Norman Nawrocki: Anarchist, Artist, Educator, Writer.

(c) 2003, Steven Lee

(c) 2003, Steven Lee

I first heard about Norman Nawrocki (pronounced na-Vrot-ski) in 2003, at a conference of the Canadian Organization of Campus Activities, also known as COCA, an organization whose mission is to assist in the development of quality campus programming through education, information and resource sharing. At the time, I was the Events & Clubs Coordinator for the Kwantlen Student Association (KSA), a non-profit student organization that provides advocacy, events and services for over 19,000 students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. As the Events and Clubs Coordinator, a full time staff position I held at the KSA while completing my business and marketing studies, I was responsible for assisting clubs and elected officials in the development and execution of on campus events. And that’s why Lisa Coan, the elected Director of Events and myself, were at COCA that year.

Norman Nawrocki, Artist

Specifically, Norman Nawrocki (b 1959) is a multi-disciplinary artist whose writing lies at the heart of his artistic endeavours, providing a base-line through which one can examine his creativity. He markets himself as a Montreal based author, actor, violinist, cabaret artist, community organizer, educator and performer. In a 2017 interview with Bill Brownstein of the Montreal Gazette, Nawrocki described himself as a “prolific rebel wordsmith” (Nawrocki). And prolific he is, having written over a dozen books of poetry, a novel, monologues, one-man shows, plays and screenplays.

Beginnings

On the biography posted on Norman Nawrocki’s official website, Nawrocki notes how he was “…born a ‘PUKE’ to Polish/Ukrainian Canadian parents in the immigrant, working class East End of Vancouver” (Nawrocki). By dubbing himself a ‘PUKE',’ I think Nawrocki is working on several levels. First, it allows Nawrocki to poke a bit of fun at the importance some place on their lineage, holding it up as sort of a status symbol. And second, it also allows Nawrocki to remind his audience about the shame and prejudice that can be encountered with one’s heritage. Speaking with Jon Milton of Concordia’s Link newspaper in 2017, Nawrocki explained how:

My grandparents came from the old country—from Ukraine… They were poor peasants, they were looking for a better life. When they came here, they faced a lot of discrimination (Nawrocki).

And in the same article, Milton also noted how Nawrocki:

…as a child… was discouraged from announcing his Ukrainian background, for fear of prejudice. He only learned the correct pronunciation of his own family name as a young adult. It’s actually pronounced “nav-rots-kee,” but he was raised pronouncing it “now-rock-ee” (Milton).

Observing the challenges, hardships and opportunities that came with growing up in the rich immigrant and working class experience of East Vancouver, served as a lens that shaped Nawrocki’s worldview and activist roots that would form a thread across much of Nawrocki’s work.

In February 2019, I interviewed Nawrocki with an eye towards exploring both his creative and writing processes. Nawrocki attended elementary and secondary school in Vancouver, where his interest in the arts had its roots. Specifically, when I asked if he could pinpoint a time in his youth where he first became aware that he had an interest in expressing himself creatively, Nawrocki replied:

A kid, a kid! It was always in me. I could have been three or four years old and I started playing around. I discovered I wanted to do something, I wanted to act, I just had fun playing, performing, pretending, play acting – even as a child. That’s when it first started and you don’t think of it, it’s part of your play experience (Nawrocki).

I liked the honesty in Nawrocki’s response, and found that it highlighted the importance that we all should place in valuing play as a part of our routines. Sometimes, this play can be self-directed, and at other times it can be directed by others, as Nawrocki noted how:

…then, I guess, I started taking violin lessons, not because I really wanted to, because I was forced to by my parents. I didn’t enjoy that, but I did it. I started writing poetry at a young age and didn’t take it seriously. I guess I started play acting when I was six, seven or eight, a young child in school. But not formally, not in classes or anything, I didn’t sit down to write a play, I just said – “ok, I’m going to put on a show, with my sisters, I’ll put on a show with my friends. So, it started at a very young age (Nawrocki).

In the early 1980s, Nawrocki would relocate, noting how: '“…it wasn’t until I moved to Montreal and got drunk and ended up on stage when I realized that oh, okay, I’m going to start to take this seriously“ (Nawrocki).

Norman Nawrocki, Anarchist

First and foremost, Nawrocki describes himself as an anarchist, and in a 2010 interview with Jean Smith, Nawrocki described how this interest in anarchism began:

I walked into my high school library one afternoon, and found a called THE ANARCHISTS on the bookshelf by Irving Horowitz, and I thought ‘what’s an anarchist?’ … so I picked up this book, took it home and I started reading. And I didn’t stop reading all night, my Mom came and knocked on the door, ‘Norman, it’s time to go to bed!’ … ‘I’m going to bed Mom, I’m just doing my homework!’ … and I just kept reading, reading, and reading. I probably read till like three in the morning. Went to school the next day, rushed home to continue the book, and finished the book in about three or four days, one of those thick, paperback books. And I realized that ‘…yes! That’s me! I’m an anarchist!’ And from that point on, I identified myself with anarchism as a movement for collective liberation, for the collective freedom for everyone. And I decided from that point on I would dedicate my life to trying to gain freedom for everyone, trying to ensure the world was a place where everyone had access to freedom. Where everyone was healthy, with a roof over their head, and there would be no poverty, no misery and no injustice (Nawrocki).

Nawrocki’s interest in anarchy stems from a desire to see an end to all forms of oppression where his artistic endeavours exist as a means for expressing his anarchist beliefs. To that end, Nawrocki explained to me how, as a writer:

You have to be curious, you have to want to know, you have to be asking questions all the time. What is going on? Why is this happening? Why is this being said? Who is behind this? Where is the truth? How to separate truth from the nonsense and the lies, that’s my job as a writer is to focus on – can I extrapolate the truth in this situation? And can I retell it in such a way that makes it obvious but also makes it interesting and engaging for whoever is going to read it or watch it (Nawrocki).

Nawrocki’s interest in anarchism and social justice continued from high school and into his post secondary studies, as his website’s biography described how he:

…attends Langara college and Simon Fraser University sporadically, preferring to drink beer with campus newspaper staff. He co-edits SFU's 'The Peak,' gets bored and drops out of school to edit a radical neighbourhood newspaper. He becomes a community organizer, edits an international anarchist newsjournal, The Open Road, free-lances for Vancouver's Georgia Straight, is arrested and given a suspended sentence for helping striking immigrant women luggage workers (Nawrocki).

Ultimately, understanding Nawrocki’s interest in anarchy and activism is the key to understanding Nawrocki’s artwork.

Norman Narocki, as featured in the  short documentary film, LESSONS FROM A 7ft PENIS , by Lydia Anderson et al.   (c) 2016, Norman Nawrocki & Lydia Anderson

Norman Narocki, as featured in the short documentary film, LESSONS FROM A 7ft PENIS, by Lydia Anderson et al.

(c) 2016, Norman Nawrocki & Lydia Anderson

Norman Nawrocki, Educator

Okay, I think I’ll stop right now, because, to be blunt, I didn’t specifically hear about Norman at COCA. I heard about some guy dressed in a seven foot penis costume, running around the conference, providing information to attendees about a series of sex education comedy shows. that student unions could bring on campus. I like to think I met him there at some point, but nevertheless I do know that we did come away from that conference knowing that his show was something we wanted to bring to Kwantlen, and we did just that, in 2004, and later in 2007 and 2011.

Since 1993, Nawrocki has written and performed in four one-man sex education comedy shows, at over a hundred campuses across Canada and the United States, as well as in clubs, libraries, theatres, community centres and even prisons. Each show is designed to specifically focus in on different topics (from common myths and preconceptions about sex and sexuality, to sex toys, safe sex, sexual identity, dating, sexually transmitted diseases, date rape, and sexual harassment) through a wide range of dozens of characters that Nawrocki performs.

In a 2010 YouTube interview with Jean Smith, Nawrocki described how the idea for his sex education comedy cabarets germinated in a conversation he had with his girlfriend about the oppression she experienced as a result of the male gaze:

In a 2000 interview with Philip Fine of the Globe & Mail, Nawrocki described his methodology behind how he addresses these sensitive topics, saying how:

My shows are trying to reach those people who can't be reached. You are not going to attract too many engineering students to a workshop on date rape… I have a responsibility to address questions that need to be addressed in my role as a socially aware artist (Naworcki).

In a 2010 YouTube clip, Nawrocki pinpoints how his shows use “…humour to address serious questions” (Nawrocki). And in Nawrocki’s 2015 book, No Masters! No Gods! , Nawrocki uses his poem, Dry Love, to express some of the issues he raises in his shows, with lines such as: “I asked a woman friend / how she was doing / and she said, ‘OK,’ / except for her boyfriend troubles / in the bedroom” and “He thinks he’s such a fantastic lover / but I dread making love with him / He says it’s my problem / and I should see a doctor’” (Nawrocki).

334806568_f04f8e322f_o.jpg

For the 2004 show I helped bring to Kwantlen, Nawrocki performed Lessons from a 7ft Penis, where he portrayed over a dozen different characters. Overall, Nawrocki’s 2004 performance at Kwantlen was educational, energetic, and sidesplittingly funny. And more importantly, Naworcki performed from the heart, packing his delivery with soul and a genuine interest in relaying information he believes everyone needs to hear. Some of his shows do have props and costumes (did I mention his seven-foot penis costume, which is also pictured above?), but this show had none, which made it more cost effective and easier to organize.

Nawrocki has recently been working with documentary filmmaker Tamara Scherback to adapt Lessons from a 7ft Penis into a web series called Sextapes: Lessons from a 7ft Penis & Friends., which is now in post-production. You can see the trailer for that here:

In addition to his sex education workshops, Nawrocki also teaches independent workshops on a variety of subjects such as his creative resistance workshops. Nawrocki has also been an instructor in the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University since 2005; and in 2018, he joined Concordia’s Department of Theatre as a part time Theatre instructor. His courses deal with the arts as a vehicle for social change.

Norman Nawrocki, Musician & Spoken Word Artist

Nawrocki also has a successful musical career that’s seen the production of numerous solo and collaborative albums. His musical approach is always captivating as it consists of a variety of intertwined approaches, from singing to spoken word to the use of a variety of musical instruments as well as a plethora of sounds found in both natural and manufactured landscapes.

Norman Nawrocki, Writer

Process


Collaboration

For as long as I’ve known Nawrocki, he’s always been an enthusiastic collaborator when it comes to his artistic endeavours. Whether it’s getting feedback on his writing, or working with an artist on illustrations for a book, or developing a new musical album or the script for a play —- collaboration forms a huge part of Nawrocki’s work, which he expressed to me, saying: 

I thrive on feedback and bouncing ideas off other people. For example, whenever I have a manuscript for a book, I’ll send it around to friends and say hey what do you think, what are your comments? Once upon a time I would do focus groups here in my apartment and invite people to come over for breakfast discussions about this or that, and review some of my work together as a small group of people to give me feedback. It always strengthens the work.

This kind of feedback is invaluable for any artist. In education, a fine arts or creative writing student will often get this kind of feedback through critiques, both in the classroom, and if they are lucky, through a network of friends they learn and grow with. Of course, with any kind of artistic expression, once an artist puts their work out there for consideration and critique, a part of them has to let go of any defensiveness they may have over the work. To this, Nawrocki reiterated how:

I’m not somebody who is entirely possessive of everything I write as a writer.  I’m not territorial about it. I’m open to other ideas, to feedback and criticism and suggestions, then I choose what I’m going to use. But most definitely, anything I’ve ever worked on has always benefited from outside eyes, outside opinions, outside critiques. Some of the best writers throughout history, among recent times, without editors, their work wouldn’t read the same way. People work very closely with editors to make their work read better.  But I bounce ideas off people all the time.

Nawrocki also spoke to this idea of collecting feedback in a short 2010 YouTube video with Jean Smith:

YouTube Playlist

I started a Playlist on YouTube, which I’ve been adding videos featuring interviews with Nawrocki as well as recorded performances by him. I’ll be continuing to add stuff as I find it in the months to come:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9epOVZg7VIjZJY4un_uwZ-AM17nb4WCn


Works Cited

Anderson, Lydia. “Montreal's Norman Nawrocki Launches AGITATE!” The Concordian, 20 Oct. 2015, www.theconcordian.com/2015/10/montreals-norman-nawrocki-launches-agitate/.

Bontempo, Mirella. “Romani, Love and Italy: On Reading Nawrocki's Cazzarola.” Montral Serai, 6 Mar. 2014, www.montrealserai.com/article/cazzarola/.

Brownstein, Bill. “'Rebel Wordsmith' Norman Nawrocki Forever Fighting for the Underdog.” Montreal Gazette, 2 Feb. 2017, montrealgazette.com/entertainment/music/rebel-wordsmith-norman-nawrocki-forever-fighting-for-the-underdog.

Fine, Philip. “How to Lure the Insensitive with Sex Toys.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 12 Oct. 2000, www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/how-to-lure-the-insensitive-with-sex-toys/article4168182/ .

Milton, Jon. “Norman Nawrocki Explores Migrant Justice Through His New Album.” The Link, 13 Feb 2017, https://thelinknewspaper.ca/article/norman-nawrocki-album-launch-music.

Nawrocki, Norman and Lydia Anderson. “Lessons from a 7ft Penis.” 16 Mar 2016, https://youtu.be/F7L8j77MHmQ.

Nawrocki, Norman, and Jean Smith. “Norman Nawrocki -- Sex Shows 11.” 19 Aug. 2010, http://youtu.be/ocXNTiczHcU?t=18.

Scherbak, Tamara. “In Development.” Tamara Scherbak, 4 May 2018, www.miksang.ca/in-development/.

Scherbak, Tamara, and Norman Nawrocki. “Trailer for Sex Tapes: Lessons from a 7ft Penis & Friends.” Vimeo - Sex Tapes: Lessons from a 7ft Penis, 8 Mar. 2019, www.vimeo.com/299295610.

Wosick, Kassia. “Sex Positive Reflections on Norman Nawrocki's One-Man Comedic Cabaret ‘Sex Toys.’” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 2013, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0160597613493749 .

playing around with contrast: inside a fine art photographic technique

contrast adjustments…

This short journal post is from a presentation I gave in spring 2019 where I discussed how adjusting your contrast can be an interesting way of shooting different subjects and landscapes. This process helps to darken (underexpose) or lighten (overexpose) a scene that I have found can help to add new conceptual meaning to whatever is being photographed.

Ultimately, this is something that can easily be done in camera. Just play around with increasing or decreasing your shutter speed or aperture (f-stop) to create photographs that are purposely under or over exposed. Alternatively, you can shoot a perfectly exposed photo in camera and then fiddle with the contrast in Photoshop, as I did with this photo, titled wal-art 3, of an aisle in Walmart I took in August 2012 and then overexposed it (to make it look brighter than it should) using Photoshop…

wal-art 3

To be completely honest, I had not originally planned to overexpose the images. I only did it after finding out that for some reason, the focus was soft across my images. By overexposing them, you didn’t notice that and it also added a whole other depth to how the content of the photo was presented.

Artist & photographer Paul Graham has also overexposed some of his photographs, as he did with his American Night series of photographs, like this one, American Night #16, from 2000…

wal-art 3

Graham overexposes his photos so much that they at times almost appear ghostly white, with very little of the photo’s original colour left behind. Graham’s American Night photographs formed part of a series of photographs he shot using this technique (as was my wal-art shot, it too is part of a on-going series).

Doing it in camera can be a bit risky as you are ultimately stuck with what you get. If you are at a location you might not be able to return to, it might be better to shoot a perfectly exposed image and then play with it later in Photoshop. Or, if you have time, take a perfectly exposed shot and then take a few shots where you experiment in camera.

making contrast adjustment in photoshop…

If you really want to over or underexpose in Photoshop, here’s where to look:

IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > BRIGHTNESS / CONTRAST

This provides a good start, but sometimes it’s not enough so go to the next option…

IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > EXPOSURE

Then adjust ‘exposure,’ and possibly adjust ‘gamma correction’ if needed.

Finally, you can also adjust your LEVELS or CURVES (also found in the IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS drop-down menu). In LEVELS, you can play with the INPUT and OUTPUT LEVELS; and in curves you can adjust, well the curves (Cross Process can be fun too).

More Inspiration…

Unlike other alternative photographic process topics I’ve been exploring, there aren’t many YouTube videos on this specific topic, but I did find one…

This next video gives some solid tips for creating soft and airy photographs by experimenting with some of the ideas talked about here, but also by exploring other elements from lens choice to other camera settings which allow the backgrounds to appear under or over exposed while keeping the main subjects nicely exposed and in focus…

Nature's Layered Geometry

This past week I spent time at a small part of Elgin Creek, which winds its way through South Surrey, British Columbia. This specific area is actually near my Mom's house, which wasn't far from where I spent most of my time as a teenager often walking or biking through different paths that line the creek. Over the weekend I spent time clearing blackberry bushes and other weeds from the roadside near this part of the creek. It used to be clear when I was a teenager, but over the years became so overgrown that last week you couldn't even see the street sign that identified 31a Avenue turning into Northcrest Drive. It also provided a good cover for youth to drink and homeless to camp in the creek bed. And finally, the mess of bush also became a spot for people walking on the sidewalk to deposit trash, treating the bushes as nature's garbage receptacle which just isn't cool. As I peeled back the layers of the brush, I found many plastic candy wrappers, lids for coffee cups, some compact discs, a bicycle wheel and many plastic doggy poop bags, as partly seen here in this photo from Saturday, June 9, 2018: 

Debris found in the bushes

Debris found in the bushes

I didn't plan on the order in which the garbage fell, it just sort of ended up splayed around the discarded bicycle tire. I spent about two days clearing the area, and this stuff was stuff I found on the first day. In an odd sense it feels like an artwork in and of itself, hailing to the traditions in sculpture and painting where found objects can become art objects. It also harkens back to the old saying of how one man's trash can be another man's treasure. In Andy Goldsworthy's new film, Leaning Into The Wind, Goldsworthy describes this idea as representing "...two different ways of looking at the world," which Goldsworthy describes as being "...the beauty of art that makes you step aside off of the normal way of walking or looking."

With the area cleared, the side of the road now looks a lot cleaner and you can now see down into the creek bed easily.  I did this not just for a cleaner visual aesthetic but to also When I took breaks during the work, I kept looking down at the creek, listening to its flowing water, birds chirping and the leaves rustling. I remembered hanging out and exploring the creek bed as a teenager, including one time when I walked it from 32nd Avenue up to 24th Avenue. And it's this mix odd mix of remembering and reminiscing that made me decide to venture into the creek bed when my work was done, to spend time there reflecting and building my small project.

I loved how Goldsworthy is able to spend a lot of time in a few specific places, both within the urban and rural landscapes that surrounds him in his local community. The film documents his time spent in these places and also revisits places he spent time at in the past and I enjoyed watching this interplay between the actions of the present with memories of the past. As I walked into the bed from the roadside, over the branches and leaves I'd cleared and spread out over the ground to decompose, I was amazed at the landscape, how the creek undulated and flowed unencumbered through a layered mess of geometry - curves, rocks, fallen and decomposing trees. I was amazed at how similar it was to the places Goldsworthy explores half a world away.

One spot in particular appeared to be a wall of wood, but still the creek had found a way under that diversion and kept on flowing. The mess of branches and the large tree that had fallen and likely once blocked the creek, causing it to alter its path and dig under it amazed me. In many ways it felt as though the mess could represent the challenges we face in life, and in particular the challenges I've been facing as well. We each chose how we deal with these challenges and we can either let them bury us under or we can find ways in which to bury under them and push through them to the other side.

For awhile, I simply walked around this area until I decided to start picking up some of the branches that lay all around me. At first, I only touched branches that were already there, a little further away from the ones I had added to the area on the weekend. Some of these were in varying states of decay. Some were strong but many were weak. Some had moss or other moulds and fungus growing on them. At times I was a bit afraid to touch them, but after awhile I just instinctively started to grab them without any kind of forethought. In the moment, I had let go. So I simply piled them on top of each other, on top of the main log and on top of the side of the creek bed closest to me. It felt natural to do this. Eventually the shape of an isosceles triangle started to suggest itself, and as I thought about the triangle, I thought about the natural strength inherent in it. The shape mirrored the flow of the creek, which flowed from a wider area to a more narrow area, mimicking the shape of a triangle or an arrow as it pushed under the debris. In some ways the creek was leaning into the wind by its very act of pushing through. Just like how Goldsworthy has done and just like we do in our lives. My layered geometric shape lay above the creek but as I created my Earthwork I also found myself placing the larger sticks I found right into the water and allowed them to enter into the top of the triangle, while not quite reaching the other side of it, as illustrated here:

A photo of my in progress Earthwork...

A photo of my in progress Earthwork...

I didn't want it to connect, I wanted it to give the suggestion of connecting, of reaching towards each other but also providing a space for escape. I also found myself subconsciously wanting to mimic how the water flowed and passed through a seemingly immovable object:

My Earthwork - finished - for now...

My Earthwork - finished - for now...

I was also attracted to the idea of layering an ordered stack of sticks onto layers of unordered stacks of wood, sticks and debris that had built up in the area over time. There are so many layers to everything we do in life, and there's so many layers to what can be found in nature and in our man made environments. And I also liked how the finished object pointed towards the direction the creek was going in, and just how far the creek continued in the distance (which I'm not sure I was able to capture very well in my photographs):

My Earthwork - finished, for now...

My Earthwork - finished, for now...

I also like how Goldsworthy is able to document his work both photographically and through a visual medium such as film or video. To this end, I shot my own short video, which I think helps provide a better context and feel for the area I played in, including all of its various sounds from the water flowing to the birds chirping, frogs croaking and even to the sounds of my own footsteps crunching the leaves and twigs on the ground below me as well as of a plane flying somewhere high overhead:

Finally, as I left the space, back through the way I came into it, I stopped and turned around and found I could see it through the leaves from the road. Here's my attempt of photographing what I saw, and I apologize for it being a bit blurry as it was getting late and the light was darker and shooting through the trees made it difficult to focus in on my Earthwork in the low light:

My Earthwork as seen from the roadside...

My Earthwork as seen from the roadside...

I do like how it's not completely visible from the road, you can only catch glimpses of it through the brush and the Earthwork is not totally visible in its whole from any particular spot on the road. I'd like to revisit it and perhaps add to it, build it up more and layer it more to make it seem a bit more imposing or even noticeable from the road. Finally, I like the idea of how this could be there for awhile, at least until some teenager comes and kicks it aside or in the winter or spring, when the creek water is higher, it simply washes away like one of Goldsworthy's pieces. What will become of it is ultimately a mystery, and I've found that creating Earthworks teaches an artist how to let go. This can certainly be seen in LEANING INTO THE WIND as there is no way any artist can control an Earthwork once you leave it (or even when making it), and I've found that can be both terrifying and liberating at the same time.