About two weeks ago Vincentian artist, photographer and goldsmith Josette Norris mounted a five-day exhibition of paintings and mixed media works in the converted office space of a Waterloo Street building. Despite being a space not typically known for hosting such events (and with no markings or identifying signs), it seemed as though art lovers had no trouble finding the exhibition. On the two occasions I visited there was a slow but steady flow of visitors stopping by to escape the noise of the Georgetown hustle. And it was indeed a cozy oasis that offered relief in the form of art.
This was an exhibition with something for everyone. There were simple but evocative flower studies, more complex and sometimes jarring compositions that seemed to celebrate a kind of non-linear format of storytelling and a section which featured one of a kind jewelry made
from indigenous materials, copper, silver, nickel silver, brass, semi-precious stones and found objects. The audio/visual experience (which couldn’t be ignored) was an unexpected but interesting twist to say the least. The juxtaposition of blaring horns, loud music and the gang of parrots creating a ruckus in someone’s tree poured in from the windows and was in sharp contrast with the tranquility most of Norris’ works inspired. I had wondered if anyone
else stopped to consider that: this meeting place where two conflicting worlds rubbed against each other, the raw and unfiltered reality of our country’s heart, and a quieter but no less intense collection of curated moments housed within that same heart.
During a conversation with the artist it was clear that her formal art training provided her with the necessary knowledge of materials and technical skills to explore and develop an
expansive portfolio of work over the years. Speaking on the way the exhibition was conceptualized Norris explained that it was only after an invitation from her son-on-law, Ronald Burch Smith, that she began to seriously contemplate what her debut exhibition in Guyana could look like.
“This was a show without a theme really. I’ve been coming to Guyana since my daughter has been married to Ronald so it’s been about seven years. He invited me to have an exhibition here and I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I have an exhibition here?’ And to be quite honest I got tired of people calling me ‘Moms’ or ‘Sam’s mom’ I have an identity. I’ve been an artist long before I had my daughter. So I thought, ‘Maybe I need to show them who I am.’”
And she did just that with an impressive collection of works spanning more than twenty years of her creative practice.
Norris completed her formal art education in 1984 at the Jamaica School of Art and Crafts (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts) where she majored in goldsmithing, with subsidiaries in ceramics, sculpture, basic design, graphics and painting. She recalled fondly the four years she spent finding community with kindred spirits there.
“It was wonderful. I always tell people it was blood, sweat and tears but it was worth it in the long run. I went to Canada first to go to art school and they didn’t accept me in Ontario College of Art. But I’m in good company because they didn’t accept David Hockney either.
So I went back to St. Vincent. At the time I didn’t know we had an art school in Jamaica until a top jeweler told me. I wasn’t even thinking of doing jewelry. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. It just turned out in the end that because I couldn’t do sculpture I did jewelry instead.
It was non-stop but I loved it. I didn’t do art in high school. I didn’t fit into schools but when I went to Jamaica I think for the first time [I realized] there were people like me.”
During our conversation Norris went on to describe her affinity for designing and making bold jewelry. From my observation that boldness was not limited to that medium only, it was a recurring marker in all her various bodies of work. There is a kind of willingness and ease with which she embraces experimentation. Her choice of materials and techniques (and often several combinations of the two) often result in a seamless merger of what some might be tempted to label ‘disparate elements’. But perhaps they are not so disparate. The manner in which she molds the material (whether organic or otherwise) on the support surface makes for a cohesive final piece regardless of the medium.
“I tried to give people a picture of the difference in my style of work. People never believe I do the same work because I tend to move along in my style. The common denominator in my style is the textural quality which gets more and more exaggerated. I find the more I paint the more I want it to jump out of the canvas. I’m not interested in doing anything flat anymore. I really wanted to be a sculptor but I’m a goldsmith so it’s all tactile.”
She explained that even after all the years that have passed there is still no easy way of shifting gears between painting and jewelry making. While they’re both equally important and demanding components of her creative practice, she confessed that the constant shifts do create temporary moments of anxiety and doubt.
“I don’t think there’s a smooth transition between the two. Whenever I’m painting and I
finish what I’m doing and have to go back to jewelry, I always go into a panic attack. I always feel as if I’ve lost it and I won’t know how to do anything. But within two seconds it’s over. I go right back into it and I forget I went through that drama.”
Norris works from her home studio in Pembroke, St. Vincent, painting and producing one of a kind jewelry and crafts under the trade name Bijoux Josette. She also makes and designs fashion jewelry for presentations staged by designer, Kimya Glasgow. She has shown works in major exhibitions in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and further afield in Jamaica (1984), Trinidad and Tobago (1984), UNESCO Paris (1999) and OAS Washington, D.C., (2004). She has also
illustrated the cover of the second edition of Ruler in Hairouna (2003), a classic novel on Caribbean politics written by the late George C.H. Thomas.