Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Zone of our Own

Since Barbara requested it, I suppose it's time to tell you a little bit about my time in the casket factory. I had found a little apartment at Harbord and Palmerston, nothing fancy - this is the late 80s now I guess - and I was looking for a shared painting studio. I was trying to convince myself that I liked to paint in a different place than I lived, but I didn't 100% believe it.

I answered an ad, it might have been in NOW but I don't remember, and rode my bicycle down to Niagara and Tecumseth to check it out. This was by no means the first ad I answered but the others were nowhere near close to what I wanted. There is one big building on the corner, but it has three separate addresses and three separate ways in, 89, 101 and 109 Niagara. The building is still there just across the tracks from Fort York, and across the road from Quality Meats and the Speedy Restaurant. I was going up to the third floor of 109 to meet a fellow named Stan Repar.

The space was big and half of it was divided. It had ratty old carpet on the floor, a couple chairs, and there was some evidence suggesting it was four studio spaces in one. The first thing I noticed, though was a large inflatable boat leaning up against one wall.

What's that?

Uh, it's a boat.

A boat?

Yeah, it's a boat. I'm selling it. Don't worry, it'll be gone.

I see.

There were in fact 4 spaces - imagine a square room cut into four squares - and the one for rent was the one closest to the entrance. It was empty, except for the boat. The second space had a few things kicking around in it but it obviously wasn't used much. Then, to the right was a third space, with an easel and, if I remember correctly, a lamp on a little table. Finally, next to that space, was Stan's studio. He was working on some kind of crazy realist painting, using triple zero watercolour brushes. I say crazy because there was something strange going on in the picture. Actually, I don't remember which painting he had up - there was something a little strange going on in many of Stan's paintings.

I liked Stan right away. He had a real bead on what he wanted to do with his paintings and he was going after it in a steady and methodical way that I admired. In other words, we were really opposites as painters. I liked the paintings, and my first impressions of Stan were positive so I jumped in and rented my share of the space.

During the time I was there, we had different people renting the other two spaces. There was Shelagh who lived down the hall and there was Mark, a sign painter who was also an excellent blues harp player. And there was Lori, a painter who had a framing business going. Mostly though, it was me and Stan there working all the time.

The building really was once a casket factory. I just found out today that it is now a "heritage building", although I'm not sure exactly what that means. It was owned by The National Casket Company, and designed by architect William Wallace Blair in 1884. The casket people had long moved out, but years later, I met a woman who worked there when the casket factory was still going. She told me they moved out to Oakville and then later went out of business. I was surprised to hear that, death being so common and all. I've heard stories that there was a time the building was owned by "the mob" and artists could get huge spaces for a song. I suspect those stories are tall tales and I can tell you that the fellow who owned the place did not give up great deals easily.

As it turned out, I knew someone in the building, a fellow named Michael, who was in the business of providing food on movie lots. I knew him via my pal Candy Minx. I liked him a lot, and somehow or other, at one point he had my mom supplying him with traditional Polish food like cabbage rolls or patychky or something like that. He had quite a business going, and rented a big space on the ground floor. Sadly, Michael became ill and checked out way way too young. Later, the same space was occupied by a fellow who was making plastic trees, but that's another story.

More soon...


Candy Minx said...

Good memories. Michael loved your mums meat sticks. And also...remember he grew up just down the street from your parents house. Small world.

Anonymous said...

hmmm... I can see how a casket factory might inspire art... but somehow, i can't imagine death as YOUR muse

Barbara Bruederlin said...

They just don't make casket factories as liveable as they used to, do they?

Thanks for indulging me with this story.