Wednesday, May 30, 2012

AGO - Zhang Huan Ash Paintings and Memory Doors

I'm ashamed to say that until recently, I had never heard of world reknowned Chinese artist Zhang Huan who is known for his performance art, sculptures and photography.  Now suddenly, his presence is felt all over downtown Toronto, as he unveiled his new sculpture that will grace the front of the Shangri-La Hotel at University Ave and Adelaide St, has an art exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario and was designer and director for the opera "Semele" which played at the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts. 

The giant permanent stainless steel sculpture is named "Rising" and looks like a morph between a dragon and tree branches or roots, with peace doves perched throughout.  Huan said that his piece "advocates ... harmonious relationship between humans and nature".  What a wonderful addition to our city!

Zhang Huan's show at the AGO is awe inspiring and in some ways, I was more impressed with it than I was with the  Picasso exhibition which I saw on the same day.  Huan's floor to ceiling ash paintings seem to involve an excruiating amount of prep work.  He takes the ash remnants left by worshippers burning incense at temples around China, sorts them into shades of colour (white, beige, grey, black, ..), then uses that ash to create these amazing paintings that are so lifelike and full of depth, texture and even simulated light and shadows.

Airplane enthusiast Rich got all up in arms about the "curatorial error" he spotted in the description of how realistic the painting of the airplanes looked.  It talked about almost being able to hear the whirl of the propellers and smell the fumes from the diesel engines.  He scoffed that this would be quite a trick since these are portrayals of MIG jets which neither have propellers nor use diesel engines.   I think Rich is missing the forest for the trees, but Rich says the devil is in the details.  We've agreed to disagree.

One painting which spanned an entire wall was of many workers in a field with mountains in the background.  The amount of detail depicted in this painting including the clothing and hats on the tiny little people was just incredible.  I spent a long time staring at this particular piece. 

Huan also displayed "Memory Doors" which were antiquated wooden doors from country homes on which he pasted old black and white photos representing military, labour or daily life of the Chinese.  He then had carvers chip away parts of the door to replicate the images on the photos.  The 3-dimensional effects of the piece are often accentuated by rivets or bolts originally found on the doors.

I didn't hear much about the opera which he directed but I assume it was just as magnificent as the rest of Huan's work.  Now that I am aware of him, I will continue to look out for more of his art.  I would love to see a performance piece one day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

AGO: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso

Picasso, Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso in Paris is the AGO's blockbuster show for 2012.  We're delighted to see this since we've been trying to go to that Picasso museum for our past two trips to Paris but it has been closed each time.  While there have been many different exhibitions of Picasso's work, this one is unique in that it represents the pieces that the artist kept for his own private collection.  Presumably this implies that this body of work held special meaning for him, so it was fun to interpret what that might  be.

Picasso is arguably one of the most prolific as well as eclectic artists that we've ever known.  The number of different painting styles that he attempted are as vast as they are varied in nature.  The exhibition is laid out to follow Picasso's painting periods or styles chronologically, traversing through the Blue and Rose periods, African influences, Cubism, Classicism, Surrealism, War Years, and his last works prior to his death.

Through the years Picasso used the women in his life, from lovers to wives, as inspiration for his art.  The exhibition showed that as he moved through his different periods, he represented his current muse in his "style-de-jour".  His first wife Olga Khokhlova luckily landed in his Classicism period and therefore she was portrayed in a realistic natural form.  Although the portraits of mistress Dora Maar and second wife Jacqueline Roque are distorted with eyes askew or an elongated neck and cubism influenced head, they are still portrayed as beautiful women.  The most unfortunate was his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, who came at the height of his Surrealist phase and did not fare as well by comparison.  In the works on display that she inspired, she is unrecognizable and in some cases, does not even look human.

Like many other artists, Picasso reflected his feelings for war through his art.  During the war years which spanned the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Korean War, his work became darker and more intense.  The traditional "still life painting" usually  consisted of innocuous objects such as fruit, bowls or pitchers.  Picasso's take on still life included skulls and skeletons.  His painting Massacre in Korea, depicting the atrocities of the Korean War was inspired by Francisco de Goya's painting Massacre 3rd of May (1808) showing an execution during the Napoleonic Wars.

 Picasso's most famous anti-war painting Guernica was not part of this AGO show, but it did include Dora Maar's black and white photographs documenting his thought process as he developed this iconic work.  In the earlier photos you can see that where he ended up with the horse's head, he originally had painted a raised fist, possibly a gesture in defiance.  It was fascinating to compare the photos at each stage to see the evolution that led to the final result.

Similar to the tribute to Goya's painting, Picasso created more works that were homages to other famous artists.  These included his version of Claude Monet's Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe, and a set of bronze sculptures called "The Bathers" which are said to be based on Diego Velasquez's Les Menuires.  The audio guide from the exhibition indicated that the short round sculpture is supposed to be the blond haired princess, while the sculpture with the rectangle frame for arms represents the painter Velasquez himself.  Picasso must have been obsessed with the painting Les Menuires, since in the Barcelona Picasso museum, we saw 16 different interpretative works that Picasso did based on it.  Rich thinks that Picasso's painting "The Bacchanal" reminds him of Matisse's "The Dance".  I'm not that convinced of this myself.

Picasso created many self portraits during his career and it is interesting to compare some of the ones in the show and reflect on what was happening in his life when they were created.  An early 1906 rendering done during his Rose period seems surprisingly clumsy and amateurish considering that Picasso had demonstrated he could paint with "photographic realism".  The audio guide postulated that Picasso was actually trying to simulate early primitive Iberian sculptures with the deep set eyes and big ears.  In "The Shadow" (1953), Picasso is lamenting the end of his relationship with Françoise Gilot.  She is painted as alluring and vibrant reclining beauty, while he is an old withered shadow.

"The Matador" (1970) which he created shortly before his death shows how he wanted to see himself, still virile and masculine as depicted by the cigar and the sword.  He was the fearless warrior confronting all challenges.   Finally one of his last paintings done in 1972 retrospectively shows himself as a young, innocent artist again, full of boyish enthusiasm.

The set of artwork in this show shed light onto Picasso the artist and the man.  It was great to finally be able to see it, and not even have to travel back to Paris to do so.

Doors Open 2012 - RC Harris Water Treatment Plant and Fool's Paradise

It seems incredible that a facility dedicated to the separation of sewage from drinking water would be housed in one of the most beautiful Art Deco buildings in Toronto.  If not for events like Doors Open, most people would not even get a chance to see the inside of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, located at 2701 Queen St. East, in the area known as "The Beach".  Deco-styled limestone carvings adorn the exterior while the interior boasts marble floors with black, gold and taupe veins, skylights running along the span of the high ceilings, decorative cast iron stair railings, and large round-arched windows.

 The centerpiece of the Filter Building, both visually and functionally, is the towering signal pylon, which indicates the time and the necessity of the filter backwashing (reversing water flow to clean the filters which are purifying the drinking water).  We inspected the filter control panels, snuck in to see one of the filter rooms, and were shown a cross section of a filter which pushes the dirt to the surface where it flows away.

Public works attendants were on hand to explain the process and archival photos gave insight to the construction phases of the plant.  Finally we visited the pumping station, which moves clean treated water to reservoirs for distribution and raw untreated water to the filter stations.  The noise level in this area was so loud that there were warning signs indicating one should not stay there more than 30 minutes without wearing protective gear.

Our second stop of the day was the home and gallery of landscape artist Doris McCarthy, which is now a Heritage site located on the Scarborough Bluffs.  McCarthy bought 12 acres of land in 1939 for the sum of $1250 and built a small cottage on it.  Her mother thought the purchase was an extravagant folly and called it "that Fool's Paradise of yours", a nickname that stuck to the property.   Over the years, McCarthy personally designed and built more additions to the cottage, resulting in an oddly shaped structure that juts out in all directions.  Her architectural plans are proudly displayed on the wall of an added work room.  She added a pond to the property because she liked how the water reflected the sky.

 Her landscape paintings show the definitive influence of the Group of Seven.  Arthur Lismer was her mentor at the Ontario College of Arts where she studied, although her affinity for iceberg and mountain paintings seem more reflective of Lawren Harris' work.  An earlier piece called "My Class" painted during the war years, and a large painting of her brother showed off her skills at portraiture.

Doris also collected other artists' work including a beautiful whale bone sculpture and a wood carving presented to her by her friend, native Indian carver David Robertson.  Her pride and joy was "La Verité", a Madonna and child sculpture that she bought in Paris in 1951.  Unfortunately it was damaged in shipping, suffering "more damage on the journey to Canada than it had in five centuries since its creation" according to McCarthy.  She carefully restored the statue, gluing back the hand, arm and fingers.  The angel was McCarthy's personal signature image which she added to many of her paintings.  Various angels can be found throughout her home.

Never married, Doris McCarthy lived at Fool's Paradise until her death at age 100 in 2010.  Some of her neighbours were on the same guided tour as us and spoke of her lovingly.  She sounded like an incredible woman, feisty and joyful to the end.  They described of how she liked to drive a big SUV and invited neighbouring children to skate with her on her frozen pond in the winter.  While she still could, she participated in the Doors Open tours, personally guiding visitors through her home.  I wish we had the chance to meet her while she was alive.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Textile Museum of Canada

Although we've probably walked by it many times, not until recently did we become aware of the Textile Museum of Canada,  residing at 55 Centre Street, just SE of Dundas St and University Ave. Having obtained a free museum pass from the library, we went to check it out.

 The permanent collection on the second floor includes examples of textiles and fabrics from different cultures around the world, in the form of clothing, quilts, carpets and more.  It also describes various techniques for manipulating or creating textiles such as weaving, knitting, embroidery, braiding or felting.  Items of note included an African tribal skirt with bamboo sticks and pop bottle caps sewn on as decoration, a project by school children learning how to stamp patterns on fabric to make magic squares where all rows, columns and diagonals add up to the same magic number, an elaborate and colourful cover for camels, and a beautiful prayer rug.

We had fortuitous timing to visit just as an exciting new exhibition was opening called "Dreamland - Textiles of the Canadian landscape".  On display were weavings and embroideries reflecting different views of Canadian cultures including a winter scene reminiscient of Kriegoff paintings.

One interesting work is Douglas Coupland's acrylic painting on canvas of a colourfully patterned QR code called "Future Prayer".  Using our new smart phone, we were able to retrieve the hidden message.

More related to Canadiana than textiles are the inclusion of three whimsical videos by Canadian artists.  "Embrace" by Amalie Atkins is a delightful 3 minute film depicting two elderly Austrian sisters in the Saskatchewan prairies.  To the song Edelweiss (from The Sound of Music) played on piano by a third sister, the two identically dressed women walk towards each other with outstretched arms and share a tender embrace.  A more surrealistic film by Michael Snow focuses on a window blind blowing in the wind.  The eery sounds of the whistling wind and its effect on the flapping drapes are the only audio of the film.  Finally a stop-motion animation called "Monkey and Deer" is situated in Woodrow, Saskatchewan, artist Graeme Patterson's home town, now a ghost town.  The film reflects on the "rapidly declining ways of Canadian life in rural settings".

The textile museum was quite a find and made for an entertaining couple of hours.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Doors Open 2012 - Day 1

We've picked some real winners so far for this year's Doors Open event where buildings across Toronto allow visitors to inspect areas that are not usually accessible to the public.

De La Salle College Oaklands is a Catholic school that sits on 12 acres of land just south of St. Clair Ave and east of Avenue Road.  Newer buildings for the classrooms have been added to the property but the highlight is the gorgeous Oaklands mansion, built in the 1860s for John Macdonald (no relation to the first prime minister).

While some things like the bathrooms and kitchens have been modernized, the Gothic styled mansion still contains many features from the past.  These include multiple fireplaces with beautiful marble mantles, solid hardwood flooring, elaborately carved wooden staircases, vintage hot water radiators, interesting built-in pantries, cupboards and shelving, hidden doors and passageways.  One side of the house was clearly the servants' quarters including a modest servants' stairwell compared to the grand main staircase for the owners.  It was like a maze to wander through all the innumerable bedrooms on the second and third floors, and it was amusing to hear that there are currently only one or two occupants in this huge house.  Some of the rooms had interesting alcoves including one with a narrow passageway that led to a mini turret.  I've always wanted to be inside a turret!

The Hari Krishna temple at Avenue Road and Dupont Street used to be a Presbyterian church before ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) took it over.  Accordingly the appearance of the building from the outside does not prepare you for the visual splendors of the interior.  The temple room has three altars with representations of Krishna and Radha, the male and female counterparts that form the deity of the Hari Krishna faith.  We were there in time to witness a religious ceremony where a conch shell was blown to signify the start.  At one point incense and a peacock feather were waved at the altars.  Our tour guide informed us that the idols are treated as live entities and have their outfits changed every day and fresh flowers proffered.  Repeatedly, we were hailed by disciples with the chant "Hari Krishna", which seems to be used as an all purpose greeting just like the Hawaiian "Aloha".

We were told about how the 69 year old founder of the faith, Swami Prabhupada traveled to New York City from India with only 40 rupees in his pocket to establish ISKCON.  On one of the walls was a photo showing George Harrison of the Beatles, who was a devoted follower of the Hari Krishna faith.  Many other vibrant, colourful paintings and sculptures were found throughout the rooms.  Every Sunday evening from 6-8:30pm, they hold a "Love" feast with chanting, drumming, a discourse and a free vegetarian feast.  On other days, the vegetarian meal is available for $8.  For Doors Open, we were given a free sample of samosas to try.

 Our last stop of the day was not part of Doors Open but coincidentally happened on the same weekend.  It was a chance to tour Pachter Hall, the home, workshop and gallery of artist Charles Pachter, who is known for his moose paintings, including a series depicting moose with British royalty.

The open house was to present Pachter's new series of paintings "1812: The Art of War" in honour of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  The artist himself was on hand to welcome his visitors and regale us with stories of his art and his past.  He told us about how his high school art teacher gave him a D- but then contacted him years later to say she always knew he had talent (hindsight being 20-20).

 The ultra-modern house with its sleek black outer walls and floor to ceiling glass panels stands out from the older more traditional brick homes in the Grange Park neighbourhood.  Pachter once invited neighbouring Lucky Moose grocery store owner David Chen to view his art, whereby Chen marveled "You have moose too!"

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Theatre: War Horse

Most people already know by now that War Horse is the story of teenage farm boy and his beloved horse Joey.   Foolishly purchased by Albert's drunken father with money he could not afford, Joey is forced to learn how to pull a tractor and plow.  This skill saves his life when he is later sold to the British Cavalry during World War I.  Desperate to be reunited with Joey, under-aged Albert secretly enlists and spends the rest of the war searching for his horse.

On top of its epic plot, what makes War Horse special is its use of hand-spring puppets to portray Joey, Topthorn (another army horse) and all the other animals depicted in the play.  Not since The Lion King have we seen such mastery of puppetry on stage.  However, War Horse takes it to the next level.  Puppeteers are trained to produce movements and sounds so realistic that within seconds you forget that you are not watching live animals, despite clearly seeing the humans manipulating the gears.  While this is especially true for the horses, it even applies to the squawking goose that terrorizes the farm, and the ominous crows that act like vultures, soaring and swooping in search of dead bodies during the war.

It takes 3 puppeteers to bring each horse "to life".  The puppeteer who is "The Head" walks beside guiding the horse, and controls all head and neck movements including twitching of the ears.  The "Heart" and the "Hind" puppeteers carry the frame of the body from underneath and bare the weight of any rider.  The "Heart" controls the front legs and simulates the appearance of the horse's breathing.  The "Hind" controls the back legs and the tail.  All three participate in making the various horse sounds. 

As dazzling as the puppets were, I was also impressed by other factors in the show, which had a powerful, emotional score and strong performances especially by Albert and his n'er do well drunken father Ted.  The staging of the war scenes were augmented by overhead video that set the dates and locations of the battles.  The Battle of the Somme started out with video images of soldiers marching over a hill, and as they got closer, the images were replaced by real soldiers approaching on stage out of a mist.  The effect was haunting.  At one point a massive tank rolled onto the stage and as it swept around, part of it swooped over the heads of the audience.  Sitting in the third row, it was hard to resist the urge to duck so as not to be decapitated.

This show was really something special and even though I usually don't like war stories, this was one I could not say "Neigh" to (sorry, Rich really wanted this bad pun to be used...).  Anyways, War Horse is a show not to be missed.

Theatre: In the Heights and Good Bye to Dancap

In The Heights was the 2008 Tony Award winner and a smash hit on Broadway.  So why did its one week Toronto run in February have such dismal ticket sales that my cheap seats were upgraded to the front of the first balcony (usually the best seats in the house) and only half of the Toronto Centre of the Arts theatre was filled?  The reasons are probably symptomatic of why Aubrey Dan has recently announced that he is giving up on the theatre industry in Toronto after several years of mixed success to outright failures.
In The Heights is a musical about three days in the life of Dominican-Americans in the New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights.  While critically acclaimed, this musical may not appeal to all theatre goers, especially in the older generation, since much of its music is based on rap and part of the songs are in Spanish.

I personally loved the music and the songs (having heard the CD) and looked forward to watching the show.  But I found the performances to be a bit flat, especially in the key love story between Nina and Benny.  I could not connect with them and therefore felt disengaged with their journey.  Later on I found out that In the Heights was cast with "non-Equity" actors in order to lower costs.  I'm not sure if this is a case of "you don't get what you didn't pay for", but it might account for my ambivalence about the experience.

 In my opinion, Dan had trouble with his show choices, possibly due to losing in the battle against Mirvish Productions to book top notch shows.  He scored big with Jersey Boys but was not able to repeat the magnitude of that success.  Of the 2012 subscription series, In the Heights was the only choice that excited me.  West Side Story and Beauty and the Beast have been done already by Mirvish and others, while Shrek the Musical and Million Dollar Quartet did not interest me at all.  You knew there was trouble in the 2011 subscription offering when the featured show (South Pacific) was a repeat of the previous year's show.  The marketing spin of "so good we're offering it to you again" just didn't fly.

For me, Dancap Productions had a problem from the get-go with its marketing strategy and price point.  I was so excited when I first heard about a new theatre group entering the scene, until I found out the cost to see the shows.  I was paying around $150 for my entire Mirvish subscription (6-7 shows) while the cheapest single ticket for any Dancap show as around $60-70 with the subscription prices not offering much of a volume discount.  Add that to my luke-warm interest in the shows to begin with and this was not going to be a win of my limited theatre dollar.

The final issue with Dancap productions is the lack of proper permanent venues to host the shows.  Once Aubrey Dan lost the war with David Mirvish to purchase the Panasonic and Canon theatres (now renamed the Ed Mirvish Theatre!!), it left him with poor alternatives that were unsuitable in terms of either size or location.

The theatre experience loses something when you have to trek up to suburbia to get to the Toronto Centre of the Arts in North York.  The Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts has great acoustics, but its upper balcony is curved in such a way that you cannot see past the centre of the stage without leaning forward.  Toxic Avenger was staged at the Danforth Music Hall, which was way too large a venue for the small quirky musical and most people had no idea where this place was.  Dancap then devalued the show even more by trying to give tickets away for free to get people to go see it in order to fill the seats.  This did nothing to help ticket sales.

It really is a shame that Aubrey Dan was not able to make a go of it.  Good old fashioned competition for Mirvish Productions should have meant more theatre opportunity for Toronto, which in my mind is a good thing.  He just went about it the wrong way.  As I read in one recent newspaper article, Dan's biggest mistake was trying to replace Garth Drabinsky's Livent market.  And as we now know, the extent of that market was mostly a fabrication in Drabinksy's books.  Good bye Dancap.  I'm sorry it didn't work out.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Scotiabank Contact 2012

The Contact Photography Festival sponsored by Scotiabank runs every year in the month of May across Toronto in the celebration of photos of a given annual theme. Exhibits can be found in a variety of venues including art galleries, museums, bars, cafes, restaurants and shops.  This year the theme is "Public" which seems pretty broad and generic, so its interesting to see how the various photographers interpret this. Although the photos are scattered all over the city, a healthy concentration of them can be found along Queen St West.

For the biggest bang for your buck (or your time I guess, since it is free), the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (MOCCA) is a good place to start.  During Contact, the entire museum is dedicated to photography and there are multiple exciting exhibits to view.

 The one I found most memorable is Michael Wolf's "Toyko Compression".  When I first spotted them from afar, I thought, what a depressing bunch of people.  Getting closer, I realized these are commuters in Japan smushed inside a subway train on a rainy day, which totally explains their expressions.

Each frame of Bill Sullivan's triptych "Down" further reveals the occupants of an opening elevator door. 

Philippe Chancel's "Arirang" shows how the power of a totalitarian North Korea regime can bring a mass of people together to generate gorgeous art forms in the name of propaganda.  That Chancel's photos capture the scenes with such clarity is remarkable as you can identify the individual dancers and soldiers on the field and almost see the placards held by the audience in the stands to form the images.

On loan from the National Gallery of Canada, iconic images from photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Leon Levin form an exhibit called "Street View" that captures life on urban streets.  I've always admired black and white photography and its emphasis on lighting, shades and shadows instead of colour.

Being a gallery dedicated to photography year-round, the Stephen Bulger Gallery is always good for a visit during Contact.  Two exhibits are currently on display.  Sanaz Mazinani's "Frames of the Visible" look like kaleidoscope images from afar but are actually made up of many tiny photos ranging from politicians (Bush, JFK), bikini blonds vs women wearing hijabs, and teens hanging out on the street.  The second exhibit is a subset of photos from Hank O'Neal's XCIA's Street Art Project, focusing on street art, mainly from New York City.

 Another highlight on Queen St West is the Rolling Stones retrospective at the Analogue Gallery.  It felt really strange to see the fresh innocent faces of the young musicians, looking much more like the Beatles in the early photos.

With so many more potential sites to see, it's a good thing this photo festival lasts a whole month.

Illusions and Spring Awakenings at Gardiner Ceramics Museum

 Each Saturday morning, Toronto Public Libraries provides a limited number of free passes to Toronto museums and historical sites.  A pass is good for 3 months and a family of up to 6 can attend.

We picked up a pass to the Gardiner Museum for ceramics, in order to check out their new exhibit called Illusions by Canadian sculptor Greg Payce.  I expected to see funky shaped ceramics that played played tricks on my eyes.  Instead I found myself looking disappointedly at some rather plain looking vases and urns.  Obviously I didn't get it.   Then reading the placards, it became clear that the illusion is not in the vases, urns, or chalises themselves, but in what is called the "negative space" between the ceramics.  Look between two vases and suddenly human profiles pop out at you.  The white ones are supposed to be the outline of 17th century French writer Voltaire.  The space between two tall black vessels made of aluminum on the third floor review the full figure of a girl and is entitled "Claire".

Because his pieces need to be so carefully positioned in order to achieve his intended effect, Payce often personally attends to the setup.  Recently he has been dabbling in photography and video in order to expand his reach to foreign audiences.  He uses the technique called "lenticular photography" to make his his images seem 3D and almost holographic in that they move when you do.  In a large video installation, projected on 3 walls are three sets of rotating white vessels on which he superimposes images of ceramic glazing from around the world.  One wall  represents ceramics from Asia, another Europe and the last one South America/Mexico.  Another video masterpiece is called "Carpet for Helen" which is a tribute to museum founder Helen Gardiner.  He projects designs from ceramics that can be found in the museum onto the carpet and the audience is invited to walk on it as part of the interaction.

We purposely picked the weekend when there was a 3-day floral show called "Spring Awakenings" at the Gardiner.  Interspersed between the ceramics were gorgeous flower arrangements, often meant to complement their setting.  The display in the Japanese pottery definitely had an Asian flair with the Japanese cherry blossom trees while a bunch of rabbits sitting on hydrangea balls have been positioned right in front of the ceramic rabbit terrine.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Jane's Walk 2012 - Graffiti Walk

Participating each year in one or more Jane's Walk events, in honour of the late urban visionary Jane Jacobs, brings new understanding and appreciation of our city.  This year, inspired by the graffiti wars between Mayor Rob Ford and street artists, we participated in the walking tour about graffiti in Toronto.

The walk was led by Jason Kucherawy, cofounder of the group The Tour Guys, who provide both free and paid tours in Toronto and Vancouver.  Since he does this as a profession, this walk was one of best Jane's Walk that we've ever been on.  The content of the talk was excellent as Jason provided history and background on the graffiti movement, terminology and lingo, motivations, rules of engagement and then showed us examples of works by prominent Toronto graffiti artists.  He had a loud booming voice which he attributed to theatre training, that projected easily to the crowd of over 100 people.  His delivery style was light and humorous as he peppered facts with fascinating anecdotes. 

The walk started at the corner of Queen St West and Soho St, the home of the HUG tree created by the graffiti artist known as Elicser.  The tree is a legalized piece of art that was at one point transported to the ROM for an exhibition, and which Elicser spray paints with a new image regularly. "HUG" is actually the name of the crew of artists that help paint the tree but people have taken the name literally and assume that you are supposed to hug the tree.

We were told that the although wall paintings date back to ancient times with hieroglyphics and cave drawings, the current graffiti culture started in the late 60s.  In Philadelphia a kid nicknamed Cornbread wrote his moniker all over the place on walls, while in New York City, TAKI 183 was written by a Greek kid on subway trains to represent his nickname and the street he lived on.

We learned that the writing originated by Cornbread and Taki is called a "tag".  This evolved into "bubble" art or "throw ups" where the writing became more and more elaborate and stylized.  Finally a "piece" combines the fancy writing with some sort of drawing, often referencing cartoons, video characters or other pop culture images.  Images not accompanied by writing is not considered graffiti by graffiti artists, but instead is called "street art".   City Hall however considers any unauthorized markings on a wall that it finds distasteful, political or offensive to be illegal graffiti.  Business owners are liable for cleaning up any graffiti that the city considers unsightly at a cost of about $180 and the fee is added to their property tax if they don't comply.  However businesses can now try to register street art and pieces to get them deemed to be "murals" and therefore art as opposed to graffiti.

We walked through Rush Alley (nicknamed Graffiti Alley) which runs between the boundaries of Spadina Ave and Augusta Ave, Queen St and Richmond St.  This is a utopia for graffiti artists who seem to have carte blanche to ply their trade without interference from the city.   Jason introduced us to the works of several graffiti artists and their trademark images.  Uber draws the yellow birds, often using physical elements of the setting such as a crack, a ledge, the bars of a gate to complement his pieces.   Poser draws rabbits and Spud draws animated grenades and recently, cartoon versions of Rob Ford's face.

Graffiti artists try to one up each other in style and compete for wall space.  Younger, less established or less talented artists should never write over superior work.  Anyone who does so is labelled a "Toy" which is considered the ultimate diss.  Gregory Allan Elliott applies stencils with kitschy sayings over other throw ups which results in the word "Toy"
being scrawled over his work.  DeadBoy is another contentious street artist who stencils images of raccoons and politicians (Ford, Harper) giving the finger.  Again he infringes on the writings of graffiti artists who retaliate by blacking out enough of his work to obscure it, but leaving enough so you can still tell it is his.  

Anyone who copies another artists' work is said to be "biting" and is therefore considered a Toy.  The exception is to copy a dead artist in tribute.  In general tribute works are never written over.  Hospitals, charities, schools and churches are also considered off limits.  It's nice to know that graffiti artists have a code of conduct.

We ended the tour at the Hotel Ocho, the location of the last remaining Banksy drawing from several years ago when several Banksy works started showing up in Toronto.  The hotel pays the $180 monthly fine to be able to keep it from being whitewashed (although they may have registered it by now).  However they cannot keep it from being defaced by other graffiti artists.  The hotel has a framed drawing of what the work originally looked like in comparison to what is currently remaining.  Someone actually offered the hotel $160,000 to sell him the bricks with the Banksy on it, but they refused.

We had an unexpected thrill when we actually came across a graffiti artist priming a wall for a new piece that will be a tribute to the late Beastie Boys member MCA.  Surprisingly he was not disguised or protected with shades or mask or googles and was a bit unnerved to be swarmed by this big crowd with cameras in hand.  After explaining we were on a graffiti tour, he let us watch him for a minute before we respectfully moved on.  Later we were told that we had just met Uber.  It will be interesting to return to the alley to see his finished product.

We learned so much about the graffiti culture from this tour.  Hopefully our city learns to embrace this as an art form that adds diversity and hipness to our image of Toronto the Good.