manuel offered me a lift to my hostel and I was happy to get in the car. So we went to find the hostel and just couldn’t, Manuel said something along the lines of, “I was hoping to offer you to come stay with us if we couldn’t find your place to stay”. He wanted to show me the place he was from. He had been in America to visit his mum who worked out there to provide for his family. So I ended up staying with Manuel and his girlfriend for two weeks, everything was shared and thank yous were not necessary, I'd be smoking their weed with them, they’d cook me breakfast and take me around the island. I ended up in some crazy places. Manuel used to fix up these old Volkswagen camper vans, taking old American school buses that had been driven down from North America, he would use the metal, reshape it and use it for roofs and panelling of these VW’s.
I guess I now use this methodology a lot in my own work, that DIY perspective. I remember seeing him fix laptops in his living room, when our laptops break we buy a new one, it’s not the same over there. There is much more of a community, if you need something there will be someone in the community that can fix it. Over here we are much more the individual, the idea of freedom, but freedom from what, community?
Artwork by Norton
What was next after Honduras?
Guatemala was another cool place. I’d ran out of money by this point and really needed to get back to Mexico. I’d been on this diving island called Utila where I was meant to do a 3 day course but of course I’d been drinking quite heavily so they wouldn’t let me on the boat most mornings, for good reason. I turned up with a hip flask of rum, well, it wasn’t a hip flask, it was a coffee beaker. In the end I stayed for 12 days and only paid for 3 because everyone hated whoever actually owned the establishment and nobody else was there, so again quite fortunate. I ended up doing the diving and enjoying the party island by drinking and enjoying the other novelties that are around in a South American country.
So I moved from Utila to Guatemala and ended up working in an eco hostel with nothing around me for miles, an interesting place where I was very much separated from the rest of society. I think these ideas of coming together as a community and being within nature subconsciously played an important role in my development.
ES: I think these travels were so important to the story of you as a person because it has given you the ability to escape the confines of western structure and expectations. This has then allowed you to format your own decisions on your real experiences, this is an opportunity to be free.
NFR: Yeah definitely. Everyone says they went travelling and found themselves but I don’t think it was something that happened instantly, as it wasn’t till years after that it was implemented. Coming back to the UK I knew I wanted to be more productive and giving, but then you get back into the UK’s society and you realise that the community of giving really isn’t here and that is when you get taken advantage of. I'm now involved with some artistic collectives and generally just liberally minded people who are perhaps more willing to share their time and resources, but before that I got back into a 9 to 5 job and it just zapped me.
I think my travels did have some more immediate effects on me when I decided to re-apply to my second year of university, I had written a poem that summer whilst squatting in Portugal that essentially was the foundation of my work now. I ended up living with one of my friends whom I met years previously and we were the best of friends but so self destructive put together, we were competitive in the neglect of our bodies. Going back to the first time we met, we decided to cycle to Blackpool. It was 7am after we had been out all night and I knew it was a bad idea but we ended up cycling about 25/30 miles until my tyres popped. A mixture of a cold winter, my bike has not been used in a while and we were stopping every mile to sniff piles of ketamine. Going back to living with him, we would have a nice time in life generally but then get home and the drug use was fairly out of hand. We had an idea to do the A to Z of the dark web, we were going to wear masks and document it. All these ideas were creative but somewhat destructive.
All of this ended quite abruptly. It was a few days after my stepmum's funeral, it had nothing to do with that, but I'd had a few days that had lacked sleep clearly something didn’t go right with my body and it collapsed.
I was in hospital with Rhabdomyolysis, which is some form of muscle deterioration. I had an acute kidney injury, liver hepatitis, strains on my heart, I had a catheter but despite all this it was the biggest blessing in disguise. I was in the ICU, then the high dependency unit, before I had 3 rounds of dialysis, which is pretty scary but you're so distant from what has actually happened.
It allowed me to reassess my relationship with drugs, in turn I became more observant and motivated, allowing me to implement what I learnt whilst I was travelling and my love for nature. I’ve always been a little bit connected with nature and quite spiritual. I owe a lot to my mum, she was an original hippy and I’ve always gone to festivals as a kid and been surrounded by those sorts of spiritual people. I've always believed if I was to sort myself out I would be able to do well in my life, but this belief stunted my growth a little bit though because it lacked urgency and i've always delayed it further.
So at this point I was told I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol and thought ‘I just can’t do anything then can I?’. There is a thing called an Albumin to Creatinine ratio, it measures levels in your blood after it filters toxins into urine and the average is around 94. I think I was about 900 and something, anything over 140 is a concern. After 6 months I did another test and It had lowered down to 102. I was told “that I'd make a miraculous recovery and should feel like one of luckiest boys in the world” also that I could drink again!
I think that before it happened destructive ideas had become part of my personality, I don’t want to say that, but wherever I went people would offer me drugs and it was hard to escape that, I've always found it hard to say no to things in that environment of drug use. I had built this sort of collective around me and it was very easy to get it, it’s no part their fault and I’m still in contact with them all today, they're my closest of friends. I mean at that part of my life whoever was still around was there not because of my drug use or antics but because they cared for me as a friend and they were there for me during and after all of this. It was the perfect thing to happen at that point in my life because it allowed me to move forward and become the person I am today, which is a much better person to be.
ES: I think that is testament to the person you are, as much as you were self destructive, some of us were here to help you out of that dark place.
NFR: It was the easiest way to work out who were and weren’t the right people to be around.
ES: So how does this experience then channel into bio arts?
NFR: Once I left the hospital I went home, my friend I was living with eventually decided to go back home to his parents to get off what he was taking. I remember being in this house on my own for a while. I was still going out doing things but I was really quite depressed and lonely when I was allowed to think about things, despite all of what happened I was still very much Pro-drugs. So I thought what can I do?’ I’d always been interested in micro dosing so starting growing psychedelic mushrooms for medicinal purposes, I don’t do that anymore but that initiated my interest. I grew a bag that I had bought online and saw the mycelium that grew from around the grain spawn and I thought I can make sculptures out of this!
It was at this point that I moved to Tenerife and started researching different types of mushrooms. I saw the possibility in this sort of material and the fact I could grow forms out of this.
ES: So were you growing psychedelic mushrooms whilst in Tenerife?
NFR: No, that was a very separate time. When I came out of hospital it was the only sort of drug I could enjoy because I felt safe with it being natural. I needed drugs to feel normal. It was a kind of survival mechanism, to escape, to live. The psychedelic aspect was lost in Tenerife, I didn’t need it anymore, I was in a new place even though I was still depressed.
So in Tenerife I really started to educate myself around biomaterials. I was trying to grow mycelium but it's hard to find materials on a small island in the north of tenerife.
ES: So you had Tenerife, what else did you do there?
Knowing what I do now I’d understand that everything I needed was on my doorstep, in the nature around you, but then it was more about learning the processes and about the beauty of mushrooms but also exploring the microclimates that existed there. It was education of myself on these things rather than the production.
So when I got back to the UK I had all this passion that was ready to be implemented and as soon as I got to my third year at uni was when I tried to implement it. I moved into my house and knew I wouldn’t have access to studio space because of COVID-19 and began to learn that I didn’t need that space for the process. Of course I was soon aware that I was underprepared for that process and the production of mycelium materials and it has been an intense few months finding the best ways and variations of making these things and ultimately experimenting. For the most part it is the foundations that I have built for the last year alongside the knowledge that I need.
Once university is out of the way I can figure out how to expand further with its potential, experimenting with gourmet mushrooms and medicinal ones like the Cordyceps mushroom which is really beneficial to health and the Lion’s Mane mushroom -which is a nootropic- which increases memory. There are plenty with medicinal properties. I was reading, sadly, a Daily Mail article (on a Facebook page) about how eating mushrooms daily can reduce your chances of getting cancer. Different mushrooms have different properties but we do need to start looking at these alternative medicines like CBT and mushroom medications because they have benefits that aren’t really accessible to us through general means.
So you’re now back in the UK and you’re starting your third year of university. Tell us about that?
So I was out foraging for mushrooms and thought I’d get some basic results. I was making mushroom papers out of blended polypore mushrooms and made some designs on them, this was all whilst I was building my bedroom laboratory. You saw in my bedroom earlier that it is covered in mould and I knew I couldn’t make work in there without realising the effects of that environment. So I went out and bought a tent, looking back I shouldn’t have because now I've got a smaller tent inside that. I was very much battling the elements over winter and my work is really reflecting that, regardless of where you are or what you can do, you can do it, you can get the materials, you just need patience and dedication. You could get some grain spore from anywhere and grow some mushrooms. You can get all that super easy but if you want to delve into the process then it’s a little longer, you can still do it in a plastic box under your bed. Trying to document and share this knowledge is the next step of this process.
So where does Mycolitos come into this?
Ahh, we’ve missed a step!
So ‘Ito’ means small in Spanish, like if you are a young person called Juan, you’d be called Juanito. That is where it originally came from. So it was always about this idea of world building, it's now tailoring towards the anthropocene, but it is thinking about what is going to happen in the future. I didn’t even know what the word anthropocene meant and I am still learning. It is a reflective observation of a dystopian world but there was fiction in it with character development and branding.
Anthropocene - is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.
So I began designing the brand that you now know as Mycoltios. It started with the visuals and the idea that it was a company that made bio and mycelium materials, that was as far as we got in Tenerife, a t-shirt and a logo.
Artwork by Norton
Now it is time to make the outcomes.
The way I like to describe this process is that this world building is the incubation chamber for my ideas and gives me the space to develop all of these ideas, bring them into fruition and if I deem them appropriate then I can bring them into the real world. This is where Mycolitos is at the minute, bringing this concept into the real world. I'm not the first to do this, there are many others working in home environments, more with mushrooms rather than mycelium but that's because it's a relatively new material and there aren’t that many people doing the same.
ES: Some of the outcomes that Norton has created with Mycolitos include growing his own biomaterials like Mycelium fabrics, SCOBY leather, mushroom paper, kombucha leather and all the branding for the company. The work that Norton has been doing with Mycolitos is so vast that we are splitting the stories of Norton's past and present work.
Artwork by Norton
This story will be followed up with a full story of the theory and processes behind what Mycolitos is and does.
As always, can you recommend us 3 things MUKA readers should know about?
NFR: Can I mention you?
Okay, Levenshulme Bakery is fucking amazing, Waka Waka Noodles and The Levenshulme Pub, a class place to go for a drink.
There is also Andrey Lansov, who is working on these self sufficient mushrooms containers. He’s been given some funding to make self contained mushroom containers inside shipping containers inside a bunker. These will be able to make masses of food in a super quick way that will be full of densely packed nutrients and it will be more environmentally aware than growing a cow. All the people he’s working with are hopefully going to be making the world a better place.
I am also going to go with Obeka, he does the Me Gusta nights. We’ve known of each other for ages but I had a nice chat with him the other week.
All in all you can see that Norton has had a full life of experiences and for someone that is just 27 I think he deserves a sit down now. The work within Mycolitos is genuinely something that is going to be so important in the daily life of all human beings over the next century and Norton is an example of an individual starting to make that difference.