Dasha Tolstikova: Artist in Residence

In partnership with Groundwood Books, the Koffler Centre of the Arts hosted graphic novelist and illustrator Dasha Tolstikova as our Artist in Residence from May 16 – May 19, 2016, featuring her debut illustrated memoir, A Year Without Mom.

















During her residency, Dasha engaged with diverse communities through a series of cross-disciplinary workshops and school programs.

On Monday May 16th, Dasha conducted an Author-in-the-School workshop for grade 5 and 6 students at Rose Avenue Public School. With Dasha’s illustrations as inspiration, students imagined and drew their own fictional characters.


(A signed copy of A Year Without Mom given to the class at Rose Ave.)















(The cover of an illustrated booklet by Zayan at Rose Ave.)















(The cover of an illustrated booklet by Sofiya at Rose Ave.)

On Monday afternoon, Dasha led a program for kids from CARE (the after-school arts program at Trinity-Bellwoods Community Centre), inspired by her online diary in which she illustrated herself as a fox everyday for over a year.


(Dasha showing the after-school group illustrations by her mom in the Koffler Gallery)

The next morning, the Koffler Staff met Dasha and Daniel Rotsztain: Urban Geographer and artist, to explore the streets of Toronto and to sketch some of the city’s architecture. We walked through Chinatown into a laneway lined with urban-cottage-style houses and Dasha and Daniel sat down on a curb to draw a semi-detached house that caught their attention.


(Daniel and Dasha sketching in Chinatown)

Dasha and Daniel then sketched what is known to some Kensington Market’s “canoe house” because of the large canoe leaning against its façade.














(Daniel and Dasha presenting their drawings in front of the “canoe house”)


After lunch in the Market, we made our way North to Leo Baeck Day School for another author-in-the-school workshop. The students imagined the bag-headed characters Günter and Gertrude and participated in a short story writing activity about these two characters.















(A student at Leo Baeck drawing Günter and Gertrude)

DashaKblog9(Dasha with Grade 6 students at Leo Baeck)

On Wednesday May 18th, the Koffler and House of Anansi Press/Groundwood Books hosted a conversation between Dasha and writer Lisa Moore at Small World Music Centre. Nick Hutcheson moderated the conversation, discussing A Year Without Mom and Moore’s novel Flannery. The two writers replied candidly to questions about relationships between mothers and daughters and growing up, and generously discussed the differences and similarities between their creative processes.


(Dasha, Lisa Moore, and Nick Hutcheson on stage at Small World Music Centre)

On the fourth and final day of Dasha’s residency, Dasha and Sheila Barry from Groundwood Books: Dasha’s editor and publisher; visited Humber College to speak to students in the Creative Book Publishing program. Dasha and Sheila each presented their personal journeys throughout the publishing process of A Year Without Mom, from first correspondence, to the final published copy of the book.

That evening, Dasha’s residency culminated with a graphic memoir workshop in collaboration with the Girls’ Art League (GAL) at the Koffler Gallery. Participants enjoyed drawing, drinks, and socializing with fellow “GALs”.


(Illustrations and the cover of a mini-book from the GAL workshop)















(One of the illustrated narratives from the GAL workshop)

Thanks again to Dasha for sharing your creativity as our Artist in Residence and to everyone who participated in workshops, conversations, and other events during Dasha’s residency. We were truly lucky to have Dasha with us for the week, and are excited to see her future projects!

Jane’s Walk: The Urban Legends of West Queen West

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, the Koffler Gallery organized its first Jane’s Walk, which explored the Urban Legends of our West Queen West neighbourhood. Our walk was created and led by Urban Geographer and artist, Daniel Rotsztain.

Inspired by the Koffler Gallery exhibition Erratics, (which explores the tensions between memory and fiction), Daniel introduced the walk by posing the question, “does Toronto have amnesia?”



Daniel led our group on a 2-hour walk through Toronto’s West Queen West neighbourhood, attempting to reassemble the neighbourhood’s memory by uncovering its histories, urban legends, and everything in between.


“What happens to a city’s notion of history when it has amnesia? A funny thing happens where the lines blur between fact and fiction. Without a strong historical tradition, urban legends emerge to fill the gaps and pass for that history. Strange historical blips, and anecdotal evidence emerge as what we remember. There are zones with strong historical memory, and others that people pass without a thought. But can’t we say that about all history? What distinguishes an urban legend – a story passed down through an oral tradition, from the random facts that become enshrined as historical evidence?” – Daniel Rotsztain


Our second stop was in front of The Lakeview Diner, where Daniel told us about the legend of the Lake Ontario Sea Serpent, which was named Gaasynedietha by First Nations people.

















Our third stop was at Crawford and Dundas – where we explored the mystery of the green posts. Are they some sort of escape exits? Super Mario pipe replicas? Or are they berating tubes for a community of mole people, dwelling beneath Toronto? As Daniel explored these urban legends, he pointed out that the posts are actually ventilation stacks for a complex sewer system known as the Mid-Toronto Interceptor.


Our fourth stop was on Crawford Street – the buried bridges of Garrison Creek. Here, we explored the the legends of Garrison Creek, Toronto’s most famous lost waterway, as well as some lesser known facts about the creek including lost visions for its future.

Did you know that you used to be able to navigate the creek by boat, well north of Bloor, and that it was 10 metres wide and 20 metres deep at its largest?


Our next stop led us through the paths of Trinity Bellwoods to the park’s valley, or what it has become affectionately known as the Dog Bowl.

















We often hear that Garrison Creek is “dead” or “lost” – but is it really? Here Daniel described some of the legends of Toronto’s zombie rivers, rising from the dead. These lost and buried rivers make themselves known quite frequently – re-emerging during rainstorms and leaching ancient dump chemicals into waterways. “The creek is not dead, but was buried alive!”


We continued our walk through the rest of Trinity Bellwoods to stop at our next location, the Trinity Gates. Just as the topography leave clues of lost rivers, Trinity Bellwoods’ gates are a clue of lost campuses. Here we explored the legends surrounding Trinity College, and other architectural fragments.


On CAMH’s grounds we recalled the history of the provincial mental health institution, and how the original 1850 buildings were demolished, leaving only its walls. Here we also discussed the legend of failed architecture, and the truth of failed governance.


Our next stop was at Dovercourt and Sudbury Streets where we remembered 48 Abell Street – an important building for West Queen West’s early art scene. It has since been demolished and replaced by condos.


We concluded our walk at Queen and Dovercourt, in front of West Queen West’s iconic, You’ve Changed mural. Daniel invited Carrie Lester to lead this portion of the walk. Carrie is a Haudenosaunee storyteller who told us about the meaning of Toronto, the myths and history of the land on which the modern city is built.


The walk brought to light many kinds of urban legends and histories. Stories were told as we attempted to untangle fact from fiction, and knit together our collective histories.

[Originally posted on Facebook, May 19, 2015]

Erratics Workshop

In May 2015, grade 10 Film Studies students from Earl Haig Secondary School participated in a 3-day workshop led by artist/novelist Martha Baillie and filmmaker Naomi Jaye, with additional mentorship from two artists from SKETCH, and Koffler Gallery staff.

Martha’s work was featured in the Koffler Gallery’s spring exhibition Erratics (April 16 to June 14, 2015), an installation that explored the tensions between memory and fiction.


Day one: Martha and Naomi started the students off with an informal presentation of their work and creative process, with a focus on how they transfer the written word into film.


Day two: Martha and Naomi divided the students into small working groups, and gave them 30 minutes to create a 1-minute tone poem — a visual response to one of these phrases: “Concrete Kiss? Ethical flatulence? Insignificant Bulge? Spherical exhaustion?”


Using their iPads to shoot and edit, each team of 3-4 students had to roll a die to see how many words they would be allowed to use as their “script”. They were to assign one person as ‘actor’ from their group, plus they could use found sounds only.

“The amount of restrictions they gave us was very interesting. They forced me to think outside of the box and create short films I never would have thought before.” – Student

8Working in pairs, students shot their movies with the basic video application on iPads (“no fancy stuff”).

Additional discussions around soundtracking and providing silence for the viewer, offered new perspectives for the students to consider — “less is more”.


“I learned that framing, and creating shots that show characters in an interesting way, is important” – Student

“I learned how to edit effectively without completely changing my main objective, and diluting clips with songs or shots which are unnecessary” – Student


“The coolest thing I learned was how to create a tone film. I came up with my idea of juxtaposing the imperfections in nature and their beauty, and our negative look at them in society. This opened my mind and my imagination when it comes to filmmaking.” – Student


Day three: Students screened their “tone poem” film projects from the previous day, and engaged in critiquing exercises, gaining clarity and confidence through discussion about each other’s work.


“It was wonderful to get feedback from professionals and artists about my work” – Student


“It is important to reflect on how a film makes you feel; physically, and emotionally” – Student.


After students screened and critiqued their films, the class was given a new assignment. Each student received a postcard with a random phrase culled from the newspaper by Martha and Naomi.


Students were to create a one-shot film that incorporated the image on the postcard, the statement written on the back, using two actors, while strongly focusing on blocking.


“I learned to accept the different creative challenges positively, and learn the potential rights and wrongs of creating films” – Student

“I learned how to edit effectively without completely changing my main objective and diluting clips with songs or shots which are unnecessary” – Student

“I found this intensive creative filmmaking experience provided a place and space for the students to be exposed to narrative in a real and conceptual way. The creative formats and ideas Martha shared really seemed to challenge students to look at filmmaking in a new way” – Student


“Naomi’s creative and technical challenge really brought out the best in the students. It forced them to be creative and thoughtful with very limited resources and the results were inspiring and profound. It was a very creative and educational experience for the class and me too.” – Kathy Yamashita, Teacher

“What they produced knocked us over. And this was just one of several exercises. They were wide awake, inventive, open, soaking up everything we threw at them about blocking, composition, the uses of silence, the language of conceptual art, narrative as sculpture. Working with them was a wondrous adventure. Their tiny films keep replaying in my mind…”” – Martha Baillie

[Originally posted on Facebook, May 12, 2015]

Stranger than Fiction

In April 2015, students from Givins/Shaw Junior Public School participated in Arts Alive Day, a school-wide event designed to provide them with hands on experiences in a range of artistic media. The Koffler Gallery provided tours of our current exhibition Erratics as a way of introducing the topic of photography as a tool for understanding history.

2bEvocative photographs of the past were pulled from the archives of Givins/Shaw, and served as source material for the school’s current grade 3, 4, 5, and 6 students to reflect on the school’s history.

The students were asked to consider what stories –both possible and impossible – may have transpired at the school. What personalities – remarkable and unremarkable – might have graced its halls?

5bMore than one student was asked to respond to the same image, by writing short stories about what they thought the photograph conveyed. Some narratives were rooted in known facts about the school, or in plausible assumptions about the photographs captured there.

7bOthers were the stuff of pure fantasy, and combined the familiar setting of the school with characters and events that could only ever be imagined by a child.

















The students’ stories were displayed in an exhibition at Artscape Youngplace, entitled Stranger Than Fiction, where all of the narratives and their respective photos were exhibited together, challenging the viewer to separate the “fact” from the “fiction”.

Neighbourhood Archives Project

Inspired by the Koffler Gallery’s Spring 2015 exhibition Erratics (an art installation which brought together two distinct archives and explored the tensions between memory and fiction by Martha Baillie, and Malka Greene with Alan Resnick), grade 5/6 students from Rose Avenue Public School and Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School explored the connections between place, memory and fiction.
































During this 6-week project, students worked with urban geographer/artist Daniel Rotsztain to build collaborative neighbourhood archives through line drawing, mapping, personal narrative, postcard-writing and exchange.

Daniel leads students on a neighbourhood walks, encouraging them to pay attention to those small but vibrant details, which hold stories and personal memories in neighbourhood landmarks.

















After the neighbourhood walks, Daniel taught the students how to transfer their sketches into graphic line drawings onto their postcards.


Inspired by their line drawings, students write personal narratives about their chosen neighbourhood objects, landmarks and buildings.


Daniel works with the students to create a new map of their neighbourhoods, animated by their postcards.

The students from each school then mailed their postcards to the students at the other school, so they could exchange and share their personal perspectives, and create a collective archive of the two school communities, through their eyes and imaginations.



These postcards are just a sample from the collective archive:





photo-7aphoto-7bphoto-8aphoto-8bphoto-9aphoto-10On June 1, after 5 weeks of workshops, the two school groups met at the Koffler Gallery for an informal tour of Erratics, and to see their collaborative Neighbourhood Archives postcard project installed in one of the flex studios at Artscape Youngplace.


“Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods that are distinct, but share lots in common. The students from Rose Avenue and Paul Penna compared their two neighbourhoods by drawing hybrid utopian communities along the schools’ shared arterial: Bloor Street.”

– Daniel Rotsztain


The teachers at both schools recognized the importance of this cross-cultural dialogue and saw the impact on their students.

“The learning was authentic, deep, and empowering. By exploring the program from the perspectives of social justice, architecture, art, writing, and history, my students now have a newfound and genuine understanding of what’s in their own backyard… and how it all connects to the context of the city around it.”

– Diana FitzGerald, Grade 6 teacher, Rose Avenue Public School


Perhaps the truest testament to the project’s success is the way the collective process fostered new community understanding and connections.

“Through all the six years that I have spent living downtown, I had never noticed, never realized, never saw just how many nooks and crannies there were and how much people cared about them. When Daniel [Rotzstain] came, we all became part of this group of people who cared about all of these beautiful places.”

–Grade 5 student, Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School


Many thanks to the school administration, teachers and students for their dedication and support on this project:

Rose Avenue Public School: David Crichton (principal), Diana Fitzgerald (grade 6 teacher), and their grade 6 students

Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School: Laila Lipetz (Director of Curriculum), Edi Fisher, Avee Helfand (grade 5 teachers), and their grade 5 students

And thank you to Daniel Rotsztain, for leading us throughout this beautiful, collaborative project.

The Narrative Selfie

In April 2015, teachers from the York Region District School Board were invited to tour the Artscape Youngplace building, and to participate in a diverse range of hands on workshops as a professional development initiative. Led by the Koffler Gallery in cooperation with our partner organizations, the workshops included paper making, 3-D printing, letterpress processes, and photography.
















The Koffler’s workshop, “The Narrative Selfie”, was inspired by the concurrent Koffler Gallery exhibition Erratics The workshop invited teachers to activate everyday objects found in their wallets, purses, and pockets. They created artful arrangements of those objects, photographed them, and printed the images to postcards that they could then distribute to friends and family.


Throughout the process, the teachers were educated on the intersecting histories of the picture postcard, the photographic portrait, and the historical hybrid object, the cart-de-visite, as mediums for conveying personal narratives across distance and time.
















They were also guided in meaningful personal discussions about the objects they selected, the often-hidden meanings behind those objects, and what their “narrative self portraits” revealed about them as creators, as thinkers, and as people.

67The teachers were also given two postcards and asked to record two separate memories about life in Toronto: one factual and one fictional.


They were invited to keep one of the postcards and to display the other in an exhibition presented in Artscape Youngplace, Wish You Were Here.There the public could reflect on their memories, and attempt to separate the real version of Toronto from the teacher’s ideal version of the city.