Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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I have lived in Toronto all my life and have seen many changes—both good and unfortunate—to the city. When I was a teenager (I am now 46) I used to enjoy wandering the streets downtown on my own, exploring, often at unusual hours. I've always been a night owl and sometimes I would go out on my bike and ride around town in the wee, wee hours before sunrise. Today, Toronto is by no means a large or crowded city by international standards, but there are always people, always cars, no matter what day, what hour. I can remember when, at 4 a.m., you could ride your bike or walk around and see almost no one—a lone baker's truck making early deliveries, maybe a taxi cab, a cop car. Bars back then closed at 1 a.m. and there were no—or very few—homeless people. In the summer on the weekends it seemed most of downtown emptied north, out of the city. At such times I've stood in the middle of Yonge Street late at night at the crest of the Toronto escarpment, just south of St Clair Ave, and looked south, then north, and nothing was coming—no cars, no trucks, no taxis, no people. Nothing. I could have laid down and taken a nap. Today you'd be run over in seconds, regardless of time or date.

I'm thinking about this because I was looking at some paintings by Michael Cho tonight. If you don't know Michael Cho's work it is well worth popping over to his website to look. He is by profession a freelance illustrator and comics artist (in Toronto) and every time I look at his work I am awed by it. Tonight I was looking at his series of paintings called Toronto Back Alleys, which I find particularly moving. I'm not sure how many of these alley paintings he has done, but those that I've seen really make me happy and make me want to see more. I don't know if people from, say, Chicago or Winnipeg or some other generic North American city could look at these pictures and say they looked like scenes from their own cities. What I do know is that when I look at them they so perfectly capture an aspect of Toronto—the alleyways that run behind downtown houses—that I feel it is impossible for these to be anywhere else but here, my home. There are thousands of such alleys in Toronto and they all look much the same. Yet of course, each is also unique. And when I look at these pictures I see places I recognize, places I feel certain I have been to, perhaps many times, but I could not possibly tell you where any of these specific alleys are. To me, that's the great success of these works: they achieve the universal by being so specific.

Michael's paintings reminded me of that empty Toronto I used to explore when I was a kid (there are no people in Cho's alleys) and they also remind me of the work of another artist, named John Kasyn, whose paintings I first stumbled on back when I was that brazen and stupid teenager who, in addition to wandering the city late at night, would also wander by day into Yorkville art galleries to look at art. (I've since worked in such gallery's and trust me, they don't want brazen teenagers in there.) As I remember it, I first saw Kasyn's work in one of the galleries in that stretch of small bay-and-gable houses along Prince Arthur Ave. I don't know which and I don't really care. What I remember is being awestruck by these small canvases that depicted Toronto's old houses (much like the one that housed the gallery) from both front and back. Up until seeing Cho's alley paintings, I had not seen any other paintings since seeing Kasyn's that so perfectly and satisfyingly captured the feeling of the small, old houses and anonymous alleyways that fill much of this city. Kasyn, who was born in Poland in 1926, is pretty famous now in certain art-collecting circles and his paintings sell for many thousands of dollars.

It may sound corny to some, but I look at Kasyn's and Cho's paintings and I see a threatened Toronto. Of course, there are far too many houses downtown for developers to rip them all down, but these days, when I see a row of these old houses boarded up and then six months later they are gone so that some condo developer can bolt together yet another sterile pre-fab box of concrete and glass, I have to ask what the hell are we doing in this city? Yes, I know a city is like an organism and that you can't stifle "growth" and "development", and that these old houses are too expensive to maintain, blah, blah f'n blah. But, at risk of sounding like an old coot, it sometimes seems to me that the swindlers are at the helm, rationalising the destruction of our heritage so that they can make a fast buck. (Those who think I'm wrong to worry about such stuff, should probably have a look at the history of St James Town.)

Make no mistake, those out to make money will callously ignore and destroy that which others hold dear. There is unquantifiable beauty here in tilted old fences and ramshackle roofs that is irretrievable once it is gone. Kasyn's and Cho's works give me comfort because they depict something too easily neglected that I hold dear to my heart and which I am powerless to protect. When I look at their works I think, okay, other people feel the same way, someone else sees it.

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@calisaurus - Funny what people think is "beautiful". I guess at least it is good that they have a community spirit, but I'll take my alleys au naturel please.

I love Michael Cho's artwork - I had no idea he did that back alley stuff. I'm also very familiar with the art of his wife Claudia Davila. Great Toronto talent. When I lived in the annex one of those great alleys ran right behind my street. I remember a local community group wanted to beautify it and kids came and painted cute designs on all of the garages that didn't mind.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group.

Go to Shaun Smith ’s Author Page