This past April, Toronto Arts Foundation and the Neighbourhood Arts Network sponsored workshops for artists living in St. James Town. The initiative was part of the Foundation’s Arts Impact Study, a research project to better understand how Toronto residents interact and engage with the arts at a local level.
Extending from Sherbourne to Parliament and Bloor to Wellesley, St. James Town is a neighbourhood at the heart of Toronto. In the 1950s the area was transformed into Toronto’s first community of high rise apartment buildings. Today, St. James Town is one of the most densely populated areas of Toronto with 19 residential towers in a 32 acre area. In addition to the spatial density of the neighbourhood, St. James Town is also an area of incredible diversity: the 15 000 tenants speak more than 50 languages and are twice as likely as other Toronto residents to have come to Canada within the past five years. The density and diversity of the area creates unique challenges for people in St. James Town but also offers opportunities for community engaged arts.
Several arts-focused programs have made an ongoing commitment to the neighbourhood. Art City is a not-for-profit organization committed to providing free and accessible, multidisciplinary art programs to the children and youth of St. James Town (check out our previous post on Art City). Similarly, UforChange combines skills development with an exploration of the arts. Working with new Canadian and low-income youth living in and around St. James Town, UforChange uses arts-based programs to inspire youth and give them the tools to succeed by providing support and resources to pursue higher education, volunteering, job shadowing and/or employment opportunities.
Alejandra Higuera is an artist who has lived in the area for almost five years. She is currently studying film and animation at OCAD, and works primarily in the west end. Despite the range of programs for children and youth she finds it difficult to connect with other adult artists in St. James Town: “There are a lot of art programs available here for youth, but nothing for adults. There’s tons of potential for community projects though…there’s such a rich history here, and so many different stories to be told.”
Community Café is one example of a meeting place for artists and other residents of St. James Town. This project started in the summer of 2011, when local residents and organizations began working toward a vision of forming a community-based social enterprise to promote social inclusion and food security in the neighbourhood. Community feasts are organized every couple of months and usually include an arts component, from performance to art classes. Miguel Camacho is an artist and NAN member who contributed to a recent event.
Community Matters is also working to create arts opportunities for adults through their Artists of St. James Town Initiative, run by local resident and artist Neudis Abreu. The St. James Town Banner Project invited residents to submit their artwork and 25 entries were chosen by a panel of local artists. They are displayed as banners attached to lampposts along Rose Avenue.
Banner creator Lisa Simpson is a graphic designer and painter living in the area. As a graduate of UforChange and volunteer at Art City in St. James Town she is aware of the connection between art and community development. “St. James Town needs to be upgraded: people deserve better than the current conditions. It needs more colour, it needs to feel safer…Arts events and projects would help with that, something to bring us together and showcase everything we have to be proud of.” Local artist and Banner Project judge, Iftikhar Ahmed, confirms the potential of creativity in St. James Town: “Art links us as a community, and adds colour and warmth to the neighbourhood.”
In addition to several community-engaged arts organizations, St. James Town is also home to many individual artists. Learn more about how NAN members are active in their community as winners of the Community Matters Banner Contest and as artists in a variety of disciplines.
Raj Sandesh recently emigrated from India where she worked as an Ayurvedic doctor. Now living in St. James Town, she pursues her passion for art while raising her children. Art is central to Raj’s impression of her community. “When I first moved to St. James Town, I saw a wall sketch of a dog right off of Wellesley towards the Food Basics. I just loved it.” The neighbourhood continues to contribute to her artistic practice. “I like finding different combinations within my drawings, find inspiration here (in Toronto).” Although Raj says that “I don’t have many friends who have the same interest,” she recognizes that community connections can enrich her work as an artist. “I would like to see more art classes and shows take place in the library and community centres. I would also like to have a chance to show my own artwork somewhere in the city.” Raj participated in the St. James Town Banner Project.
Paul Byron is an emerging artist, educator and writer whose large scale paintings straddle the line of representation and abstraction. He submitted the winning entry in the St. James Town Banner Project. He is originally from Hamilton and has been living in St. James Town for the past three years. The diversity of St. James Town intersects with Paul’s interests as an artist. “I am very interested in the diversity in this building. I am very interested in language. It is really great when you can engage with all of the cultural, linguistics and different kinds of things going on…I think it has had a lot to do with my interest in presenting a more complex and specific narrative moving away from traditional portraits.” However, Paul also feels isolated as an artist in St. James Town. “I know fewer people here and there is more of an anonymous feeling. It is difficult to make acquaintances. I have a circle of associates who are active in the artistic and academic community in Hamilton.” Even without the kind of network that he was familiar with in Hamilton, Paul is interested in connecting with arts organizations and contributing to art programs in the neighbourhood. “I have been involved with the Cabbagetown Art Community Centre. I will give a workshop here or teach a class at the library…these kinds of things. There should be more art classes. I don’t even know if there are places in the neighbourhood where this service is available. I was even speaking with the people at Community Matters about workshops or even volunteering time.”
Binod Dhungana is a singer in the Eastern classical music tradition who participates in a Nepalese community in St. James Town. The active Nepalese music community influenced Binod’s decision to move to the area. He explains: “We get together quite often and have cultural events every two months. There are three or four groups and they perform a variety of songs and dancing…The group was actually one of the main reasons why I moved over here. I knew most of the people from back home in Nepal. There are not a lot of Nepalese people in Mississauga.” Binod’s activities as an artist build on his training in Eastern classical music however he is generally optimistic about the arts in St. James Town. Discussing his dreams and hopes for the neighbourhood he says: “There is such a diverse community and everyone can come together for these community events.”
Iftikhar Ahmed is an established artist who is passionate about making a name for himself in the Toronto arts community. He has been practicing mixed media, collage and painting for over thirty years. Iftikhar finds that the gallery system in Toronto is limited. “There are so many artists, including myself, who are underrepresented. I just think it’s a shame that the AGO is not representing the culture within its city. Artists need freedom to create and this is impossible if the system is not supporting them.” However he is encouraged by community projects and participated in a show at the nearby Strong Communities Gathering Place. “They really take an initiative to exhibit some local artists, which is great. It’s a small gallery in the Daniels Learning Centre.” Moreover, Iftikhar thinks that the arts play a positive role in St. James Town. “I have seen many murals on the wall. I think that there is a lot of art happening in the area. We just have to search a little bit harder than in other places. This area is very suitable for me and it would be great to do something for the community.” Iftikhar was one of the judges of the St. James Town Banner Project.
Laya Mainali is an established artist who recently emigrated from Nepal. Laya has an MFA and Ph.D in sculpture and has been teaching sculpture at fine arts colleges for 25 years. He has made more than 24 portraits and busts of distinguished persons and has exhibited his paintings and sculptures around the world. Laya won fourth place in the St. James Town Banner Project. Laya’s banner shows his sculpture “Internal Peace.” Laya hopes that this image will encourage people to find peace inside themselves.
Written by Amy Goudge and Emily Macrae
Emily Macrae is the Neighbourhood Arts Network 2012 Summer Intern.