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Emerging local artists tell us how they weathered a turbulent year full of online exhibitions, CERB and uncertainty
Avleen Kaur’s first solo exhibition opened at Cry Baby Gallery in March.
Major and independent galleries are finally reopening after months of rolling lockdowns and indefinite delays. For Toronto artists that rely on gallery shows, it’s been 16 months of headaches.
One unforeseen benefit of the pandemic was that it allowed artists to step back from the daily grind and hone their practices. For emerging artists, the idea of sustaining on art alone can seem impossible. Many must work several jobs to cover their rent and basic needs, which often leaves them burnt out and unable to focus on creating.
When the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) took effect last year, it completely changed things for artists who all of a sudden found themselves with ample amounts of an elusive resource: time. With less stress about keeping the lights on, they saw themselves going to the studio every single day instead of whenever they could find a couple of free hours, exploring new mediums and creating uninhibitedly.
However, we’re still in a global pandemic and even with the CERB, people have been struggling emotionally. Some channelled that into their work, others took breaks and others felt lost in limbo as exhibition opening delays dragged on.
NOW spoke with 10 emerging Toronto artists about how the past 16 months have impacted their work, lives and how they approach their art.
Kaur’s first solo show, This Is Not A Happy Show, opened in March at Cry Baby Gallery, during that lucky three-week pocket when lockdown restrictions were loosened. After a few delays, her arresting, abstract figurative oil paintings could finally be seen in person. They tantalize and entice viewers to lean in closer to explore trauma and tragedy. They can be discomforting and unsettling but that’s the intention. In October, she’ll head to Portugal to do a residency at PADA Studios.
“I try really hard to be online – like try in capital letters – but it’s not easy because I don’t want my art to just exist online. Because the work is texture-based and so many of the pieces are monochromatic or a single colour, you have to view them in person to see the depth and the way the light hits them. People really came out and supported the show and I think that’s because anyone seeing my Instagram could tell the work would be much more interesting in real life. We went so long without being able to see things. I am personally so tired of looking at screens and even though there have been great shows happening online, I can’t feel it.
“My practice also changed drastically [during the pandemic], because I was just over everything. I was over trying my best. The studio became a breeding ground for better artistic exploration. I started using a lot more texture and I wasn’t afraid to waste more paint because honestly, the world was dying, I was broke, I didn’t care. It was the first time I enjoyed making studio time an extensive part of my day.”
Wright’s joyful and playful technicolour wonderlands can be found on lampposts, building facades and electric boxes across Toronto. The multidisciplinary artist and muralist is booked and busy with commissions for mural works thanks to an influx of funding from the city’s Year of Public Art. But her fine art practice is trailing a bit, mostly because she doesn’t have a dedicated studio space. She’s also an instructor at Durham College, teaching drawing, painting and video editing. Teaching throughout the pandemic has been challenging.
“My practice hasn’t really slowed down due to COVID, it just shifted more towards mural arts. I don’t have a studio right now and I’m working out of my living room. I got a new dog and I have a cat so I can’t work with oils or anything toxic. I’m working on very small pieces using gouache and acrylic.
“Studio space is always hard to find but with COVID it’s even more difficult. I don’t want to be in a space where there are other people and you have to wear a mask for the whole time you’re in the studio. I would feel really paranoid and anxious, like watching what I touch and how close I get to people.
“I always have to feel in the mood to make art now, which is so wack. Anytime I feel good, I’ll do a little drawing, it’s therapeutic. As anxiety-ridden as I am, I miss going to shows and seeing my art friends and talking about art. That’s why I’m struggling so much in thinking about where I’m going next with my fine art, because I don’t have any feedback. It’s an echo chamber over here.
“The most difficult aspect of teaching now has been talking with students finishing their degrees during the pandemic. Some of my students were really going through it and I had to try not to cry every class.”
Renaissance turned the streets of Toronto into a gallery during the pandemic.
The anonymous street artist Renaissance creates art outside of the establishment, turning the streets of Toronto into the artist’s own blank canvas. Their “post-it notes for the people” started popping up around the city in 2020, with messages spray-painted onto boarded up buildings that read “You Are Not Your Mistakes” or “The Sky Is Falling Hold Breath & Wear Mask.” Renaissance considers them whispers to Black residents of Toronto, like a silent nod. The self-taught artist makes gestural paintings reminiscent of Basquiat on any material they can find – salvaged wood, paper, discarded mattresses – and leaves them for people to find and take for free. During the pandemic they endeavoured to turn the city into an accessible, outdoor gallery.
“I had this idea to turn Toronto into my gallery. I would find a spot that was boarded up and then I would put the words ‘Afro Gallery’ and I’d leave art there. I wasn’t only putting up graffiti-style art in the streets, I was leaving paintings on paper and canvas and also sculptures. I was creating so much art last summer, I probably donated about 50 paintings and the corners became curated, evolving galleries where people could take the art.
“I turned all of Kensington Market into an Afro gallery. I left paintings and sculptures at every hydro pole in Kensington. There’s one left but people took all the rest of them. People started going there and wondering what was going on, asking ‘did the city pay for this?’ It was like my own personal Nuit Blanche.”
Textile artist and ceramicist Akash Inbakumar begins a residency at Harbourfront Centre in September.
Things haven’t been easy for students graduating into a pandemic. Inbakumar completed their undergrad at OCAD University in 2020 and instead of having pieces shown at GradEx – the culmination of years of work – their thesis remained unfinished. The textile artist and ceramicist invites viewers into their dream world, creating wearable sculptures and installations meant to be interacted with. Despite the uncertainty, Inbakumar was recently part of a group show (this house, made and mended by unbelonging hands) at Riverdale Curatorial Projects and they begin a residency at the Harbourfront Centre in September.
“I went into a little bit of a dark place where I was like, ‘I don’t know how to continue my work in a pandemic.’ I graduated and I didn’t even finish my final project, it just got cut. I felt like I was out in the world with nothing to do. For the first few months, I was not making anything, I was just really trying to grapple with what was going on.
“I pivoted to techniques I had never thought I would use but that were doable at home, like crocheting and hand stitching. My work is primarily weaving or ceramics but I didn’t have access to a ceramic studio and I use a big floor loom to weave and I just don’t have a big enough living space so right now it’s dismantled and in storage. YouTube became my teacher in quarantine. That’s how I learned to crochet. I’ve also been collaborating with other textile artists Kristi Chen and Leeay Aikawa to learn backstrap weaving. It’s a popular technique in South America and Southeast Asia, so we used YouTube as our teacher since none of us are from those cultures nor do we know anyone who could teach us in Toronto.
“My practice has definitely evolved to be more collaborative. During my time at OCAD, I didn’t really have the time or feel invited to collaborate with others. You do your assignment and then hand it in and move on. Over the pandemic – I don’t know if it’s just because of all the social distance – but collaboration has been a way for me to move forward and make dream worlds with other people.”
Charlton’s photo exhibition Out Of Many never opened to the public at Gallery TPW, as it was scheduled to in February. Instead, designer Zoe Osborne created an immersive virtual living room, exhibiting Charlton’s tender and intimate images alongside her father’s collection of archival portraits. Although no one got to see the photos in person, the online launch had upsides. New York City-based art critic and curator Antwaun Sargent was invited to be part of a Zoom talk and upon seeing her photography asked if she would be interested in having it displayed as part of The New Black Vanguard, a touring exhibition of works by Black photographers, currently in Arles, France. The accomplishment is all the more impressive considering Charlton only started shooting film last year.
“I was feeling down at the beginning of 2020. I felt like my work needed a refresh or a revamp. I went through all my dad’s film photos and I was like, ‘I really need to just start shooting film.’ It was something I’d been meaning to try for years. I finally got a medium-format camera and things just took off. I don’t know how it happened but the past year has been the most booked I’ve ever been.
“Initially the show at TPW was delayed until summer but ultimately we decided to leave it as a virtual exhibition. It felt like things were being dragged out. Things are opening up and people are excited to be able to actually go into galleries but I wasn’t sure if it would hit the same so many months later especially since people had already seen it online.
“When [curator] Emilie Croning told me she wanted to have Antwaun involved in the launch, I was thrilled because I had recently purchased his book, The New Black Vanguard, and I could picture my work in it. When someone from Antwaun’s team at Aperture contacted me after the artist talk I was so excited because I feel like we don’t often see Canadian photographers getting their work shown internationally.”
Natalie King’s mural Bursting With Love is on display at Harbourfront Centre through September 12.
King is an interdisciplinary artist and facilitator who spent the past year considering why she makes art and embracing slowness in her practice. Working full-time between Tuesdays and Saturdays at Xpace Cultural Centre as a programming coordinator and then at her studio all day Saturday through Monday, the pandemic helped her realize that “no days off” is not a flex. Her mural, Bursting With Love, is on display at Harbourfront Centre through September 12.
“I’ve been thinking about the interconnectedness that draws me to making art. My culture, as an Anishinaabe person, is based on my relationships, so being away from friends, family and community really made me reach inside of myself. It’s like a running-on-empty feeling, taking stuff that’s super personal and putting it into your work without having community to fall back on. A lot of us have been working through grief, not only about being away from folks but also grief in terms of how COVID has severely impacted Black, Indigenous and people of colour communities and not wanting to overexert ourselves at the rate of capitalism.
“Art organizations are snapping back. All of these shows are opening and I’ve noticed an eagerness from certain organizations to work with Indigenous people and engage with Indigenous art without realizing that we’re in a state of grief and a state of shock.
“Through the course of the pandemic we also reevaluated how we do our programming at Xpace. We were doing 26 exhibitions a year and it took this period for us to realize that’s not sustainable. Especially as an artist-run centre, we all have our own artistic practices and we’re all BIPOC administrators, constantly doing the most, mentoring artists, helping them write grants, supporting every way we can. It took the pandemic for us to realize we don’t have to follow that model anymore, we can make it work for us and do fewer shows of higher quality.”
Stojkovic’s painted figures often look like spectres in the throes of passion or anguish. The evocative oil paintings are immediately eye-catching but they’re not the only thing Stojkovic creates. She also makes silver jewellery, ceramics and installation art and recently started painting clothing. She likes to keep her practice multi-faceted. Like many others, the past year was a period of personal upheaval as she found ways to process through all these different mediums. Acquiring a studio space with money saved from CERB also helped regulate her daily practice.
“Universal income is something that every artist should have. Before the pandemic, I was working as a retail manager – overworking really. I never had time for my practice and then out of nowhere, the world stopped. It was really painful and I didn’t know how to go about it. So I started getting CERB. I was lucky to be able to save part of it, I know that’s a privilege. My partner motivated me to put the savings toward an affordable studio space because I couldn’t create the way I wanted to at home. Since then, I’ve been here every single day. The work just pours out of me. Even in the midst of all of this pain and suffering that the world is experiencing, I have a way to translate it into something.
“My studio mates and I have been thinking of putting on a show here. I have applied to so many galleries during COVID, because I have the time, and I haven’t been lucky to find anywhere to show my work. One of my biggest anxieties is everything going online and NFTs. I want people to actually see my work.”
Hunter’s practice and exhibitions were impacted from the very onset of the pandemic. His solo exhibition Basic Instructions Before Leaving Everything at A Space Gallery was scheduled to open a week after the first lockdown in March 2020. (It may reopen in January 2022, nearly two years behind schedule.) Then, a curatorial project in Chicago got cancelled. The same trend continued into 2021, with a group show at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington postponed from March until July and a Contact Photo Festival show with Isabel Okoro at Gallery 44 pushed back to September. It’s been 16 months of stalled openings for the multidisciplinary artist and curator. He is the AGO’s artist-in-residence until September 30, working on bringing his COVID project, the digital exhibition True And Functional, into the museum.
“I’ve been going to the studio every day. It’s been a strange time to be busy. Things feel real, but not real at the same time. When you have projects coming and then the dates get pushed, it’s hard to stay organized without deadlines. I have these pieces that should be finished but they’re not because there’s no end date in sight.
“At the beginning, I was a bit demoralized because I didn’t feel I could work in the capacity I’m used to. My whole workflow got shuffled. I couldn’t go to the Toronto Reference Library, where I do a lot of my research. The hardware stores were closed so I couldn’t get material. I’ve only really got back into the swing of things recently. I’m lucky though because I can do a lot of my work digitally.
“It was super helpful that even though my shows were delayed, the contracts were honoured and I was paid on the original schedules. I also received a couple grants from the Toronto and Ontario Arts Council.”
From left to right: Yan Wen Chang’s Star Painting (2021), Self-Portrait (2021), Two dragonflies as mother and daughter forever flying in circles around the only rose in Kuala Lumpur (2021) and Thursday Nights (2021).
It’s been a period of triumphant success for Chang: She started her MFA at Guelph University and got sober. She credits the latter with making the former a seamless and fruitful experience. The painter is currently working toward her 2022 thesis exhibition, contemplating the American Dream and how it’s been perverted or never really existed at all. As an immigrant who moved to Canada at 17 alone from Malaysia, chasing the dream of a better life fascinates her. Since she began work on her master’s, she has also exhibited in a group show at A.D. Gallery in New York City and continued a series of hand-painted handbags that she makes collaboratively with her mother, who still lives in Malaysia.
“I had a really good year of making art. I’ve been sober for a year and three months. I got sober at the same time I started school and it gave me that focus and discipline to make work every day.
“I stayed in Toronto for my first year and all my classes were online. Each semester we had critiques and I was making paintings larger than I’ve ever worked on before. I spent 12 hours a day in my studio and I had this separate space where I hung all the paintings and documented them. It was so strange that no one saw them, that I was essentially making paintings to be viewed only online. My professors didn’t see them in person until months later.
“It’s been a strange year for me, but it was really good for my practice. I entered my MFA at a precarious time and it’s only with huge amounts of privilege that I get to create work during a pandemic. It’s insane to think that people we’re working their asses off to save people’s lives and I was allowed to do this. But making art is the only thing I know how to do, and it’s the best thing I can do in this world.”
The Power Plant exhibited Carson’s show Cut From The Same Cloth last fall. His first solo at a major institution, it comprised paintings and mixed media works he made between 2015 and 2020. The figurative pieces explore the multiplicity of Black identity and Carson’s own relation to growing up Black in a white world. An expanded version of the exhibition is set to tour five other Canadian cities, and Carson hopes it makes its way to the U.S. The pandemic altered his practice, with subsidies like CERB giving his mind room to wander, allowing him to tap into what he calls a deeper sense of “knowing.”
“As soon as things shut down, my inspiration kicked in. I was like: The government’s going to give you money to live, you don’t have to work for someone else. This is your dream come true, Nathan. Get on your floor and just start working. I will probably never go back to working for somebody else again after this. Before I was teaching meditation, working at a yoga studio – anything to allow me time in my studio.
“The reason I moved to Hamilton [prior to the pandemic] is the cost of living in Toronto is so high. I’m super blessed, right now my rent is $600. But if I left here, I don’t even know where I would find that again. People can’t afford to do what they’re meant to do, because they’re doing so many other things just to survive. With CERB, I had extra money leftover. Most artists need a lot of time and space to sit with the work and figure out what’s coming through.
“During the pandemic my father passed, and then the very next day the Power Plant showed up at my studio and asked if I wanted to have my first solo show. It felt like heaven was on my side. I feel like the exhibition validated my work in the eyes of some people. I always knew the work was good and that’s why I’ve kept at it for so long. The Power Plant really showed other people what I can do and the breadth of the work.”