by Sean Howard in Toronto
There is next to no public space in St James Town. The most densely populated community in all of Canada has no public land. So when Poonam Sharma and Community Matters wanted to create an art installation, they had to gain approval from the owner of the towers. No easy feat. But they persisted, first with a small trial project and then with another until, some years later, they have a number of art projects across the properties we call St James Town.
Poonam Sharma is hard to say no to. She has devoted her life and art to engaging local communities through the folk art and rich traditions that are to be found amongst Toronto’s highly diverse immigrant communities. For one of her latest installations, The Mosaic Project, she teamed up with the St James Town based organization Community Matters. Seven artists worked together to create an intricate mural on an exposed stairwell in St James Town.
Poonam designed the mural to represent eight different traditional folk arts, uniting them into one mural while keeping each distinct. She chose the eight, mostly South Asian folk arts, as they best represented the cultural heritages that make up the St James Town community. Having seven artists was a critical part of Poonam’s approach. It was about getting people in the community to be witness to the art and the artists.
Pressure on Folk Artists
Poonam sees many pressures on folk artists. Folk art is often a private or family endeavor kept behind closed doors. She wanted to bust through this and show that folk art is something to cherish and be proud of.
One of the artists was quite uncertain about participating and not used to working in public, let alone showing her art to the wider community. Poonam told her to just come for one day and see how she felt.
She came and stayed for all 25 days. She cried when the project was complete as she had nothing to work on now. Poonam grows animated as she recalls telling her collaborator, “Why not!? Apply for stuff!”
Poonam was not the only one to get excited. So many in the community expressed interest and even support for the art and artists involved. It forged new relationships and created something that the community now cherishes. Poonam takes this as a great example of the many benefits of projects like these.
It took over 25 days to complete the mural. At the beginning, people gathered on their balconies to watch. As the days progressed many came down to approach the artists or look at a side they couldn’t see from their apartment. One elderly couple even watched over the piece at night from a nearby balcony, calling out to the artists each morning as they resumed their work.
Poonam calls herself a contemporary folk artist. Her love of traditional arts has led her to learn much about the many disciplines of ancient folk arts, but she wants to use these skills in a new way – to bridge issues and bring communities together. It was a joy to spend some time with her and also to see some of her other pieces hidden around the densely packed towers lifting up into the sky on all sides of us.
Neighbourhood of Nations
One of the daunting things about St James Town is how to enter the place if you don’t live there. Most of the points of entry are private driveways clearly marked for resident use only.
At one of these private entrances is another large mural titled “Neighborhood of Nations.” It was created by Poonam Sharma, Catherine Tammaro and Michael Cavanaugh and tells the story of early Irish Immigrants, Native American culture and the current journey of immigrants arriving to Toronto.
Poonam yearns to see more art on every shared surface in St James Town that tells the story of this diverse and vibrant, but underserved, immigrant community.
This piece is part of a larger series called the "Intercity Project". Sean Howard describes it as a publication "for all the in-between spaces of Toronto — those communities lost to or ignored by politicians, developers and even city planners." He started by speaking to artists in these neighbourhoods, but is open to other voices as well. Find more of his work at medium.com/intercity-toronto.