Walking the Artist Project 2023

Entrance of The Artist Project, board of sponsors and partners featured with the caption: Feel It For Yourself

The Artist Project held its annual showing of 250+ independent artists in the second weekend of April (13-16) at the Better Living Centre on the Exhibition grounds in Toronto. While also featuring installations and presentations by local artist-run centers, the Artist Project is a cacophony of artistic styles, forms, frames, colors and stories, lined by the hundreds as three walled pockets per artist, filled from floor to ceiling with artworks. On the one hand, it proves an overwhelming collection of wide-ranging talents and conversations. On the other, it is a coordination of emerging and established artists in one showroom, each celebrating their professional careers and goals through art.

To add to the everlasting array of visual stimuli one can intake, the smell of freshly squeezed lemonade and burgers can be found at the various food stands and trucks parked at the far corners. Each corner also had its opened doors, allowing for fresh air to waft into the heated building. I wouldn’t have called it crowded; I would have described the atmosphere as interactive and intriguing, based on the sheer number of people wandering between stalls to speak to the artists themselves. A few families could be seen handing out snacks and drinks to them as they spoke, in congratulation for another successful year of art production and presentation.

One of the first installations to view was Kelly McCray’s Tower of Banned Books, a sculptural work of roughly 400-450 used hardcover books, all listed at some point in North America as “banned or censored” from public view.

Kelly McCray, Tower of Banned Books, 2023, 400-450 used hardcover books, 136” flat round mirror, 130” convex mirror

The work is somewhat interactive, allowing guests to poke their heads into the front opening of the tower to view a set of two mirrors: one above their head and one below their chin. This positioning of the mirrors is meant to further display the books as spreading outward into infinity when stared into. A quote from Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei can be read in the artist statement: “censorship robs a person of self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence”. In other words, removing an opinion or a story, like those found in books, removes a chance for human existence to reflect upon itself. Weiwei was arrested and detained in Beijing in 2011 following allegations of “economic crimes” after he spoke out against the Chinese government online.

Amongst the many stalls, one probably came in contact with the brightly colored works of artist Mais Al-Sheikhly. One, titled Bright and Dark side of Emojis, emanated a true style. Originally from Baghdad, Iraq, Al-Sheikhly immigrated to Canada as a teenager, regaining a sense of confidence and control through art making. She was inspired by her studies in cubism and of Picasso’s style of abstraction. She has since been back and forth from Jordan to Canada, featured by galleries and festivals in both countries. She transmits her cultural background into colourful and playful series of artworks, combining the traditional and the contemporary.

Mais Al-Sheikhly, Bright and Dark side of Emojis, acrylic & mixed media on wood panels, 20″ x 20″ each

Row after row of artist’s booths all connect via a long hallway created at the centre, branching off into extended arm hallways on either side. When looking down this hallway, one can engage with two artists’ works at once, like Amelia Valentine’s Lush and Sandra Iafrate’s Bliss and Pygmalion series installed on opposite sides.

Centre hallway view: Amelia Valentine’s Lush on left hand wall & Sandra Iafrate’s Bliss (right hand wall, largest blue work on top) and Pygmalion Series (right hand wall, two smaller red and blue works below)

At the end of this hallway however is a larger installation by Metis artist Tracey Mae Chambers, who has created over 100 similar installations across the US and Canada of cotton, silk, wool and copper at residential school historical sites under the titles #hopeandhealingcanada and #hopeandhealingus.

Tracey Mae Chambers, #hopeandhealingcanada, 2023, cotton, silk, wool, copper

The goal of these installations is to begin a conversation about decolonization, connecting settlers with the Indigenous, Metis and Inuit peoples of the land in an approachable and non-confrontational way. In her artist statement regarding the choice of colour in her installations, Chambers writes, “Red is the colour of blood. Red is the slur against Indigenous people. Red is the colour of passion and anger, danger and power, courage and love”. As an individual who is part Metis and part European, Chambers also makes note of her privilege in society, being aware of her “whiteness”. She uses this conscious ideal as fuel to bridge the gap of her dual identities through self-education and self healing.

Another sculptural installation comes from OCAD University’s Career Launcher Program, providing an emerging artist with the opportunity to showcase their own installation at the Artist Project.

Vladimir Kanic’s Garden of Waves series, 2023, Algae Biopolymer, Living Algae Culture

This year, Vladimir Kanic features his algae biopolymer series, Garden of Waves. These sculptures of algae thrive on the carbon dioxide provided in the atmosphere that onlookers breathe out. They capture this out breath and reproduce oxygen as a cleaning method back into the air. The sculptures are a nod to the climate and environmental problems the Earth is facing. He is attempting to provide a hopeful and beautiful solution to cleansing the air of toxins in a natural way.

As a whole, the Artist Project is a high energy, engaging collaboration of artistic practices focusing on the various social, cultural and economic ideologies that create the world we live in. By creating conversation and interweaving the messages addressed across an array of themes, guests are able to truly engage with the project and profession of art making worldwide. With good food, drinks and conversation, the Artist Project is one not to be missed.

Text and photo: Lex Barrie

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