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 .

This.

I found this book today while I was browsing in INDIGO BOOKS... of course I immediately picked it up...

THE PHAROH'S GATE is the latest entry in the GRIFFIN & SABINE series by BC artist & author Nick Bantock...

THE PHAROH'S GATE is the latest entry in the GRIFFIN & SABINE series by BC artist & author Nick Bantock...

I remember how I was first introduced to Nick Bantock's GRIFFIN & SABINE trilogy. It was a long time ago when I was in high school, in grade 10 or 11, by a substitute art teacher nonetheless. I was immediately drawn to his work as I loved Bantock's ability to mix stunning artwork with a compelling narrative. Looking back on the series now, I really appreciate how Bantock's artwork has a surrealist dada like feel to their compositions where each piece seems to reveal something new with every viewing.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bantock during the release of his second trilogy at a few readings he did in Metro Vancouver. During one of the Q&A sessions I think I was the only one to ask about how he went about creating the art for the series - everyone else was more concerned about the story. British Columbia's Knowledge Network produced this short video about Bantock and his work, great for anyone who isn't familiar with his work:

PHAROH'S GATE was just released last month in 2016, and it marks the seventh title in this extraordinary  series. I'm not sure if I should dive into it fresh right now or revisit the original two trilogies first. We'll see!