Maplestone Mosaic Gallery in Creemore

Yesterday I and three other mosaic artists from the Toronto area took a trip to the small Ontario town of Creemore, population 1300, home to the only (as far as anyone knows) art gallery in Canada dedicated exclusively to mosaic art.

The front of the gallery, on a snowy dayCreemore is also home to Creemore Springs microbrewery, which adds to its tourist appeal. Well, it did for me.

Gallery interior, showing a red wall with mosaics and large window with Creemore Springs Brewery visible outsideThrough the large picture windows of the Maplestone Gallery, large snowflakes that were slowly falling onto the main street of this tiny town yesterday looked particularly picturesque.

Abstract mosaic on gallery wall in greens, blues and browns

A Terry Nicholls mosaic on the right

The gallery’s two rooms are filled with mosaic artworks by contemporary local and international artists in a range of styles and materials. From rustic to glitzy, in layered glass or wood and stone, from fine art to functional objects, from the nature-inspired abstracts of Terry Nicholls to the precisely crafted compositions by Lin Schorr, to Heather Vollans‘ work with upcycled and reclaimed materials, Maplestone gallery has an inspiring variety of contemporary mosaic art on display.

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Portfolio design for application to the graduate architecture program at Daniels

Portfolio coverFor the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on laying out the portfolio which will accompany my application to the Master of Architecture program at the University of Toronto.

Going back to school to get a Master’s degree in Architecture has been on my list of “things I will do someday” for a couple of years now. Over the last six months, I’ve had the opportunity to get to a few things on this list, and am now really excited to get this application done as well.

Daniels Faculty of Architecture at U of T has one of only two graduate architecture programs in Canada that takes in students from all academic backgrounds, not only those who have a Bachelor in Architecture. The only other school that offers similar entry options is UBC. I’m hoping to get into U of T and not have to relocate my husband and two children to the other side of the continent. Especially since Daniels sounds like the ideal place to be.

Portfolio spread showing three abstract watercolour works

Five-storey brick building

Daniels Faculty building at 230 College St.

About a month ago, Daniels held an open house for potential applicants to their Masters of Architecture and Landscape Design programs. The day-long event included Q & A sessions, drop-ins on current students’ project reviews, and tours of the building and the art gallery that houses previous year’s student thesis work.

Attending the open house was, for me, the most useful step in preparing for this submission. Nothing in the admission requirements or the faculty website was as informative as this in-person visit and as revealing of the atmosphere of the school – of how young and forward-looking the faculty is, of the latest technology available to the students (there are laser cutters, a 3D printer and a CNC router on site), of the school’s focus on urbanism, on ideas about the future of architecture and just ideas in general.

Gallery display showing wooden objects with complex jointsA very surprising thing you will notice if you visit the faculty’s Eric Arthur Gallery where the student thesis work is on display – and do visit it if you have the chance, it’s free to the public and incredibly interesting – is that many of the Master of Architecture projects don’t really have much to do with architecture. This year, there is one that explores complex wooden joinery, and another that’s a stylish design for a wearable biofilter and diagnostic environment for use in pandemics.

A gallery display showing bio-filter face masks and disagnostic wear

Gallery display showing bio-filter face masks and diagnostic wear

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Fragments of books: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

To understand how much I enjoyed Mark Stevenson‘s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, the first thing you need to know is that after I borrowed it from the library and read it, I went out and bought a copy and read it again just four months later. In my life as an unstoppable devourer of literature, this was a first. Usually a couple of years pass before I re-read even the most beloved of books, since my reading lists are so long that they give birth to baby-reading lists who in turn have baby-readings lists of their own in the time that it takes me to get through them.

Cover art for Optimist's Tour of the Future

Of all the cool things described in this book, there is not one word about jetpacks. Why they put one on the cover, I might never know.

However, a few aspects of An Optimist’s Tour proved completely irresistible and demanded an immediate re-read.

First, the number of new scientific ideas and emergent technologies that are described, accessibly and engagingly in this book, is incredible. Did you know there are several different research groups who’ve successfully created genetically engineered bacteria that consume waste CO2 and excrete fuel, such as diesel or ethanol? Or that an AI has learned not only how to derive new scientific laws, given a bunch of raw data, but also how to explain the meaning of the results it found to its creators?

None of the ideas in the book are hypothetical. In the course of writing it, Mark Stevenson visited (a very impressive roster of) research labs and startups that have conducted successful experiments with and built working prototypes of some mind-blowing technologies. From flexible solar film printed quickly and cheaply in big rolls on a former photographic printer, to nano-coating which can protect anything from clothes to monuments from weathering and dirt, the stuff of science fiction is being made manifest  today in laboratories around the world.

The second aspect that makes An Optimist’s Tour of the Future such an enjoyable read, is how damned optimistic it is. In startling contrast to most books dealing with the subject of the near future, this one maintains an unwaveringly positive outlook about the success of and the possibilities offered by these nascent technologies. Lucidly and rationally, (but often excitedly, because it’s going to be so bloody cool when it ramps up and really gets going), Stevenson explains the potential of each technology to transform the lives of individuals, societies, and the planet for the better.

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Fragments of Toronto: Kay Gardner Beltline Park

View of Allen Road and path leading to Beltline Park

Path off Allen Road leading to Beltline Park

Hidden behind the sound barrier off Allen Road and Eglinton St West, is a path that leads to one of Toronto’s most curious parks.

Running from that point (just north of Eglinton West subway station) in a narrow eastward strip that ends at Yonge & Davisville, is a green belt created on top of a former railway line.

Built in 1892, the Belt Line railway through then-suburbs of Moore Park and Forest Hill closed its passenger service after only two years of operation. Sections of the railway still had freight service until the 1960’s, while other parts were sold off to various land developers. After the freight service ceased, the railway was abandoned for years until in 1972 the city purchased this land in order to create a park.

A wooded urban trail

Park trail behind a large houseThe Kay Gardner Park is a walking and biking trail through the heart – or rather the back yards – of Midtown Toronto. Along this trail you can get a glimpse of the back porches and swing sets of Forest Hill, one of Toronto’s richest neighbourhoods and a place of some extraordinarily large examples of domestic architecture.

(I also loved visiting a similar but elevated park in Paris, likewise built on top of an old railway)

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Favourite books series: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Beautifully evocative and captivatingly strange imagery is densely woven throughout the poetic and complex narrative of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The novel that won its author a Nobel Prize and defined the genre of magical realism, this book has had a firm and lasting grip on my imagination since I first read it in Russian translation in my early teens.

The lives and deaths of the generations of the Buendía family in the fictional town of Macondo are full of wonders that are taken in stride and miracles that are commonplace. The mundane and the magical intertwine, passions rise and dampen, children are born and die, girls of unspeakable beauty ascend into the sky amid laundered sheets, young men elope with gypsies, prophesies come true, time is fluid, history is forgotten and repeats itself inescapably.

One of the novel’s most vivid and visually expressive episodes for me has always been the story of the deluge – the period in Macondo’s history during which it rains “for four years, eleven months, and two days.”  The continuous rainfall interrupts the normal order of life, uproots banana groves, kills the crops and the animals, rusts all machinery. Houses sag and walls cave in from the damp and rot, clothing sprouts moss, and people turn a greenish hue from algae growing on their skin.

The image of the swampy streets in which abandoned furniture and animal skeletons lie covered with red lilies was particularly evocative for me, echoing both the devastation and tenacity of life that characterize this part of the story.

Stained glass mosaic of a cow skeleton from which red lilies are growing lying in the rain in a flooded street

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Crowdsourcing happiness

One of the crucial inspirations and sources of strength behind my decision, earlier this year, to trade corporate employment for trying to make a living as an artist, was a growing awareness of the spirit of mutual support and cooperation infectiously spreading through Internet communities.

Rolling Jubilee logo with contribution counterMore and more collaborative, knowledge sharing, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding initiatives are starting up and succeeding, with small individual contributions from people around the world, at getting the most remarkable things done.

For example, a recently launched Strike Debt project Rolling Jubilee aims to buy up people’s outstanding charged-off loans for pennies on the dollar and … forgive them.  For every $1 you contribute, they will wipe out $20 of some random stranger’s unmanageable debt. Only American strangers, of course, but I still pitched in. Crowdsourcing good will just feels right.

Wikipedia, of course, is a fantastic resource created through volunteer collaboration that we often take for granted. I use it most often as a bibliography of first-stop sources for any new topic. Given that googling anything results in an avalanche of noise that still needs to be sifted to extract relevant signal, the external references section at the bottom of Wikipedia articles functions as a curated list of links, hand-picked by others out of the noise.

With the quality and accuracy matching and often surpassing that of commercially produced encyclopaedias, Wikipedia is an indispensable resource that is not only free, but also advertising-free, and aims to stay that way. A non-profit undertaking, intending to remain objective and independent of advertising revenue, they are currently running their annual campaign for donations.

I donated this morning, and found the thank-you letter very personable and well-written in getting to the heart of what makes Wikipedia awesome and worth supporting, so I thought I’d share it here:

“Dear Natalie,
Thank you for donating to the Wikimedia Foundation. You are wonderful!
It’s easy to ignore our fundraising banners, and I’m really glad you didn’t. This is how Wikipedia pays its bills — people like you giving us money, so we can keep the site freely available for everyone around the world.
People tell me they donate to Wikipedia because they find it useful, and they trust it because even though it’s not perfect, they know it’s written for them. Wikipedia isn’t meant to advance somebody’s PR agenda or push a particular ideology, or to persuade you to believe something that’s not true. We aim to tell the truth, and we can do that because of you. The fact that you fund the site keeps us independent and able to deliver what you need and want from Wikipedia. Exactly as it should be.
You should know: your donation isn’t just covering your own costs. The average donor is paying for his or her own use of Wikipedia, plus the costs of hundreds of other people. Your donation keeps Wikipedia available for an ambitious kid in Bangalore who’s teaching herself computer programming. A middle-aged homemaker in Vienna who’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A novelist researching 1850s Britain. A 10-year-old in San Salvador who’s just discovered Carl Sagan.

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Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra at the Phoenix, Toronto

Having just wrapped up the European leg of her Theatre is Evil tour, and still recovering from bronchitis, Amanda Palmer put on a lavishly energetic, masterful rock show for an enthusiastic crowd at the Phoenix Concert Theatre last night.

Driven by the confident and charismatic singer, who was clearly in her element, the show felt both like a big hot glam punk performance and an intimate house party.

Introducing her first opening act – bass player Jherek Bischoff’s solo project – in a kimono, and doing a warm-up dance with the second, Amanda chatted affably with the audience, spoke warmly of her band members “who are not only great musicians but also beautiful people,” and complimented Toronto and “that place with the donuts and the coffee,” which the band had visited “at least three times” in the one day they’ve been in the city.

Jherek Bischoff, Amanda Palmer, The Simple Pleasure stretching arms up

Amanda Palmer warming up for “crancing” with the The Simple Pleasure.

She also shared proudly the fact that, minutes before the show, Trent Reznor tweeted a laconic compliment to her just-released “Do It with a Rockstar” video (NSFW).

The all-white clad Grand Theft Orchestra launched into the main part of the show with the instrumental “Grand Theft Intermission”, backed up by a string section enlisted from local Toronto violinists and cellists – a customary invitation Amanda extends to local musicians on every stop of her tour. One of the violinists set the record last night for the youngest person to play with GTO onstage, at 15 years old.

Three violinists in background, Amanda Palmer on keyboard on stage

Local Toronto violinists backing up AFP & GTO onstage at the Phoenix

With hit singles from the new record, Theatre is Evil, and older songs both from AFP’s first solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? and her former band The Dresden Dolls, there was a satisfying musical variety of hard rock, pop rock and ballads in the set list. Visually stunning crowd surf performance during “Bottomfeeder” (see gorgeous pictures of it from the NYC show here) and slapstick band member changeover routine during “Missed Me” made for great entertainment. Often biting, but always thoughtful lyrics that dig deep under the surfaces of relationships made for an emotional experience.

intense AFP & GTO performance

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Bluegrass night at Barfly, Montreal

Barfly, Montreal logoWhen I lived in Montreal six years ago, bluegrass night had already been a decade-old Sunday night tradition at Barfly. Last weekend I had the chance to visit this favorite haunt of mine after a wretchedly long absence, and was happy to see that this landmark of the Montreal music scene is still going strong and about to celebrate its 15th anniversary on November 11th.

Though a legendary dive, Barfly can be hard to find with its tiny front on St. Laurent boulevard in the heart of Montreal’s trendy Plateau district. Decorated with Montreal Canadiens hockey memorabilia, dents in the walls, and a bust of Elvis, the bar with its cheap beer, excellent live music and free pool draws a crowd of university students, music lovers and whiskey-sodden barflies in varying proportions.

The musicians that show up to play old time country and bluegrass music on Sunday nights are equally varied in age, style, and musical experience. With a typical turnout of about ten, the group usually includes a couple of guitars and banjos, a mandolin and a lap steel guitar, a stand-up bass and a fiddle. The players rotate in fronting the band for three songs, in a lineup randomly generated by chalking their names on a blackboard as each arrives. This spontaneous arrangement results in a new show every week, the style, feel and quality of which often varies immensely depending on who shows up and at what time of night.

A group of musicians on stage at Barfly

A typical bluegrass night lineup with fiddle, mandolins, upright bass, guitar and Dobro

If you think you don’t like country music because you associate it with the mainstream acts in oversized cowboy hats and glittering outfits singing about keying their ex’s car to the overly engineered sound of electric guitars, you are in good company. That’s how most patrons of bluegrass night feel the first time they are reluctantly dragged to Barfly by their enthusiastic friends who have been there before. The raw, acoustic, alive, complex bluegrass sound you will hear there is as far from what you think of as country as you can get. The intricacy of Flatt & Scruggs breakdowns will knock your socks off, the multi-part vocal harmonies of Stanley Brothers‘ gospel songs will give you goose bumps, and the dexterity of the banjo pickers will blow your mind. Inevitably, the extensive oeuvre of Johnny Cash will also be featured.

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Favourite books series: The Master & Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a richly multilayered novel that includes elements of fantasy, historical fiction and social satire in one gorgeously wrought whole. A favorite of mine since early adolescence, it is a book I keep re-reading every few years in its original Russian, and recommend and often gift to all new friends who haven’t yet read it.

The Devil, with a retinue of imps and demons, visits 1930’s Moscow. He leaves mayhem, bureaucratic confusion, terror and comedy in his wake. He takes over a centrally located apartment by variously dispersing with its occupants via internment in a mental institution, instantaneous transport to a seaside resort, or death. He holds a magic show in a prestigious concert hall from which the distinguished audience members emerge shaken, ridiculed and mostly undressed. He is cruelly honest with the hypocrites, serious with the philosophers, he is playful, powerful, profound and complex, and so is the novel as a whole.

In parallel with the Devil’s story, runs the plotline of the Master – a talented and tormented writer working on a historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ. He meets and falls in love with Margarita, a beautiful and deeply unhappy wife of a wealthy official, and their affair enriches them both with happiness in the midst of a gray and dismal Soviet existence until the day the Master despairs, burns his manuscript and disappears from Margarita’s life.

For the sake of finding him again, and restoring his masterpiece from the ashes, Margarita accepts the Devil’s invitation to act the Queen at his side during the annual Satan’s gala ball of murderers, ghosts, witches, and all manner of tormented evil souls.

Margarita’s flight to this gathering is one of the most vivid scenes in the book. Alone in her large Moscow apartment, she is melancholy, apprehensive, and worn down by life when she begins to apply the ointment given to her by the Devil. As its magic infuses her skin, the worries of the everyday world start to fade away and a lightness and a feeling of freedom take over. Rejuvenated, awakened, nude, giddy and reckless, she flies on a floor brush out of the window of her building and into the warm spring night.

Mosaic in blue, black and gold of a nude witch's back flying up towards the moon on a broom.

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