It’s a strange time to be building new connections, yet that is what artist Margaux Smith and writer and art curator Tatum Dooley have been doing. Since Dooley was introduced to Smith’s work late last year, the two have become close friends. When physical-distancing measures were introduced in mid-March, they resorted to daily phone calls to check in on each other. The conversations often centred on the people in Toronto most at risk during the pandemic and how Dooley and Smith might apply their creative skills to help.
They shared the same thought, Smith says: “How crap would it be to be locked in a room without any art?”
Out of that question grew Canadian Art in Isolation, a project that involves donating artwork to seniors living in publicly funded long-term-care residences. The first partnership is with Toronto’s Fudger House, which has 250 residents; between 40 and 50 works are slated to be delivered on Tuesday.
“There’s a dual purpose to living with art,” says Dooley (who is also a TVO.org contributor). “It’s a metaphor for connection to your community and to possibilities, and there’s also just the aesthetic value of the art, of having a bit more colour. I find myself looking at my art more than I ever have, because I’m alone.”
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The simplicity of the premise allowed Smith and Dooley to bring the project to life in just a week and a half. Artists mail their works or arrange for pick-up or drop-off in the Greater Toronto Area. Smith and Dooley collect, frame, and store the pieces at Smith’s studio space. They’re then transferred to a City of Toronto worker, who sanitizes and delivers them to LTC homes. Seniors get to choose which ones they’d like, and the works are then installed in individual rooms by a staff member. Artists are encouraged to include a note describing the piece, and a return mailing address, so that the resident can contact them if they choose.
The potential for snail-mail correspondence in the age of Zoom chats and FaceTime hangouts excites Smith and Dooley. “It’s distressing that now all of our communications are on these corporate platforms, and public spaces have been shut down,” says Smith. “Mail is a private, personal, tangible method of building relationships that could be something to continue after this whole thing ends.”
The program, they say, is a response to conditions that have threatened the physical and social well-being of older people. Seniors constitute one of the highest-risk demographics for serious illness and death from coronavirus; low-barrier social programming in care residences has been cancelled. Smith, who is also a librarian with the Toronto Public Library, notes that many seniors relied on now-shuttered public spaces and library services for connection and engagement.
For Toronto artist Brileigh Hardcastle, the project offers an opportunity to continue connecting with her own communities and histories. When her grandmother died, in 2015, Hardcastle dug through family photos to learn more about her grandmother’s life, wondering what would become of these memories. She began painting directly on the prints as a way of building intimacy and connection with them — and contributed a giclée print of her grandmother to Canadian Art in Isolation.
“I hope this exchange with another elder can be a bonding experience that brings us both a sense of peace, allowing us to reflect on good memories of the past and be reminded that more lay ahead,” says Hardcastle. Along with the piece, she’s included a written note, which, she says, reminds her of the letters she wrote to her grandmother growing up: “I think this could be a lovely way to revive that memory with someone in the present.”
Lisa Salonen MacKay, who works with City of Toronto’s Senior Services and Long-Term Care as Fudger House’s administrator, says that a number of residents there have professional or personal artistic backgrounds. She hopes these pieces “will rekindle fond memories, and may encourage [them] to continue their art work within their room.”
Smith believes that this quieter, lonelier new reality has reinforced the therapeutic properties of creating. “I think painting is a very optimistic thing to do,” says Smith. “It helps bridge a time that is now to imagining a present that could be better, like alternative futures that could be better than things were in the past.”
She also notes that project represents a departure from the modern tradition of arts industries, which are grounded in cultural and financial capital. “[Artists] are told that we have a set value for a piece of a certain size, and there’s a risk involved with parting with things at a lower value,” says Smith. “I think this unprecedented social and economic situation has opened people up to not be as rigid with the way they see the value of what they do. I understand the need to maintain the value of what you do as an artist, because people are constantly asking you to do work for free. I think we’re just trying to make an argument for the social value of art.”
The works donated to Canadian Art in Isolation will be catalogued and promoted on the project’s website. “There are all kinds of underrated, amazing artists that are around making things,” says Smith. “Their value could be shared in greater ways, and their work could be integrated into the community in deeper ways.”
Both Smith and Dooley are hoping to signal-boost not just the artists, but also a particular ethic that they’d like to see maintained both during and after the pandemic. “We’re always talking about, ‘How is this all going to end up?’” says Dooley. “Well, if we can do anything to push the needle toward the side of realizing that we need to support workers and seniors and marginalized communities, I think that’s a good thing.”