Life in Toronto: What I’m Actually Doing

St. John’s, Newfoundland. Rain is pelting the landscape in horizontal sheets, the Canadian flag whipping around violently on the deck outside. Soaring howls of wind play through the seams of the windows like music, creeping through the cracks. We sit around the kitchen table of a typical student apartment, the sizzle of frying eggs wafting amongst sacks of potatoes and instant rice. For the first time in many days, I don’t feel guilty about being indoors.

I arrived here two days ago from Toronto, to visit my childhood friend Nic for Canadian Thanksgiving. Although I’ve only been in Toronto for a little over three weeks, it’s been an intense period of time, and it’s refreshing now to spend some time back in the wild ocean air that I love so much, hanging out with a friend from high school for a few days. It’s also given me the chance to step back and reflect on the past few weeks, on the work I’m doing, and what it all means.

A dear friend of mine wrote me a few days ago. “I HAVE NO CLUE WHAT YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW AND AM UTTERLY CONFUSED!!” she wrote, in all-caps. It occurred to me then that my more poetic approach to writing about my life, as much as I love it, might not always be the most descriptive way to go, and that there may be a number of people out there very curious as to what I’m actually doing on a daily basis. Interestingly I haven’t been taking that many photographs at all, aside from the ones in my last post – especially not ones that document my day-to-day life. Fortunately, Tor Edvin visited Toronto and stayed with me for nearly two weeks, and the photos he snapped with his cell phone do a pretty good job of telling the story.

This is what happened. I had been living on a ship, guiding in the Arctic, for about six weeks. The day after our last expedition ended, I moved to Toronto, my new home base for the Fulbright project I had begun dreaming up over a year and a half ago. Not only was it an immense culture shock – the hotel where I stayed the first few days was right in the middle of the downtown financial district – but incredibly surreal to experience a project proposal that had only existed in my imagination, on paper and through email, taking physical form around me.

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Toronto. 

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A selfie I took looking out the window on my first morning, utterly bewildered. 

On my first day, I went straight to OCAD University, the art school where I’m enrolled as a sort of mix between a visiting artist and student. After over a year of email correspondence, I finally met April, the photography professor with whom I will be working throughout the course of my nine months in Canada, and got introduced to the facilities where I will be doing the majority of my work in Toronto. In addition to April’s guidance, the school has the Hasselblad Flextight scanner that I need to scan my color film negatives, and all the darkrooms, digital printing labs, and other equipment I could possibly need. Thanks to April’s outstanding generosity, I felt immediately at home, and often feel treated more as a faculty member than a student, which is phenomenal. I was invited to assist April with her Landscape and Site photography course once a week, giving a few lectures to students, as well as participate in a landscape photography workshop with her the following weekend. To put it mildly, I hit the ground running.

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This is OCAD. Quite a remarkable feat of architecture. 

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At that point, there was still the project of finding a place to live, which hadn’t been possible for me to organize from aboard the ship this summer. I spent the first few days apartment hunting in the city, which felt overwhelming after so much time at sea, but April quickly came to the rescue with a fantastic suggestion: I could apply for an artist residency on Toronto Island, a short ferry ride from downtown, where she had lived all her life. After a brief tour of the island and the Art Centre (which miraculously had a room available), I was in. The beautiful, forested island, covered in parks, bike paths, and beaches, is a world away from downtown, yet the ferry ride only takes about ten minutes. The Art Centre – Artscape Gibraltar Point, it’s called – is an old elementary school turned into bedrooms and artist studios, with a shared kitchen, a garden, and a private beach looking out towards the vastness of Lake Ontario. Living there, you would never know how close you were to the city, and as a visiting artist new to Toronto, it is the perfect place to immerse myself in a community of other dedicated artists. Plus, not really being a city person, it gives me a fantastic environment in which to do all of the work I can accomplish without OCAD’s downtown facilities. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision such a perfect living situation for the six weeks before I go up to Arctic Bay for the winter.

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Aboard the ferry with the trusty bike I’m borrowing from April.

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View of the island from the ferry. 

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View of the city from one of the island’s three ferry stops. 

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Beautiful, lush forest, slowly turning to fall colors as the weeks pass. 

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One of the more secluded spots on the lake side of the island. 

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The beach by the Art Centre, with the picnic table that has become my favorite breakfast spot.

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That was it. School, work facilities, and housing sorted, I got right to work. I got all my negatives from this summer in the Arctic developed, and began scanning, spending an average of 3-4 hours a day at school with the Flextight scanner and much more working on the files. To give you an idea of how labor-intensive of a process this is, I began three weeks ago, and I’m still not close to done. I printed the digital photos that I found meaningful, and began to sort them, contemplate them. I began to read, to research contemporary Canadian artists and photographers, to read books of poetry by writers visiting Baffin Island. I also began to write. My first weekend living on the island, I participated in a photo workshop led by April with a group of other Toronto landscape photographers, focusing on the idea of borders and collisions within the landscape – relative themes to my current projects, the way I interpreted them. I held an artist’s talk for April’s class about my work and about my involvement in the blogging world. To put it simply, I settled quite comfortably back into the rhythm of intense productivity I had grown accustomed to during my undergraduate degree.

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On the way to school. My life on boats continues!

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An installation I walked by at school for Nuit Blanche, an all-night, all-city arts festival. 

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Parking my bike outside school. 

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Breakfast on the beach at sunrise before heading into town. 

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Reading a map of art installations at Nuit Blanche. 

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Random explorations in Toronto as I attempted to find the public library for the first time. 

In addition to all this, I had Tor Edvin visiting me for two weeks when I first arrived, so I had someone to share the experience with! He participated in the workshop as well and accompanied me to school every day, and every minute that I wasn’t working was naturally filled with fun times, artistic inspiration, hysterical laughter, adventures outside, and incredibly good food.

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Also, on the way back to Norway, Tor Edvin took an Air Canada flight and found one of my photographs in their in-flight magazine, En Route, accompanying some pieces of writing that had won the CBC Literary Prizes! Amazing timing.

In any case, things are in full swing here, and I depart for winter in Arctic Bay in just under three weeks. When I return from Newfoundland it will be time to start printing some of my analog photos for the first time, at which point I will share a sneak preview of some of my recent work! For now, it’s time to enjoy the magic of Newfoundland and my very first Canadian Thanksgiving. Until then!

Photos: Tor Edvin Eliassen & Acacia Johnson

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One thought on “Life in Toronto: What I’m Actually Doing

  1. I am applying to Memorial University in St. John’s for graduate school! I hope it’s a worthwhile place. Your photographs make me restless in ways that I can’t put into words. You seem to never quit finding or making adventures, which is fantastic! Thanks for sharing them.

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