How Marite Norris brought colour back into her world after losing children Mo, Evie and Otis in MH17

Jade Jurewicz
The Nightly
8 Min Read
The loss of Mo, Evie and Otis Maslin in the MH17 tragedy is etched on a nation’s soul. On Mother’s Day almost 10 years later, their mum shares her story of hope and resilience through art and daughter Violet.
The loss of Mo, Evie and Otis Maslin in the MH17 tragedy is etched on a nation’s soul. On Mother’s Day almost 10 years later, their mum shares her story of hope and resilience through art and daughter Violet. Credit: Ian Munro/The West Australian

If the walls of Marite (Rin) Norris’ art gallery could speak, they would tell the story of big dreams, of love and heartbreaking loss, of creativity, hope and, most of all, of resilience.

The studio, nestled down a laneway off the main drag in Scarborough, was the cheapest rental Norris could find in the area 10 years ago.

It wasn’t the bold and eclectic space that it is now, rather a bit worse for wear thanks to a few too many late-night parties thrown by the lads who had rented it before.

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But with her art taking up prime position across the family dining table, she took her children — Mo, Evie and Otis — to explore its potential. Early in 2014, the studio became theirs.

It was all hands on deck: Mo and Evie were on painting duty, receiving $7 for each wall they painted. Norris’ father Nick, a headmaster and educator by trade, picked up a brush too.

Norris remembers Otis sitting in deep wonder as they worked away, dreaming up ideas for the space. He wanted to paint eyes all over the walls before putting a blanket over an easel to live under in the tiny storage room.

It was the family’s blank canvas to splash with joy and creativity, a place for Norris to showcase her artistic flair — a passion and talent that she’d embraced since childhood.

But then, their world stopped.

Evie, Mo and Otis Maslin.
Evie, Mo and Otis Maslin. Credit: Supplied

The kaleidoscopic colours of their bright existence drained to black when on July 17, 2014, the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 that Mo, 12, Evie, 10, Otis, eight, and their grandfather Nick were aboard, flying home from Europe to Perth, was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

Norris’ husband, Anthony Maslin (Maz), awoke in Amsterdam to a screen full of missed calls.

What followed was a blur of Google searches, confronting images, an Australian embassy visit and a form of pain that no parent should know exists.

Vibrant days packed with school drop-offs, little shoes scattered throughout their home, and bringing the art studio to life were suddenly empty. Silent.

Then, in the midst of the darkness, Norris heard three small voices.

“A few months after our world ended, and the incredible life we had been so lucky to experience all shattered into millions of pieces, I heard the kids whispering to me, encouraging me, ‘Mum, go to the art space’,” she remembers.

So that is what she did.

Marite Norris's 2021 solo exhibition: Colour Warp
Marite Norris's 2021 solo exhibition: Colour Warp Credit: Supplied

In the 10 years since, The Art Space Collective has been transformed into a space dedicated to community and creativity, packed with what Norris describes as life-affirming artworks, classes and workshops. They’ve held their own celebrations into the night — live music has been a big part of the space — and by day children have filled it with laughter as they created their own special pieces to take home.

It has been host to Norris’ own exhibitions — the artist is particularly fond of the collage medium, using photographs collected over more than 20 years — Colour Warp and Get Pasted among the personal favourites.

“People have grown in confidence, worked through issues, built businesses, overcome periods of depression, made friends, built networks and re-entered the workforce,” Norris explains.

“What we’ve achieved is incredible — over 30,000 people have attended our workshops.”

Now, a decade after opening the gallery and 3584 days since their world ended, Norris is ready for her next chapter.

On April 27, the gallery opened its doors to the public for the final time.

Norris has mixed feelings as she walks around the space during a special Mother’s Day shoot with STM, alongside daughter Violet, who recently celebrated her eighth birthday.

An effervescent Violet is at ease in the gallery, confidently guiding us on a tour across the small but charming space, starting at the main gallery room still lined with pieces from artists Ben Taylor, Ian Mutch, Lori Pensini and Kyle Hughes-Odgers, past the offices and the tiny storeroom where her brother Otis once built that cubby under an easel, and through a secret door to the workshop space.

Norris and Maslin’s story has so deeply touched the hearts of Australians, the adorable names and beautiful faces of their three children etched forever into our minds. But Norris has never wanted this tragedy to define her.

For so long she felt surrounded by pity, as people saw their deepest fears reflected back to them when they looked at her.

Instead, Norris wants people to see strength in her story. To view her life — in all its evolving tones of pink, yellow, grey, green and violet — as a reminder that you’re never alone, that love is permanent. To bask in the positivity and joy that she consciously puts out into the world.

“I hope that my journey can be one that finds joy in honouring those who’ve passed, which essentially is something that chooses to honour humanity itself, in all its crazy splendidness,” Norris says.

”If this choice is strength, then I guess that strength is something that defines me. It’s also the strength of my kids and dad, holding me up with their golden ropes.”

When a Soul Rose to the Stars, 2024 by Marite Norris
When a Soul Rose to the Stars, 2024 by Marite Norris Credit: Supplied

This perspective didn’t come instantly.

It metamorphosed from moments of joy, big and micro: friendly and familiar faces at the supermarket, neighbours popping over to say hello, a walk and coffee with friends, the trilling of a bird.

It came from riding the waves of grief, instead of fighting against them.

“Sometimes you feel as if you’re underneath a tsunami, and equally as suddenly you find yourself in calm waters, bobbing along, head above water, still in an ocean of pain but swimming as opposed to drowning,” Norris says.

Moments of peace were found in the pages of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now, the only book Norris could read in the two years following the crash. In his words she found the power to focus on what she had, not what she had lost, finding that overthinking on loss caused more pain.

Strength came from self-care and kindness, from focusing on the basics: having a bath, watching a movie, putting the slow cooker on, getting eight hours of sleep, exercising, eating nutritious food and not drinking too much alcohol.

It was the moment when she held Violet for the first time, though, two years after her world ended, that Norris felt the darkness lift.

As the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy edges closer, it’s been a time of reflection for the family.

Norris describes her journey as an emotional evolution from the shadows — from the edge of doom — to the present moment that “quite simply defies description”.

“From cataclysm to relative sanity,” Norris says. “I can say that The Art Space as it is today was born out of a river of sorrow.

“Maz and I were confronted with the impossibility of a future life and the feeling that things would never be bearable again.

“Slowly, together, and through The Art Space, we were able to find purpose — one step at a time.

“But not only that, it continued to be through The Art Space and through art and creativity that I’ve experienced a profound connection to my kids.”

Mo, Evie and Otis are never far away. Norris and Maslin are always listening out for them, checking for signs, chatting to them.

Their drawings are etched into the Whale Playground in Scarborough. Brighton Park honours them with a bench. Norris worked with Noongar elder and community leader Uncle Neville Collard to incorporate them into his Junta Dreaming trail.

“They’re with us now,” Norris says. “Mainly laughing at the stupid stuff we do and say but also guiding us and planting cool ideas in our heads. They’re motivating us and compelling us forward, awakening our spirits to humanity and what lies beyond.

“You see, those of us who’ve lost know that the incredible bonds with our loved ones don’t end with their death. The connection is cosmic and eternal.”

Marite Norris and daughter Violet Maslin.
Marite Norris and daughter Violet Maslin. Credit: Ian Munro/The West Australian

Being asked questions is another way they keep their memories alive; Norris has noticed people often shy away from talking about their kids in a bid to not upset them.

A thought shared by comedian Meshel Laurie comes to mind when Norris articulates a misconception of grief.

“(She said) ‘when something truly terrible happens to people, it tends to reduce them in our imagination to nothing more than shadows beneath that terrible thing’,” Norris says.

“The way she put that was so accurate. People perhaps don’t see those who suffer as the capable individuals that we are. All they can see is the unbearable pain thing that hovers over them.

“This misconception needs to shift: ask questions. Ask grieving people what they need, and don’t be afraid of them.”

The couple say they feel less isolated, “less freaky”, and less alone when people share their own problems and woes with them.

“Weirdly, we’re pleased to hear that other people have problems too,” Norris explains.

“Plus, we may be able to help or shed some light or a new perspective on things due to our personal experiences of dealing with pain.”

It’s also through Violet that their children’s memories are kept alive: she has the sense of humour of Otis, a fascination with history like Mo and the kind and caring nature of Evie, as well as all her own unique and quirky qualities.

Violet adores watching videos of her siblings and insists on celebrating their birthdays.

On her first day of kindy, which coincided with her birthday (which Norris and Maslin had decided to celebrate the next day), she stood up and announced to the class: “My biggest brother is here, and he told me it’s my birthday today.”

Their new family home in Scarborough, a place that was intended to have the pitter-patter of six more feet, is lined with huge photos of the children. Norris loves her three cacti on the balcony, the view of the ocean and the connection with nature.

It will be where she’ll wake up this morning on Mother’s Day, a day she struggles with. It’s long been a challenging date; Norris has avoided the Mother’s Day breakfasts or crowded restaurant lunches to hide away with her own thoughts.

Mothers who have experienced loss can often feel redundant and forgotten, she explains. She’ll be attending a breakfast this year — Violet is particularly excited about the prospect of donuts.

For Norris, being a mother is “everything”.

As the chapter of her gallery comes to a close, she’s excited for what is to come. Norris will be focusing on her collage and painting work. She’s renting a new studio space in Scarborough, so watch out for some solo exhibitions.

She’ll also continue to be inspired by her children, who she says often sit with her as she works, planting ideas in her head.

As for the outpouring of love and support from Australians over the past decade, the couple has felt it.

She hopes by sharing her story, it will help others — particularly those who have experienced loss — to realise that they are not alone. There can be light after darkness.

“Stay in the present moment and remember that your connection to your loved ones, your love for them and their love for you, never dies,” Norris says.

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