Katharine Mulherin

KATHARINE MULHERIN with THEO COULOMBE, STEFAN SCHMUHL, SUSIE TAYLOR and DAVID ZAPPAROLI at project (504 Pape, 416-461-6446), from Saturday (April 28) to May 27, opening 6 to 10 pm April 28.

visions of me: Katharine Mulherin with Bettina Hoffmann and eileen yaghoobian at Zsa Zsa (962 Queen West, 416-537-3814), May 3 to June 3, opening 2 to 5 pm May 5.

Rating: NNNNN

single mom, working artist and

Toronto’s funkiest gallery owner/director, Katharine Mulherin goes way beyond driven.

“I like the energy level,” she grins while describing her juggling act.

Typically, Mulherin, who defines her art as “never true to one medium,” is showing two separate bodies of work in two unrelated exhibits at venues at opposite ends of town as her contribution to the city-wide CONTACT 01 photography festival.

“People always ask me how I can run three galleries at once,” the proprietor of (simultaneously, in various combinations) BUSgallery, 1080BUS, Temporary BUS Stop, the OCAD-affiliated School BUS Project and, most recently, the Katharine Mulherin Gallery, deadpans.

“It’s simple. Cheap rent.”

Yet despite what she’s accomplished in just three years — she’s even been able to drop her waitressing gig — Mulherin still sees herself as an underachiever.

“In my own art practice I’m much more interested in issues around human vulnerability and people messing up than I am in theoretical constructs,” she explains.

We’re talking in the beautifully renovated, two-storey, above-the-shop apartment she shares with six-year-old wonder boy Jasper, a space they moved into last fall after years of living in cramped, windowless rooms behind the storefront galleries she runs.

As she talks about her home and family, it’s clear that for Mulherin, creating and presenting art remain essential acts of love.

Take the book work she’s making for Generations — a group show with New York City’s Theo Coulombe as well as locals Susie Taylor, David Zapparoli and Stefan Schmuhl — at Schmul’s pioneering east-end gallery, project. Called Mickey Carter, it appropriates a lifetime of snapshots taken by the 80-year-old “new” man in Mulherin’s widowed mother’s life.

Trying to make sense of Carter’s images is a way for Mulherin to reach out to her mother’s partner and forge a familial bond. She’s succeeded in taking the found-photo concept that’s huge in CONTACT 01 and transformed what in others’ hands is an abstract appreciation for the anonymous into something deeply personal.

In fact, revealing and often embarrassing explorations of personal aspects of her life have always informed her art.

When Art Gallery of Ontario contemporary art assistant curator Christina Ritchie critiqued her OCAD graduating show, Mulherin relates, “she looked at these huge projections of photos I’d taken at bush parties I’d gone to growing up in New Brunswick — everyone is completely strung out — and asked, “What are these, exorcisms?'”

Mulherin’s other CONTACT show, Visions Of Me, has been curated by Sophie Hackett at the tiny, uber-trendy west-end Zsa Zsa, and also features Bettina Hoffman and Eileen Yaghoobian.

Called Never A Bride, Mulherin’s self-portrait series consists of intentionally overexposed portraits of the artist as a bride as seen in dressing room mirrors in stores ranging from custom bridal salons to Value Village.

She’s composed each shot so the reflected flash obscures her face, and if Mulherin finds beauty in vulnerability, she had no clue just how loaded the bridal imagery could be.

“People keep telling me I’m successful. I opened three galleries, and 20 others opened up in the area.

“But when I was growing up in Grand Falls, population 7,000, there were all these models of what your life should be. I haven’t managed to hit any of those marks.

“I have never married. I’ve never even been able to sustain a meaningful romantic relationship.”

Mulherin dropped out of art school when her father died in the same week she conceived her son. She went back to finish her degree at OCAD hoping to find a practical way to make a living in the arts.

“There’s a lot of stigma attached to being an unwed mother on welfare.”

She did a double major in curatorial practice and sculptural installation, wound up graduating with two of the college’s top academic prizes, and five months later, in October 98, opened her Parkdale storefront BUSgallery in a mildew-infested dump she’d rented primarily as living space.

Initially, Mulherin didn’t aspire beyond hosting short-term artists’ projects as a way of subsidizing her overhead.

“There were so many great, emerging artists that it just kind of grew,” she says with awe.

Within six months, Mulherin had shown an A-list of local talents including rising art star Clint Griffin, ace photographer Nancy Friedland, grrl zine guru Fiona Smyth, Pearl Van Geest and Casey McGlynn, among others.

The following June she opened her second spot, 1080BUS.

“1080 grew out of wanting a better place to live,” she explains. “I couldn’t stand another winter sleeping at BUS.”

Ironically, Mulherin’s business expansion grew out of a series of potential failures. She’d planned to run the storefront as a straight rental, but kept getting personally involved in the shows instead.

When OCAD approached her to direct a student gallery, she saw the contract as a crack at some regular income. But School BUS Project almost got Mulherin in trouble when the space she thought she’d lined up went to another tenant. Some friends bailed her out by letting her use a storefront that had been part of their living space.

It has definitely been stressful, and Mulherin admits she often falls asleep when she puts her son to bed.

“I’ve always had a really strong work ethic, and I’ve gotten used to all the juggling — I’m great at facilitating things. But maybe its time to cut back.”

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