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Arts community rises from the ashes after fire destroys Walnut Studios

Forty-five artists are picking up the pieces after a massive fire ruined their studio spaces and some of their work, potentially derailing one of their most lucrative times of the year.

Toronto’s art spaces are already feeling the squeeze from rampant condo development, rising rents and a lack of suitable, affordable spaces, especially downtown. That’s why the loss of Walnut Studios hurts.

But the artists are heartened by the community response to their loss.

On May 19, the artists of Walnut Studios, west of downtown at 83 Walnut Ave. between King and Wellington Sts. W., woke to urgent emails that the building was ablaze. The majority of the damage was on the north side of the building, one of the city’s few open concept arts studios.

“I would say that I spent the first 48 hours crying,” said Ilene Sova, artistic director of Walnut Studios. “We’ve almost been there for 10 years, so that studio is like a second home; we have a second family there.”

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Sova and the property owner got into the studios on the following Tuesday and, after seeing the extent of the damage, it was clear the entire space will need significant repair.

“In the beginning we thought that most of artists in the south space might be able to salvage most of their things, but I don’t think that anymore. It’s pretty bad,” said Sova.

“In the summer in Toronto, it’s this really exciting time for these outdoor art expos, in particular the three big ones, the Toronto Outdoor Exhibition, the Riverdale ArtWalk, which is next week, and the Queen West Art Crawl,” said Sova. “Our artists were preparing for those, so over the winter they had been building an inventory of finished artwork for those sales, because those sales really bring them through the year economically.

“One artist, Rob Croxford, had hundreds of pieces. Some artists had 45, 50, 60; they were stockpiling for those shows and they were all burned. It’s not only loss of supplies and space, it’s also inventory.”

Katrina Schaman, who does semi-abstract landscapes using mixed media, is one of the artists who lost everything.

“It’s going to be very tough to build up another series,” she says.

“Especially in the north studio, two of the artists’ studios were completely annihilated. Mine was right beside where the fire was, so everything was destroyed by either the fire, smoke damage or water. Almost everyone in the north studio lost everything to one of those. I lost around 50 paintings that ranged in size from very small, like four-by-four-inch pieces, to very large, like 20 by 60 inches.”

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Schaman was to sell at the Riverdale ArtWalk but had to pull out of the show.

Walnut Studios has long been hailed as a place that showed artists and developers could work together. Owner Jason Martins is praised by the artists for maintaining arts space downtown, where so many others have already been displaced. As well, Walnut Studios was a very community-minded arts space and, in their time of need, many other organizations are now giving back.

As news started to spread about the fire, people responded with offers of help.

“We started getting messages from artists and people all over the city who wanted to donate art supplies, because they understood that we lost all of our tools and supplies,” says Sova.

“One of our community partners is Acme Coworking and I asked them if they could be a drop-off point. It was quite overwhelming. People just kept showing up and unloading their cars full of supplies, paint, easels, gesso, tools, everything we would need to get started. Curry’s Art Supplies offered to give us $ 5,000 in gift certificates, and Gwartzman’s Art Supplies pulled up with a large cube van of art supplies on Friday. So that has really warmed the spirit of the artists.”

Sova also heard from Mike Layton, the local city councillor.

“Right away, he moved into action to help us relocate,” she says.

Layton put Sova in touch with TAS developments and they have signed a two-year lease at 888 Dupont St. All 45 of the artists can move there, with some starting this upcoming weekend.

As well, Schaman’s sister and friends started a GoFundMe page to help the affected artists. It has already reached $ 26,000 of its $ 30,000 goal.

Despite the outpouring of support, it is going to be a long road back. This past weekend, several of the artists were at the space, finally allowed back in to try and salvage their work. On Saturday they held a “fire salvation party” to clean up any art that could be salvaged.

Carlos Delgado was one of the artists on the south side of the studio.

“I am very positive that I can recover everything. It’s going to take time. I am still trying to figure out how to remove the smell (of smoke). It’s ready for the barbecue season,” joked Delgado. “We are going to stick together and the artists from the south side are going to try to support the artists from the north side.

“We are a community and I think we are a strong community. We are going to try and keep going, and we are going to come back better.”

TORONTO STAR