Artist Norma Jackson has a large extended family of over 300. Each has a distinct personality, a unique appearance and a life story that could be completely predictable or totally unexpected. Each has a special place in Norma’s heart because she created them, one by one, 200 hours of work at a time, to fill a need, to meet another person’s vision, or to play a role evoking an emotion. Norma’s marionettes come in all shapes, sizes, types and represent many walks of life and different eras.
“I loved art when I was a child,” says Norma, who would draw or paint everything she saw during long summers at the family cottage on an island in Shawnigan Lake. But it would be some time before she revisited her passion because her path took her into the business world where she worked as a paralegal, administrator and development officer. It was in Nanaimo that she had the chance to become re-acquainted with the art world when she became the Development Officer for the Nanaimo Festival Society in its inaugural year.
It was quite a change of direction when Norma entered what she calls her “training years” and embarked on a spiritual exploration of a variety of world religions, philosophies and natural health practices, researching their many facets and studying Mind/Body medicine. She eventually had her own practice for some 17 years and taught classes at the then Malaspina College’s Cowichan Campus.
Under the mentorship of a trusted friend, Norma took on a role in the creation of a marionette theatre, which was set up as a non-profit society to serve the community. The plays were aimed to uplift “and enlist communication, interaction with the audience,” says Norma. The plays and characters were taken to many places including care homes, schools and bedsides. The theatre travelled to various locations on Vancouver Island and for two years used a 100-seat theatre in Qualicum.
The travelling show was a turning point for Norma, who found it was beginning to draw out her own talents. She recalls her shyness and was given the job of MC for the show, providing some entertainment during scene changes. At first, she had a script but, as her confidence grew, she “felt cramped by the script and wanted to work one-on-one with the audience,” and created her own material.
Through the theatre, Norma found her own artistic stride again; marionettes had to be made from scratch. She hadn’t sculpted or painted since she was a child but she tapped into her artistic depths and, much to her delight, found an amazing natural outpouring. “I would look at different materials and think of ways to form them. I had no restrictions or biases to direct me, so I was free to create,” says Norma. "It was the most alive I have ever been. It was the hardest time, too. I lived and breathed it all. It consumed me. It was my life.”
During performances, Norma noticed the effect the marionettes had on both the puppeteer and the audience. “Marionettes are the part of us we sometimes would like to have a chance to be,” she says. “Through them we can say things we’d like to say, to express, to demonstrate.” And with her observations and extensive experience as a Master Puppeteer, Norma drew on all her other life experiences and combined them to work in the field of therapeutic arts.
“The combination of a hands-on therapeutic use of arts, drama and puppetry provides a powerful and dynamic tool promoting healing and hope,” says Norma. “These tools are spiritually uplifting, projective, non-threatening and empowering and just downright fun! They can express the unspeakable and touch the soul when nothing else has worked. They can take on any character trait, represent any metaphor and can transcend age, physical, mental and language barriers."
While Norma has created and developed programs for use in hospice and other organizations, one project stands out in her mind. Over 40 teenagers from various high schools worked with her when she was contracted to develop and implement a suicide intervention program for youth called “Staying Alive.” A weekly program engaged the youth to keep them involved, get their ideas and explore their thoughts on risks for suicide, what upset them, what impacted them and discuss scenarios for a play, which would use marionettes. Eventually, the characters in the play emerged, their marionettes were created with the features and clothing applied. At first, Norma anticipated drawing on her store of marionettes, but it became clear that each character in this play would need to be created from scratch. She worked through the summer to build the marionettes for the play that was presented the following fall. Norma recalls the awe in the room “when the students arrived back at school and there were their characters waiting for them.”
Not only did Norma create each marionette, but she also built the set and produced the play - all based on the youths’ input. Storing and moving the ensemble is a huge undertaking and she readily acknowledges the great help and support she’s received from her husband Rod. The result was well worth it because “’Staying Alive’ was later defined by a Health Canada official as one of the best practices in North America,” says Norma.
These days, Norma works on her art - watercolours, acrylics and sculpture - from her gallery in the Cowichan Valley. “My passion is the human condition. I paint whatever moves me and there is usually a story behind each picture,” she says. “I’m still trying to tell a story, even in my paintings, trying to get a message across.”
In the meantime, the full cast of 'HMS Pinafore', 'Jack and Beanstalk', and *Aladdin*, plus a myriad of other fascinating characters are waiting, (along with two stages, lights, music, props, sets and everything else that goes along with a theatrical production,) for a chance step out of the wings again.
To learn more about marionettes and Norma’s current art, visit www.normajacksonartist.com
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