Galleries are art hospitals. Any outbursts of creativity beyond hairstyling and gardening get carted to buildings with white walls where people are quiet until someone decides they've been there long enough and wheels them out.
But as I tool around the third annual AlleyJaunt in donated garages around Trinity Bellwoods Park last weekend (August 13 and 14), it ultimately becomes clear: an artist isn't someone who gets his or her work hung under spotlights (though many do), but someone who bothers to make his or her city a little more human.
A prime example is photographer Jim Swift's two dozen framed pictures of homemade No Parking signs from around the city. Why such a subject? "That's the only thing people are writing on walls other than graffiti," Swift tells me. "They are expressions of instant rage."
Their fleeting nature is apparent in how many of these signs simply ran out of room - which one clever scribe fixed by warning against "parkin'. " Another, carefully lettered against a stark yellow-beige wall, is left unfinished - "no P," the loop of the P dangling open. Framed so carefully, it changes from pointless urban effluvia to a riddle. What happened to the author? Was he scolded by an unhappy landlord? Interrupted by a torn lover hoping to make a secret exit from his life? Maybe someone parked on him.
Whatever the story, it urges us to reimagine the mundane as the unexplained, leaving us wondering about the countless tiny stories that make up our city.
If you don't like the tiny stories you find, Shannon Gerard has a desire to help you add your own. Distributing small manila envelopes labelled Poetry Vigilante that contain plastic tags attached to cards, Gerard encourages visitors to affix lines of poetry to loaves of bread at the supermarket. Any lines mailed in will also be compiled at her website, a veritable bakery of self-expression.
Perhaps, despite efforts like these, you find the city too hard. Members of (UP)BAG (Upper Parkdale Benevolent Arts Guild) certainly do - so they've made a Soft City, a collectively imagined cottony Toronto. Replete with four windmills, two CN Towers, a haunted house, deliciously loud gingham skyscrapers and a cuddly streetcar that affects me the way teddy bears do toddlers, the gentle metropolis is the result of people coming to a consensus on the emotional geography of a space whose physical geography we may often feel at the mercy of.
"The city can be alienating," says collective member Yvonne Ng. "So this is the soft city. A city of ideas, of creativity."
Concrete roadways are just as fertile for jeweller Lindsay MacDonald, whose installation consists of a metre-wide scale map of a chunk of central-west Toronto extending up to North York that hangs from the rafters at the back of a garage. Trinity Bellwoods and all points south lie on the floor, and suspended above it is part of the AlleyJaunt route in translucent plastic, which can be taken apart and worn as a neckpiece and bracelet.
MacDonald likes being able to wear a route. "It makes it more personal, celebrates it. It's precious even if the material isn't."
And, like many of the mini-shows, it also re-visions the city. "Layering it, flipping it, making points meet that actually don't," riffs MacDonald, who has also made jewellery combining scaled-down bits of Toronto and Halifax, " - it's a way of making spaces do things they normally wouldn't."
She could have been talking about AlleyJaunt. If we think of the neighbourhoods that mean something to us as ideas, then hidden alleys can be neural pathways. They get formed as your mind's map of Toronto is filled in and changed by the new connections you encounter on the way.