On a quiet street nestled in the Dufferin Grove community, two neighbouring homes have one thing in common: a quaint, little box planted on their front lawn. The first one on Rusholme Road is a street library, with rows of books just waiting to be read. And mere steps away on the next lawn sits a pole-mounted, red wooden box that holds a miniature piece of art. Peering inside, the box is filled with milkweed seed fluff and hand-cast letters on the inner three walls that reads, “I thought you were solid but you’re just fluff.”
The two wooden boxes sit side-by-side in harmony, inviting curious passersby to stop and stare. But they are two very different projects. While most people are acquainted with the Little Free Library boxes scattered in many places around the city, the mini-galleries are relatively new and not as prolific – yet.
“We would certainly like to expand,” says multimedia artist Erika James, who along with fellow artist Scott McDermid formed the Open Field Collective, a volunteer project that lets the community engage with contemporary art on residential streets.
Currently, there are nine ‘Street Projects’ or mini galleries west of Spadina Avenue, and a student-developed piece at King Edward Junior and Senior Public School at Bathurst and College streets. James says they are looking to move into Scarborough and two boxes will be heading to Guelph in the spring. They are also planning to curate poets and writers.
The art installations are placed in neighbourhoods where people can easily access them, James says. “We want to bring different types of art to the general public.”
“The idea is to bring art to people, rather than having people go to art,” says co-director McDermid. “This brings it right into neighbourhoods where people are just going about their everyday lives.”
The ‘School Kids Project’ gallery is an experiment that has turned out to be a rewarding side project, McDermid says. As James explains, the box, which resides in the schoolyard, is donated to the school and students and staff program it based on their curriculum.
Check the map below for a current list of project locations, or click here for a mobile-friendly link.
The mini-galleries are reminiscent of boxed assemblages by 20th-Century American artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell, who created his pieces from found objects. But for McDermid, his gallery box idea came to life after seeing the rural mailboxes on Manitoulin Island.
“I started looking for the mailboxes that showed signs of creativity, which a lot of them do – they’re almost like sculptural pieces – and I thought how would that translate in the city.”
The curious case of the Little Free Library
While the street libraries have been around longer, McDermid says he had the gallery box idea “before those Little Free Libraries popped up” but once they came on the scene, it “legitimatized” his idea.
But that doesn’t stop people from thinking the art box is another street library. Barbara Lamb, one of the homeowners who hosts an installation on her front lawn – the same street that houses a book box – says sometimes people think the art box is one of the libraries.
“They walk past and then do a double-take and come back again when they see it’s something different,” Lamb recollects. She even saw someone try to open the box, and another time, leave two books on top of it.
Zoe Levitt, another homeowner who also has mini-gallery on her front lawn, says people are always confusing it with the book box, but she doesn’t mind since it encourages them to “stop and look.”
A lot goes into the mini-galleries
As collective co-directors, James and McDermid curate the galleries, inviting emerging and established artists who work in a range of media, to showcase their work in the boxes. With the homeowners’ permission, the collective installs a mini-gallery on their front lawn using a fence spike on which the 4×4 box sits. But there’s a lot more groundwork that goes each curated box.
James says once a location is chosen, they must ensure the area is clear of hydro, gas or water pipes or communication cables before any digging takes place, conveniently done by the free province-wide “check before you dig” program.
Residents in love with the art boxes
The first box, which was James’ work, was installed in December of 2014, with more springing up on neighhourhood lawns last year. They are now fielding requests from enthusiastic residents who want a mini-gallery on their lawn too.
After Levitt heard about the art boxes, she contacted the collective to have one on her lawn. “I’m just crazy about the idea,” she says.
Two of her favourites so far include one of James’ artwork, and her first installation by artist Christina Kostoff, which features a sea of red flowers alongside a solitary tree. “It was just beautiful,” she says.
Levitt told her neighbour about it, but it was their eight-year-old daughter who reacted emotionally to it. “I took her out to see it [on my back] and her whole body melted into mine,” she says.
“It has taken on its own force,” James says, but adds they don’t want a congregation of boxes in the same area. “We want to spread out a little bit into other parts of the city.”
While the collective is contemplating adding more locations to other areas and moving around the current boxes, the roving art shows are never in one place for too long, rotating every six weeks. The box itself doesn’t move, but each show gets about four different locations.
“We are constantly introducing new ones. The art comes out of the box inside of a sleeve, so we don’t have to move the whole box. We just remove the art in the sleeve,” McDermid says.
Lamb has had her art box for around six months, and is currently on her fifth installation. She says it would be nice to keep the mini-gallery on her lawn, but would like someone else to enjoy it as well.
“Life is change and you can’t hang on to things, so if it moves on, that’s fine,” Lamb says.
Intimate experience with art
James says the street projects have garnered overwhelming praise and support from the community. Homeowners say having a gallery box on their lawn has been a fun experience, as they get to interact with passersby who stop and allow themselves to be consumed by art. Lamb says children ask their parents to be picked up so that they can take a closer look at what’s inside the box.
Toronto-based printmaker and fabric artist Rochelle Rubinstein, one of the project’s contributors, says the art shows “bring the gallery out of its white box and into the neighourhoods.”
“It brings all kinds of surprises, emotions and thoughts to people walking by unexpectedly. Maybe it also encourages people to go home and make some art themselves,” says Rubinstein, who has been a professional artist for around 40 years.
The neighbourhood installations offer residents an intimate way of seeing art that is far removed from what can be an intimidating and secluded gallery experience for some. And the connection is immediate since only two people can crowd around the art box at one time.
“It’s right at eye level and you’re looking right into it,” McDermid says of the boxes, which stand between three- to five-feet tall. The intimacy and the delight of an unexpected surprise could make people who don’t know a lot about art more receptive to it, he adds.
The size of the artwork also heightens the relationship and “one-on-one” connection between artist and observer. “Artists enjoy working with the [art box] because it gives them a very small, intimate and structured format to work with. [They can] create a narrative within a box,” says James.
Click through the photo gallery below for the art shows from December 2014 to present, or click here to view it on mobile.
Serendipity takes a hand
Fellow artist and contributor Heather Goodchild, who had her piece installed last fall, feels the art boxes bring people and art together serendipitously. People come across the mini-galleries “without intending to and have a chance encounter with artwork in the city,” she says.
Lamb says people often stop by her mini-gallery and frequently ask questions about the installation and what’s inside. In its own way, the Street Projects are bringing the community closer together.
“In Toronto, because it’s a big city, often people don’t have a lot of conversation with people they don’t know,” she says. Levitt feels the art boxes help people relax and “loosens their defenses.”
“I love coming home from work and biking or walking down the street and seeing people stop,” she gushes. “People [normally] don’t stop when they’re walking on a street.”
It takes a village to make things happen
As is often the case, it takes a community to build and sustain a grassroots endeavor like this one, engaging the support of artists, homeowners, resident associations, and local businesses. Along with a woodworker, the collective assembles the galleries, using donated paint and shatterproof glass.
So far, the project is partially funded by the collective, the Palmerston Area Residents’ Association and private contributions from community members. But James says they have applied for funding to the Toronto and Ontario arts councils since they want to pay the artists for their work.
“It is our complete intention to remunerate the artists that exhibit in the galleries, as we believe the artists, like those in any other field of work, should be paid for their labours,” James explains.
She says so far they haven’t been able to raise funds to pay the artists who have donated their time and creativity to craft their pieces. Like James and McDermid, who work in the collective as volunteers, it’s all about bringing people together and giving back to the community.
“If people are motivated and inspired by their surroundings, good things happen,” James says.