Weston and Mount Dennis is one of the areas of focus for the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Arts Impact Study. This community-based research project aims to better understand how Toronto residents interact and engage with the arts at a local level. As research continues we are highlighting the activities of artists and arts organizations working in Weston and Mount Dennis.
Extending along the eastern bank of the Humber River, Weston and Mount Dennis are communities animated by historic roots and contemporary artistic activity. By the mid-twentieth century Weston and Mount Dennis were manufacturing centres that produced industrial goods for consumers across Canada. Today factories are being replaced by malls as Weston and Mount Dennis make the transition to a post-industrial economy. The connection between Weston and Mount Dennis is a legacy of census tracts as well as proximity. Although they both border the Humber River, Weston and Mount Dennis have distinct histories and face different physical realities. Individuals reflect the complex relationship between these areas; while some people identify as residents of either Weston or Mount Dennis others make no distinction between the two neighbourhoods. Amid these transformations, the arts empower residents to engage with their communities and create positive change. Several arts-based organizations have made a commitment to capacity building and creative expression in Weston and Mount Dennis.
Urban Arts is a non-profit charitable youth organization that offers arts based-programs in the former City of York with a specific focus on Weston and Mount Dennis. Professional artists work with youth to engage in community development through the arts.
The HopeWorks Connection, Inc. is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering youth through the performing arts and relieving poverty. Since its establishment in 2001, HopeWorks has partnered with schools, agencies, governments and churches to offer a variety of performing arts experiences and workshops to youth of all ages. HopeWorks signature program, TC3 – The Toronto Children’s Concert Choir and Performing Arts Company, the signature program of the HopeWorks Connection is geared to youth ages 7 to 18 years
West Won Fest is a community festival celebrating success in Mount Dennis that is now in its second year. The festival was born out of the desire of residents to recognize the success that they witnessed in their neighbourhood on a daily basis but which was not necessarily known throughout the city nor covered in the mainstream media.
106 & York is a youth urban arts festival. As a branch of Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture, 106 & York invites North West Toronto communities to unite in celebration of artistic talents of the local youth. This year, 106 & York partnered with Urban Arts to present CultureShock, a celebration of talent in the Weston community.
The community-engaged arts organizations of Weston and Mount Dennis build on the skills and insights of local residents. The people of Weston and Mount Dennis are full of ideas about the arts in their neighbourhood. One child living in Weston wrote this suggestion at a community meeting:
“Make a sidewalk called “CSOC” meaning Colourful Sidewalk of Communities. Where people can put their name on it. And all of these names together will be an art and represent our big Weston Family.”
Read on to learn about individual artists living and working in Weston and Mount Dennis.
Adeena Greaves is an R&B singer who is also known by her artist name, Cookie. She believes that community centres play a large role in the arts in Weston and Mount Dennis. Adeena met her producer and mentor, Keith Sweeney (DeepThought) after performing at a local community centre. Music is now her primary activity. She says: “Before I just used to work, and now I don’t do anything else but music.” Adeena’s involvement with music has made her more aware of the arts in her neighbourhood. “Once I started becoming more involved with music, that’s when it became an eye opener to all these workshops and people who are willing to help artists.” She has performed at community-based events such as Grenada Day and an annual show organized by the local police division. These opportunities inform her music. She explains: “When I’m doing shows like the police division shows and Grenada Day shows, you want to be able to write inspirational tracks for youth out there…so when I do have those events for community stuff, I’m singing the right song for the right venue.” In general, Adeena is satisfied with the range of art forms that are practiced in Weston and Mount Dennis and believes that community centres are well suited to connecting people to these different forms of creative expression. “I like how it is in our community. And that they have community centres that will allow you to sing, do graffiti, to produce, engineer and do photography. Different forms of art that people love to do. There’s so many different places you can go to express yourself.”
Robin Breon is a theatre critic and playwright who has lived in Weston for more than twenty years. For Robin, inclusivity and diversity are key features of the Weston community. “I couldn’t imagine living in a neighbourhood that was not multi-cultural and multi-racial, so I like the fact that Weston has a lot of different cultural influences and is a very multi-racial community, I am comfortable in places like that.” Despite the positive impact of diversity, Robin believes that arts activities in Weston are limited by a lack of facilities. “We don’t have the kind of centre that would be helpful for artists in a cross-disciplinary way. That is a barrier and a challenge for people who want to work locally, express themselves and organize in the community; for the artist that is a huge challenge.” However, he believes that Urban Arts is changing access to the arts in the neighbourhood. “Urban Arts has a leadership role in the artistic component of this community.” Specifically, Robin says, “I think some of the activities I have seen Urban Arts involved in, the local community theatre work that I have seen go on, all helps to uplift and enrich the community.”Overall, Robin recognizes the diversity and creativity of Weston but believes that the area needs more support to develop these assets. Discussing his dreams for the arts in his neighbourhood he says: “I would like to see a community centre, a performing arts centre. It would be great for the youth. It could really revitalize the whole community and that could be started with the arts, the arts could generate that.”
Devon Brown is a visual artist living in Mount Dennis. His creativity has inspired his daughter to pursue the arts and he also volunteers teaching art to children at the Learning Enrichment Foundation. Devon believes that the arts contribute to the quality of life of the people who live in Mount Dennis. He says that the arts show “the vibrancy of the place and the differences that the arts give to the community. It makes the community more alive. It puts life in the community and makes it more beautiful.” Devon is convinced that art is a force of positive change in the neighbourhood. He says “There are a lot of things that could happen for this community if it is connected in the right way. Because lots of these kids and people around here have lots of talents in the arts, but they don’t have no one to boost them or pave the way or give then that first start, to make the first step.” In terms of his own artistic development, Devon is self-taught and highly motivated. His art is both personal and deeply connected to his community. He explains “you have to just keep on that track and don’t let no one take you off that track and mislead you somewhere else. Because it’s really good and it’s helpful. It can really help everyone in the community.” As his approach to the arts indicates, Devon is an example of an artist who is committed to expanding his practice while also engaging with the community.
For NAN member Melissa Calder, the arts empower her to “create a balance between work and things I enjoy.” While Melissa explores printmaking and painting and her husband is a musician and she believes that their “social circles have expanded by people involved in the arts.” Despite her interest in the arts, Melissa feels isolated in her neighbourhood. She explains, “I am currently not a leader, but I want to contribute and I want to help out. I feel pretty solitary.”Melissa made connections with other artists and community leaders as a volunteer for the Arts Impact Study. She attended team meetings and assisted at events. In addition to her activities as a volunteer, Weston shapes Melissa’s art in other ways. First, her art is inspired by her physical surroundings. She says “I often go [to the Humber River] to draw or sketch and take photographs as preliminary work. So I think that [the beauty] definitely influences all facets of my art.” Melissa’s art also reflects the people of the community. “In terms of the neighbourhood and population, I think that influences my political bent in my posters and prints about issues.” As an artist and a community activist through her involvement in the Arts Impact Study, Melissa is well positioned to create connections in Weston.
Zeesy Powers is a multidisciplinary artist whose video and web work ties into live theatrical performance. The arts are central to her personal growth and have contributed to her professional opportunities. “Having a space to learn about and create art allows you to just learn so much about the world and lose your fear about exploring and learning.” Zeesy’s experiences as an artist gave her the tools to pursue a career at a bio-tech company. “A lot of the skills that I’ve learned through the practice of making art have led me to attain the skills I now have today.” She identifies flexibility as one of the most important aspects of being an artist: “being an artist doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing that you’re going to do.” Despite the impact of arts in her life, Zeesy feels disconnected from the arts in Weston. She attributes this in part to the physical environment of the neighbourhood. First, she explains that “this area is considered one geographic area as a whole, but even one end to the other, it’s difficult to get around.” In addition Zeesy thinks that local infrastructure does not incorporate the arts. As an example she mentions “the kind of development of these strip malls, without any real artistic elements or thought of long-term sustainability.” Zeesy also has difficulty learning about local events and suggests, “There should be a designated postering spot so people can promote what they need to promote.” Zeesy believes that change involves both resources and attitudes. She advocates new ways of thinking about community arts. “When it comes to the arts, there’s an old Toronto mindset of what a community space is; schools, malls, a community centre. But we have to think beyond that. There needs to be a space for adults that isn’t just a park or something.” Overall, Zeesy would like to see a greater artistic presence in the community because she knows from personal experience that the arts contribute to quality of life. “I’d like to see more opportunity for the artists to contribute their talents to the development of the neighbourhood.” However, Zeesy knows that the arts are already having an impact in Weston; she reflects, “Who knows what this place is going to look like in 5 years? Things move really fast.”
Emily Macrae is the Neighbhourhood Arts Network 2012 Summer Intern