Evie Kaufman ’20
Scripps alumna Norma Tanega ’60, famous for creating the smash hit single “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” and her prolific painting career, passed away this past winter in Claremont. She was 80 years old. Tanega’s death followed a final performance and art exhibit this past spring at Claremont Heritage, concluding her fulfilling life as an influential painter, song writer and community member.
I had the privilege of knowing Norma through her involvement in Claremont Heritage and through collaborating in the orchestration of a final exhibition of her work “Supernova” last April. In retrospect, this was a fitting title, her personality a bright explosion at that point nearing end. This past Saturday, sitting in her courtyard again attending her celebration of life, I listened to the wind through a chorus of chimes blowing in the breeze, just as she had instructed me to do months earlier. The notes lingered in the air, danced away and rode their vibrations into all corners of the garden, or maneuvering into the house, tucking into the interior’s folds and coves. They cozy into the crevices of her friends and loved ones who have gathered to mourn her loss. Her ashes rested by the front entrance along with pamphlets filled with certain pictures for the taking. Her more iconic photos along with bouquets rest in front of the fireplace.
It was an intimate gathering. Tanega was a private person who kept those special to her close. “She either liked you or hated you immediately” it was recalled. Norma was a frank, ironic yet entirely loving person. Her loved ones opted for a celebration of life over a typical funeral. Tanega was one for joy, bringing a smile into a room.
Tanega was born in Vallejo, California and attended Scripps College, after which she attended Claremont Graduate School to obtain her Master’s in Fine Arts. She was suggested to do so by a teacher who had taken special interest in her, mentored her and eventually guided her toward her college choice.Tanega recounted how important teachers are to shaping and changing the lives of their students. She noted everything she knew was from teachers, or as a show of her nerdier side “either from Star Wars or Star Trek.” A humble individual, she attributed plenty of her success to mentors she acquired along the way. This led her to a lifetime of teaching, over three decades dedicated to K-12 education, winning recognitions for her hard work along the way.
Prior to returning to the Inland Empire following her education, she traveled the world, living in big cities and waiting tables to pay the bills. As her music career grew she garnered the attention of artists like Bob Dylan and later Morrissey.
She gave up a career in fame to pursue the work she found most fulfilling: teaching, despite her passion for art, music and performance never subsiding. In her later years she would be found performing to Claremont’s Folk Music Center or putting on exhibit’s of her work in local hubs. She found outlets to do what she loved and gave herself to all those who asked it of her. Her influence was far reaching, and toouched the lives of many. The last time she could even create art was years ago, opting to devote time to others in place of pursuing her passions or desired solitude.
Tanega gestured at a painting on the wall to the right of her as we chatted in her living room last May. “What does that date say?” she inquired. It read 2015. “That was the last time I’ve had a chance to paint.”
Those who knew Tanega knew that her health had its ups and downs in the last few months. Eventually she succumbed to late stage stomach cancer, catching those in her life off guard. In retrospect, others suggested it seemed somehow, she knew. In conversation on her friend and artist Paul Darrow, Tanega at one point said “It seemed like he was having trouble dying.” Only weeks later would Tanega pass herself, expressing a certain familiarity to the whole process. Tanega was an intuitive person who felt things deeply. She connected with her surrounding environment in a truly special way.
“The music is all around us,” Tanega told me once. “It’s in nature, it’s in the wind.” She glanced over at the large variety of wind chimes hanging from the exterior rafters of the heavyset house, her eyes surveying the bunch, guiding my vision to trail along their form. “You just have to listen to hear it.” That was months ago.
I have thought of that moment often since, and have now returned to her home, trying to listen to the same song from that time— to no avail. She no longer occupies the same physicality as the rest of us gathered in her remembrance. The tune of the wind is forever changed. The chimes no longer sing as they did, though they are as full and boisterous as ever. It’s just a different song. After the ceremony her ashes were to be spread in the courtyard, joining with the earth of her home and the wind of the chimes.
Image Source: Norma Tanega