Sheila Norgate, recovered nice girl

by Linda Rogers, November 2010

In her performance art, painter Sheila Norgate pokes fun at both the constraints of women and the realities of the artistic process.

In one of this year’s Fringe Festival shows, an actor sat naked onstage, allowing her audience the opportunity to interact, bringing their own expectations to the blank canvas she offered. The shape of every show depended on the connectivity of artist and theatre patron, a dynamic that gave everyone who participated in the exchange a heightened sense of the courage it takes to be an artist.

Gabriola Island painter and performance artist Sheila Norgate takes similar risks in peeling back the layers of negative adaptation that defined the women of her generation. Her magic peel is laughter, as she “deconstructs the preciousness” of gender role-playing. By sending up icons like Sigmund Freud, the father of penis envy (why would any self-respecting woman want one of those?), and creating a new iconography of birds and canines, she reduces our social behaviour to comedy.

A feminist born on the cusp of change, Norgate grew up in Toronto, enduring girlhood in the Fifties, the decade when Rosie the Riveter nailed herself to a white picket fence. Those were particularly perilous years for girls raised by women frightened back into the henhouse by men returning from war. Her own mother was a culture-shocked British war bride who’d married a Canadian soldier. “Like everyone who has been to war and killed or seen killing, my father was traumatized and never recovered,” she says.

The result was social constraints that repressed creativity. “I had no idea I was an artist,” says Sheila, who went to work for the Royal Bank as a young woman. Numbers defined the parameters of her childhood bunker. Perhaps she was counting the steps from then to now. Unlocked from her corporate vault after 10 years by stress-related illness, she found her voice, which is at once political and personal, in the twin genres of performance and painting.

Surprisingly, this daughter of the Fifties is a “nostalgist.” “I love the props: post-war music and movies, the campy furniture. I play old films while I’m working. Maybe I want to go back and re-write the scripts.” 

Norgate admits to dancing while she paints. “Oh yeah, disco. I’m moving on.” In celebration of the bad old years of gloves and girdles, when nice girls and naughty girls duked it out in the psyche of every North American female suppressing her inner human, she collects books of etiquette, which she has transformed into comedy.

“This is the situation,” she leans over a delicately-spiced bowl of palak paneer at the Tibetan Kitchen to make her point; “We apparently retained false memories from the time when we were locked down in the rules and regulations that kept us from being fully-realized human beings and made us ashamed of our imperfect female bodies. Nothing was learned from pre-feminist history and now it is worse. These days women aren’t just hiding their so-called flaws, they are having them surgically altered. We aren’t even allowed to age gracefully. How sick is that?”

Her own book, Storm Clouds Over Party Shoes: Etiquette Problems for the Ill Bred Woman, a pastiche of ironic reaction released in 1997 by Press Gang publishers, and her performance piece, “Charm, Beauty and Poise: Timeless Tips for Girls Who have Let Themselves Go,” gathered positive attention as Canadian women laughed off their psychic underwear. What will it take to make the mothers of feminism comprehend how seriously their daughters are now embracing self-mutilation? Norgate can only hope that comedy will continue to open channels of self-awareness.

To that end, she’s working on a new book, Dangerous Curves, and a new show, “Chin Straps and Other Questionable Remedies” which parody the negative aspirations that keep women from actualizing their real humanity.

The artist, whose studio is in her house on Gabriola Island, works mainly in acrylic. She likes the way the paint dries almost as fast as her mind works. “When it falls behind, I use a hair dryer to speed up the process.” Relatively self-taught, she once took a painting class from Phyllis Serota and had enrolled in art at Camosun College before illness forced her to stop. She now learns from introspection and studying artists she loves, Neo-expressionist serendipidists like Squeak Carnworth and Jean Michel Basquiat. “People who paint from the heart” and with a free mind.

The freed mind is a preoccupation of the “recovered nice girl” who demonstrates in her shape- and attitude-changing work that neuroplasticity, or cortical restructuring of the brain, is not a fixe du jour. Anxiety is the human condition that predisposes us to fear. Her paintings, mind-altering comic/cosmic meditations send up anxiety and, in so far as fear is pervasive in the human condition, this accounts for their popularity.

Like many artists, Norgate now depends on her web presence for sales. “The art galleries are on life-support these days. I make a good living off the internet and it exposes my work to an international audience.” She has even been imitated in China.

For those who want to see an artist undressed, there is the November 18 slide show “I Never Met a Canvas I Didn’t Like” in which Norgate deconstructs the mystique of painting by showing her process step by step, starting with the naked canvas. Everything we don’t understand is the author of our insecurity. The painting stands in for brain surgery, pastry-making, or the sculptural art of plumbing, all of which evolve through logical, empirical steps. CBC’s Shelagh Rogers described the show as “Spellbinding…Norgate’s courage to do things over and start again is inspiring. She is so open about her journey as an artist and as a human being that you will come away feeling emboldened.” 

Sheila wants us to understand how we come to be by understanding how she creates. Here is Eve. Here is the apple. It is just an apple. Even deprived of its mysterious connotations and repulsive constraints, it is delicious.

Sheila Norgate’s paintings will appear in the show Rare Birds with fellow artists Roy Green and Diane Kremmer, who all portray birds with wit, humour, and a touch of pathos. It’s at the Vancouver Island School of Art, 2549 Quadra, Nov 12-Dec 6, with an opening reception Nov 12 at 7:30pm. On Thursday, November 18 at 7:30pm, Norgate will present her performance of “I Never Met a Canvas I Didn’t Like” in VISA’s gallery space.


Linda Rogers is Victoria Poet Laureate.