A Brick Lover’s Toronto

I recently travelled for the first time since Covid—a solo trip to Toronto to celebrate my first year of motherhood (in a pandemic no less). It’s been two of both now but Covid got in the way of going earlier.

As someone who attended university in Ottawa, I had been to Toronto a few times on weekend trips and it was fun but not particularly inspiring. The destination of this trip actually wasn’t that important to me. What was more important was having a much-needed getaway (I am inclined to urban spaces) and seeing and staying with an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years.

Brick houses in Cabbagetown.

But the destination surprised me. It was so much older and beautiful than I remembered. I found myself enchanted with all the brick houses, taking picture after picture because they were all so beautiful and different and teeming with character. Coming from the West Coast where our building materials are wood and glass (Douglas Coupland nicknamed Vancouver the “City of Glass,” and it was only incorporated in 1886), there was something comforting about the solidity and permanency of brick. I wish I could call one of these houses mine.

Such love in the details here. And that red door! Cabbagetown neighbourhood.
The symmetrical, two-pronged staircase leading to the blue door is perfection. Also in Cabbagetown.
Yet another lovely duplex in Cabbagetown.
View from my friend’s condo in the Annex. It was not uncommon to see turrets. Turrets, folks!
Of course there were also turrets on Casa Loma.

Housing was on my mind as my husband and I had just learned that our landlord was about to sell the beloved house that we rent the top floor of in Vancouver. We’ve been there for three years and were hoping to have been there a lot more. Now we’ll have two months from date of sale to find a new home.

Looking back through my photos of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I noticed how many were paintings of houses and rooftops. Definitely a theme here.

A wall of Lawren S. Harris paintings in the Thomas Collection. Left: Houses, Richmond Street, 1911, oil on canvas. Top middle: Street Scene with Figures, Hamilton, 1919, oil on wood-pulp board. Bottom middle: In the Ward, Toronto, 1917, oil on wood-pulp board.
Maximilien Luce, Gisons, The Cathedral, 1897, oil on paper mounted to canvas.

These two women beside each other in the AGO also caught my eye: Saint Anne with the Christ Child (c.1645-1650) by Georges de la Tour on the left and Melancholy (c.1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen on the right, which purportedly depicts Mary Magdalene. They look like they could have been painted by the same artist. The works share so many similarities: dramatic late-night scenes illuminated by a single candle, two women with downcast eyes thinking and feeling deeply. They face each other, as if they are made to converse about life and death. I wrote a poem about the two women the next day at First & Last Coffee. The weather was delightfully warm enough in early May that I could enjoy their wonderful patio space.

One of my hopes for the trip was to have some quiet time wandering, reflecting, and writing. I headed to Toronto’s Necropolis, because just like Vancouver’s cemetery has inspired many a poem, I thought this picturesque Toronto cemetery could too.

Entrance to the Necropolis, featuring a Victorian Gothic chapel.
The most recognizable monument in the Necropolis. Jack Layton’s wife Olivia Chow created this bronze bust.

The Necropolis is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, established in 1850. It sits to the west of the Don Valley Parkway, which is shown in this painting below by William Kurelek that my friend and I saw the day before at the AGO. We spent at least half an hour trying to find the hidden crucifix near the edge of the trees. We gave up and googled it instead.

William Kurelek, Don Valley on a Grey Day, 1972, mixed media on hardboard.

I also took a pilgrimage to Knife Fork Book, a poetry dispensary located in Capital Espresso on Queen Street and picked up some reading material for later.

Street art of…houses, what else?

As someone drawn to architecture and its endless forms, I found Toronto inspiring after all.

O Toronto!
Nathan Phillips Square with the Romanesque-style Old City Hall in the background.
Spadina Museum (a Victorian mansion) near Casa Loma.
One of many old stone buildings on U of T’s campus.
St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Old meets new in the Daniels Building for U of T’s architecture, landscape, and design program.

When I posted some of my pictures on Facebook, a friend commented, “Who knew Toronto could be so beautiful?” Indeed, who knew?

Historic home of Daniel Lamb, business man, City Father, a founder of Toronto’s first zoo, 1842-1920.

And for those curious, I do have a poem in the works that combines my love of Victorian houses with my interest in cemeteries and my surprise appearance in Jack Layton’s Ottawa rental before he was Leader of the Opposition. Strange what memories and alignments a trip might spark and a poem might allow.

‘Let Us Go Then’ Chapbook Announcement

Ever since arriving home from a Europe trip with my husband in 2017, I got the idea to write a poem for each place we visited. Four years later, these poems are going to be published in my debut chapbook titled ‘Let Us Go Then’ coming out this December with the Alfred Gustav Press as part of their Series 26, which includes three other people’s chapbooks. For those unfamiliar with the term, a chapbook is a very short publication or the literary equivalent of an EP.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

“Let Us Go Then invites you down European streets into scenes framed with art. Like parallel trains travelling through space and time, the poems map a trip alongside a marriage.”

If you’re interested in ordering, here’s the link with details. Note it’s a subscription-only press so orders must be placed by October 1. http://d-zieroth.squarespace.com/the-alfred-gustav-press

Signing the contract for my chapbook in 2020. A long-hoped for day.

I have loved writing and editing these poems and I can’t wait to have them out in the world, in friends’ and families’ (hopefully even strangers’) mailboxes before Christmas. Not every poem/place could fit within the scope of this chapbook (sorry Florence, Vernazza, and Munich), but the 10 poems that did make the cut give a good sense of the month-long journey that I feel incredibly privileged to have taken and grateful as to when I did it. Sights include Paris, Monet’s Garden (Giverny), Nice, Rome, Venice, Neuschwanstein Castle (Bavaria), and Amsterdam. Some poems were written on location (though morphed into very different poems through the editing process); others were written soon after arriving home; and the most recent were penned in 2020 after rereading my travel journal.

I did a lot of writing on the train. This is somewhere in France.

In anticipation of the book’s publication, here are some photos (taken by me) that capture scenes addressed in the poems either overtly or subtly. Think of these photos like easter eggs in a Taylor Swift song. Can you guess where they’re from?

Aimless in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is extremely photogenic. If it’s not the onion-ring canals, it’s the assortment of gables on gingerbread houses, a delight for any architecture lover.

My neck was a little sore after three days, craning to look up from cobblestone streets.

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From left, every other house: bell gable, neck gable, pointed gable

I can only imagine how steep the staircases inside must be. Hotel Museumzicht gave us a good indication. This lodging was a great spot to watch tourists come and go from the Rijksmuseum and play on the iconic I Amsterdam letters as we ate breakfast and planned our wanderings for the day.

 

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We walked by poems waiting to be finished.

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Old buildings with sun-kissed bricks.

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Tulips like lipstick shades.

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Bicycles everywhere: parked, ridden, dodged. Apparently there are about 600 000 bikes in Amsterdam on a given day. We didn’t dare bike in the city but we took a lovely excursion to the country which I’ll write about later.

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The holy and the profane keep company mere steps from each other. We walked towards the Oude Kirk (city’s oldest church, built in 1213) in broad daylight to stumble upon women in windows scantily clad, a red light emanating above the glass. Hello Red Light District.

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Oude Kirk

Whereas the Red Light District is easy to find, the Anne Frank House (turned into a museum) is remarkably camouflaged. The tour guide on our nighttime canal boat tour pointed it out and I would be hard pressed to find it again. No distinct gable or sign. The only giveaway is the often long line. Visiting the house is a sobering, moving experience well worth the wait. I had reread Anne’s diary upon arriving in Amsterdam and many of the quotes from it were projected on the walls. You get to walk behind the moveable bookcase into the cramped quarters of the Secret Annex where the Franks, along with four other Jews, hid for two years before being anonymously betrayed to the Nazis. I reflected in my journal afterwards that it was heavy but also hopeful. The haunting words of a thirteen-year-old girl have left their mark on the world.

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Anne Frank’s House is the one right in the middle with the straight roof and tree in front.

Right around the corner, near the Westerkerk (West Church) is a sight with a very different mood. Irreverent Dutch humour at its best.

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Frites stand parodying Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel

Amsterdam closed out our trip to Europe, and it was a great place to end. People were friendly, food was delicious, art was incredible, and the city was easily walkable. I’m obviously not featuring the cities we visited in order because Nice and Venice are still to come, but hopefully you enjoyed some snapshots of the fascinating place that is Amsterdam.

The Look of Light

Before I move on to other cities from our trip, I remember I had written prior to visiting Paris that Adam Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon “makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.”

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Sunrise on the morning commute

Apart from the day after we arrived when jet lag didn’t wake us until 1:30pm (!), our days were full of walking different neighbourhoods; visiting art galleries, historic sites, and monuments; eating baguettes, macarons, galettes, crêpes; ordering a café crème and deciding I DID like coffee as long as there was sugar in it; taking pictures of colourful doors and narrow streets, returning to our Airbnb exhausted in the best kind of way.

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A former train station, Musée d’Orsay is filled with Impressionist paintings. Our favourite museum in Paris.

As much as I could on a first trip to Paris, I tried to pause, to really look around me, to appreciate the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the juxtaposition of old and new, sacred and secular, to follow my favourite Impressionist painters in looking for the light. Here are some of those moments.

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Strolling through Luxembourg Gardens with a view of the Pantheon

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Couples dance to live music in Montmartre. This scene for me captured Paris at its most romantic.

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The love lock bridge is gone but that doesn’t stop people from decorating the posts of Le Post des Arts.

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I could care less about the Forum shopping mall but the ceiling fascinated me.

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The enchanting Notre Dame

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Classic V-shaped building and wide boulevards from the Haussmann era of Paris’s city planning

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This boy stopped so I could get a picture of the door but I like it better with him in it.

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The light on this galette (like a crêpe but made with buckwheat flour) makes it look even more divine! One of the best things I ate.

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Dinosaur meets Eiffel Tower

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Backside of Basilica du Sacré-Coeur. Did you know it has a pig gargoyle?

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Hotel de Sully in the fashionable Marais district

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The golden hour hitting the extravagant Palais Garnier (opera house)

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I have a thing for red doors, and architecture that melds in interesting ways.

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A decadent visit to Ladurée on Les Champs-Élysées

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If this is what Sainte Chapelle looked like on a grey day, imagine if the sun was streaming through all that stained glass.

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The view from L’Arc de Triomphe is magnificent in all directions.

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La Madeleine meets Calvin Klein. Unfortunately this kind of juxtaposition was a common sight.

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Moonlight over the Louvre. Bonne nuit, Paris.

Finding the Human Form

I finished an excellent book this weekend, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. There is so much I want to say about it because it made me think deeply and differently about architecture. What I appreciated is that the author actually attempts to explain the psychology behind why we find certain buildings beautiful and how beauty is linked to goodness and, ultimately, happiness. More on that another week.

One of the chapters entitled “Talking Buildings” discusses how abstract sculptures convey meaning. Understanding how simple steel, concrete, or wood objects speak can help us understand how larger-scale objects (like houses and buildings) convey meaning through the arrangement of 3-D materials into form.

de Botton argues that everyday objects speak to us—whether it be a chair, a window, an arch, a lamp—because even though inanimate, these objects tell us something about being human. These objects have human forms hidden in their wood, concrete, glass, metal, etc.

To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of a creature of human we dimly recognise in its elevation—just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on living form. What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.

We recognize the human form in the slightest hint of an abstract object. We take slender legs of an antique table for a feminine, elegant character, and a wide, solid armchair as a stout, stubbornly old man.

an elegant, refined soul with a propensity for heels

old and set in his ways

Since reading the book, I’m having fun analyzing the objects in my apartment. What does my couch/reading chair/coffee table/lamp/bookcase say about what/whom I find attractive? Which of my friends would represent these objects?

So when walking around VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver today, I had my eye out for the human forms portrayed in the abstract art exhibit Touch Wood scattered throughout the 50 acres of gardens. The 20+ pieces were built by BC artists and made of salvaged, recycled, or scavenged wood to reflect the garden’s environmental mandate (you can read all about the award-winning architecture of the new petal-shaped visitor centre here.)

VanDusen Botanical Gardens’ Visitor Centre

It wasn’t difficult to find the human form in these sculptures, since many are explicitly made to look like humans.

I initially read “Confidence” to mean “someone who’s confident” but I couldn’t really find signs of this attribute in the figures. Then when I looked at it again when going over my photos, I interpreted it more as meaning “In confidence.” The two forms leaning in towards one another slightly—woman on the left with a curvy profile; taller man on the right with a rectangular profile.

The man and woman are given the same weight though. When I say weight, I mean mass or presence. Both hold their own, sharing a secret tryst in the woods as equals. In this way, maybe they also embody “confidence” whilst sharing something in confidence.

“Nine Sentinels” was one of my favourites. Sentinel: “a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch.”

I couldn’t help but recall the Council of Elrond in Lord of the Rings, a circular gathering to decide the fate of the ring where tall and slender, distinguished characters like Elrond collide with bulbous balls of stocky energy like Gimli.

Elrond in the foreground; Gimli behind

Elrond

Gimli

Gimli

Speaking of councils, this next one displayed on the Great Lawn is called “Council of Elders,” although I still think the LOTR connection is more pronounced in “Nine Sentinels.” These elders look older, wiser, more distinguished, more uniform, like they’d have less disagreements. I picture some of them with capes.

“Archetype” reminds me of the mannequins you see in clothing stores, waiting to be dressed; a blank slate from which to start the creative process. Archetype: “a very typical example of a certain person or thing” or to go Jungian on you because I think it might apply here: “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” Even the gender isn’t as apparent in this work. We look at this piece and we immediately recognize the human form, even without the head. It shows we don’t need all the parts to make a comprehensive whole. We read symbols all the time and draw conclusions.

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There were many more sculptures but unfortunately my camera battery died on me halfway through my walk, but I think the examples above give you an idea of how the human form exists in “non-human” materials like wood. de Botton paraphrases from psychoanalytic critic Adrian Stokes who offered an interpretation of Barbara Hepworth’s Two Segments and a Sphere. Stokes’ conclusion, de Botton writes, is that

if a sculpture touches us . . . it may be because we unconsciously understand it as a family portrait. The mobility and chubby fullness of the sphere subtly suggest to us a wriggling fat-cheeked baby, while the rocking ample forms of the segment have echoes of a calm, indulgent, broad-hipped mother. We dimply appreciate in the whole a central theme of our lives. We sense a parable in stone about motherly love.

Two Segments and a Sphere by Barbara Hepworth. 1936.

What parables do the objects around you speak about?

the people are the city

The Wall on the CBC Plaza, Vancouver

“the people are the city” by Paul de Guzman, 2013

 

red letters by Charlene Kwiatkowski

 

on Hamilton Street in Yaletown

red letters on a concrete wall

reach me with their lower-case lives

 

not big enough to record in history books

but big enough to stop me

a traffic light on the street

 

that’s me on the ladder

that’s you measuring the frame

that’s him showing us where to lay the beam

 

we are building on a building

stories in a story

texts on an architext

 

isn’t this an image of us all

working on our lower-case lives

carpenter clothes like lab coats

 

experimenting with an idea

incomplete, we can’t see

but we dream dream dream

 

the excitement is building

the building is excitement

we are the building

 

but look at all the walls

we don’t touch, talk about, or share

and this image is not at all like us

 

people work together

people work together

people work together

 

is this real or wishful thinking?

is the city plural?

are we together or are we alone together?

 

say it three times

the holy trinity of incantation

that makes the imagined real

 

read the red letters

again and again

and again

 

Description of The Wall. Click the picture for a bigger view.

The artist’s statement, which ties into my poem. Clicking on the picture will take you to a website where you can also read it.