1 Squirrel, 1 Station, 3 Songs

18 January 2015 – The squirrel comes first, and he is just a passing amusement.

1 Squirrel

This Saturday, I am making tracks (pun intended) for the downtown train station.

But who can resist a fluffy little black squirrel, intent on his morning English muffin?

black squirrel, at breakfast

Let us hope it is multi-grain, & transfat-free.

On to the train station.

1 Station

If you can find it.

Union Station, Front & Bay

Union Station opened in 1927, a grand Beaux Arts style building for the still-golden age of steam. It is now undergoing massive restoration & expansion, designed to honour that heritage while meeting our 21st-c. needs. (With a price tag approaching $1-billion, we wish the project great success.)

Revitalization plans also include art partnerships, both temporary and continuing, as the Get On Board website points out. Talk about audience: some 250,000 people use that station each day. Then there’s the environment for the art — the architecture, the sheer scale & sweep of space within the facility. (This Great Hall photo from Get On Board.)

Great Hall, Union Station, work underway

Mind, no matter what you do, some people just want to find their train (or commuter train, or subway, or bus) and get out of there. This man is intent on the VIA (national train) schedule, and oblivious to the luminous grey sphere behind him.

in Great Hall, Union Station

He is equally unaware of the face floating overhead …

Villa Toronto art, Union Station

… and of the wall of artwork erected beneath that floating face.

Villa Toronto, Union Station

But hundreds of other people are paying attention. And that’s why I’m here, too.

Saturday, 17 January, is the first full day of Villa Toronto — “a roving art event [says the brochure] that moves from city to city every couple of years.” It includes talks and performances in some partner venues around town (including the Art Gallery of Ontario, I am happy to say), but the great heart of it all is here, in the equally great Great Hall of Union Station.

The first Villa was held in a real villa — in Warsaw, in 2006. The name has stuck, but venue and city keep moving on: Reykjavik in 2010, Tokyo in 2011, and now Toronto. Each time, it is a collaboration between Warsaw’s Galeria Raster and other galleries and institutions to engage with the general public and with the local / international art community. Each Villa has free admission, and is installed somewhere that allows easy access to large numbers of people. (Hence Union Station.)

So here we are, people like me who have come for the experience, and regular railway station users, people passing through, people pausing to enjoy what they unexpectedly find spread before them.

Villa Toronto, Union Station

Sometimes we step into cubicles, as here, where tree shadows dance beneath the Great Hall ceiling. Sometimes we walk around a towering sculpture, juxtaposed with a stairwell — this one leading to and from trains, busses, retail & the subway system.

Villa Toronto, Union Station

We cock an ear to a sound installation, or we linger for the cheerful confessions of an autobiographical  video.

Villa Toronto, Union Station

I am about to head out. And I am about to miss the very best installation of all.

But then I remember that I promised some schedule information to my AGO colleague & friend, Chloe. A pleasant Union Station employee gives me the stats; we get talking about Villa Toronto; he says yes, a lot of people seem to be enjoying the art.

Then he points to a vivid little painting, propped on a very small easel, on the edge of a stairwell. “Did you see that one?” he asks. I confess that I’d missed it. He seems particularly amused as he leads me to it. This mystifies me, until he explains.

And then I insist on taking his picture, with the painting.

the unofficial Villa Toronto entry, with its sponsor

“My daughter painted that for me. She’s eleven.”

I am stunned. “Your daughter is showing in Villa Toronto?” He grins. “Well… she is now!” He’s keeping a close eye on it, of course, and it will go home with him at day’s end.

I am absolutely enchanted. Yes, it is unauthorized, but it is also, surely, a fine example of Villa ideals: art freely available, engagement with the public, and the creation of an art community.

I also like the painting. The girl has just been offered a place in an arts-centred school here in the city, an opportunity I think she well deserves.

“I love you dad. Don’t ask for the fish!”

On the back, it says: “I love you dad. Don’t ask for the fish!”

Love it.

3 Songs

I am so proud. In this blog I have very occasionally referred to my partner, sometimes by name (Nigel), but I have not talked about him.

Nigel Gordon, in performance in Toronto

Now you can learn more. He is the subject of a 12 January 2015 post on the TED Blog, one element of the TED not-for-profit organization that began with a conference in 1984, and now uses many platforms and more than 100 languages to share “ideas worth spreading” around the globe.

Nigel listens to an online TED talk daily, and — wearing his singer/songwriter hat — has composed songs sparked by some of those talks, including a very moving one about Malala Yousafzai (which has been endorsed by the Malala Fund).

Click on the Nigel Gordon post, where you can read about the talks that inspired him, visit those talks, and — best of all — listen to all three songs.

Leave a comment


  1. Another wonderful mini-travelogue/art guide! And now, off to read about Nigel…

  2. I love the mini paintings story…and that delightful fluffy squirrel….all too cute for words Penny!

  3. Thank you Penny – will look at the link. I just imagined you walked and walked and penned your experiences – It is wonderful that art is open to the public.
    Have recently seen the Rembrandt – his later years – exhibition at the National Gallery – what a mast of light! Our Group is stepping back in time in tune with London Exhibitions – the next one is Rubens

    • What wonderful shows you have coming up! The next at the AGO will be Basquat — far cry from Rembrandt or Rubens — though we’ve just closed a show of Michelangelo drawings, so there is a range…

      • We also have travelling exhibitions in Southampton – there is one from the Tate featuring Louise Bourgeious who made a huge spider for the opening of Tate Modern

      • Travelling exhibitions do a lot for a community, don’t they? They bring new energy, and they strengthen our connections with other people, other places.

      • Yes and it does mean that here people not able to get to London or one of the bigger cities have a chance to see quality work.

  4. A post with a lot of issues close to my heart! First squirrels – they are amazing and annoying and I love your photo.
    Secondly the construction at Union station – I commute by GO and these past few years have been horrible although I’m sure it will be great if we survive the construction…the art instillations however are a gift and I so admire the proud Dad/employee who added his daughters piece – thanks for that delightful story.
    Thirdly – your Nigel and his songs!! I laughed and was moved by his clever lyrics and the obvious joyous passion. The anthem to Malala has to be heard more widely – I did post it on Facebook but I’m not a big Facebook person myself so I’ll talk it up wherever I go.


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    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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