Jimbo Insell is grateful for everything, especially his creative life.
“WELL, MAYBE IT STARTED THAT WAY. As a dream, but doesn’t everything… Somebody had to dream about it first. And maybe that is what I did. I dreamed about coming here, but then I did it.”
―Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach
I PEER IN THROUGH THE DUSTY GLASS of an ancient Chinatown door as Fisgard Street and its red silk lanterns darken against a dusky summer sky. A faint glow at the top of narrow wooden stairs eerily illuminates about 20 mannequin torsos ascending the treads like a faceless, legless chorus rehearsing an Ann Miller production number. I ring James Insell’s bell again. No answer. A few seconds later, he arrives, with a smile and apologies, from his work managing costume design on a film set. “Jimbo,” as he calls himself, is not yet a household name in Victoria, but he’s arguably got one of the city’s most exciting and original creative minds.
I’ve seen his ironic, creepy costumed characters’ improvisational interactions with an audience. The nightmarish qualities of his provocative “clown” spectres with their white-faced, baloney-and-hot-dog hijinks leave some in stitches, some moved to tears, and others sprinting for the doors.
“Edgy” artists don’t typically exude the enormous warmth, goodwill and generosity that Insell does, yet my late-night conversation with this wildly innovative designer, drag queen and clown, in his Willy-Wonka-wonderland of a 3,000-square-foot studio (imagine Royal BC Museum’s “Old Town” made over by Pee-wee Herman and RuPaul) reveals a wise and compassionate man, whose creative body of work is all in the service of supporting authentic emotional experience.
Insell’s authenticity has truly been hard won. As young children in London, Ontario, he and his brother Jeff (now an actor based in Toronto) secretly dressed in women’s clothes and danced around in their basement, but their father, a successful doctor and scientist, sternly forbid such behaviour. “He didn’t want his sons to be faggots,” Insell relates. Anything that telegraphed as gay “was seen by my dad as totally bad and wrong.”
Despite yearning for the arts, an obedient and admiring Insell dutifully acquiesced to his commandeering father’s demands that he study science, earning a BSc in biology from the University of Western Ontario and garnering opportunities abroad with the University of Stockholm and Cambridge University. One of the most profound and transformative experiences of his life, he says, was in a Kenyan forest, communicating with chimpanzees in sign language. Yet he didn’t attend his graduation in 2008, never picked up his diploma, and hasn’t applied his degree to any endeavour since. With a gentle straightforwardness, Insell says of his upbringing, “I fully moved on with my life…I’ve seen how you can live in a really sick and miserable way…so I try to cultivate and create a positive, joyful and creative life.”
He packed up and moved west to Victoria, throwing himself into the creative collaborations and community he’d craved since childhood. He’s designed (and sewed) hundreds of costumes for local independent theatre productions, and his stage appearances are “all about what is truthfully happening in the moment…Things you don’t anticipate become gifts. If you’re truly present and listening, you can use everything…The clown is a conduit for emotion and experience and feeling; it sort of plays in those feelings without deep consequence.”
And why lunchmeat as a prop? “I ate so much baloney growing up—my dad ate that loaf that had macaroni in it,” Insell says with a laugh. “It never felt like actual food to me…there’s all kinds of things you can do with it; it’s funny and weird.”
As much as he still enjoys performing drag or clown occasionally, it’s behind-the-scenes design work that constitutes the bulk of Insell’s creative efforts. At 36, after a decade of proving his resourceful brilliance on shoestring budgets, he is now thriving in a successful career as a costume designer in Victoria’s burgeoning commercial film industry, while continuing to work his magic in the local independent theatre scene (see costumes and sets for Atomic Vaudeville’s annual October staging of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”)
Resolutely geared toward achievement, with an iron-clad work ethic, Insell keeps the triumph-to-tragedy ratio solidly in his favour by focusing on gratitude. “It’s amazing what having good energy and putting good energy into the world can bring to you,” the tall, lanky artist quietly asserts, a rainbow of coloured lights flashing in sequence above him, reflecting off scores of disco balls and silver stars hanging from the ceiling. A tribe of mannequins surround us and hundreds of colourful toys float on shelves. “Positive energy and intentions just breed more positive energy and intention in the world…I think that comes from just trying to be aware of what’s happening, and to be grateful.” Insell credits his mother with helping him cultivate this outlook. “She taught me to envision things and be grateful. We talked a lot about dreams: what my dreams were, how to achieve my dreams.”
Insell arrived in Victoria with his BSc in biology, but no formal training in design. He eagerly took on large-scale theatre projects that required outrageous physical self-sacrifice and paid him a pittance, but what he got were excellent learning opportunities, the gratification of contributing to successful productions, and the freedom of creative expression. By choosing work carefully, he was able to methodically refine his skills as an independent designer for Blue Bridge, Theatre Skam, and Atomic Vaudeville (his first design project was “Ride the Cyclone,” which launched the successful careers of several locals).
“There was not a lot of money in it for me personally, but it was all part of my journey to get where I am.” For this pent-up, long-denied theatre kid, being an integral part of a creative team and getting to see the audience experience the sets and costumes he’d designed “became a form of payment.” Insell then deftly positioned himself to get hired into the film industry, right as local movie and TV series production began its renaissance. Right now, he’s working as costume designer for a three-part series of feature-length mysteries (working title: Martha Vineyard Mysteries) for the Hallmark Channel with Front Street Pictures, a Vancouver-based production company. He marvels at how his working life has transformed, with international audiences of millions viewing his work on The Hallmark Channel.
Insell’s favourite book from childhood features a boy who, like him, is named James. James undertakes an epic journey to escape the cruel tragedy of his family circumstances, faces unexpected challenges and, ultimately, enjoys the wonderful life he’s dreamed of. Insell shows me photos and the maquette of his ingenious designs for Kaleidoscope Theatre’s staging of James and the Giant Peach—including the insect costumes and mammoth-fruit centrepiece. He animatedly recounts the press calling to ask about it. “‘Hullo, James? This is the Times Colonist. We hear you’ve got a giant peach!’ I was like, ‘Oh my fucking God, do you know this is exactly what happens in the story?’” The full-circle metaphorical significance of that moment still inspires awe in him. His eyes are alive with joy and wonder as he shakes his head. “I guess life imitates art.”
Jimbo Insell’s costume and set designs are featured in Atomic Vaudeville’s October production of “The Rocky Horror Picture show.” See http://atomicvaudeville.wixsite.com. See jimbo.online for a couple of videos and many photos of his work.
Mollie Kaye’s year-long social experiment, “Turned-out Tuesdays,” aims to assuage the epidemic of social isolation by promoting the mental-health-boosting powers of talking to strangers. (facebook and instagram “Turned-out Tuesdays” as well as www.theyearofdressup.com.