20 October 2018 – What do you do when the real keeps crashing into the surreal? If you are Edward Burtynsky, you document it.

This Canadian photographer & artist has been doing so for a while, mostly recently with his enormous multi-media project, Anthropocene — in collaboration with Nicholas de Pencier & Jennifer Baichwal — now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I have loved Burtynsky’s large-scale, high-resolution photographs of human impact on the earth (“built landscapes”) since I first saw a show of his works at the AGO during its 2008 expansion — and as a result decided to become a Gallery volunteer.

Here he is again.

The show is epic. And it deals with an epic new stage in human history. As Burtynsky points out on his webpage devoted to this project:

The Holocene epoch started 11,700 years ago as the glaciers of the last ice age receded. Geologists and other scientists from the Anthropocene Working Group believe that we have left the Holocene and entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. Their argument is that humans have become the single most defining force on the planet and that the evidence for this is overwhelming.

When your skills and technology allow you to view our impact at something approaching its true scale, real does indeed merge with surreal.

I walk about, disoriented once again by the way large-scale destruction can often look so beautiful.

Is this a Georgia O’Keefe flower painting?

No. It is Phosphor Tailings # 5 near Lakeland, Florida.

Is this a Renaissance tapestry?

No. It is waste at the Morenci copper mine, Clifton Arizona.

Are these snail shells?

Again, no. This is Uralkali Potash Mine #4, Berezniki, Russia.

Other confusions are also possible, and more charming.

My one-time AGO colleague and continuing good friend Cyndie joins me. She leads me to this video of coal trains coming & going.

A visitor told Cyndie about standing here with her young son, someone who had heard his parents discussing jazz giant John Coltrane. “Look!” cried the child. “Coal train!”

The technology on display, and the skills of those using that technology, are staggering. Huge scale, huge depth of field, and razor-sharp focus. Here’s another sweeping view of the land and a phosphor trailings pond near Lakeland, Florida …


and, look, here is a croc, sunning himself at pond-edge.

Sometimes, the team is able to document “good anthropocene.”

Take this short video sequence shot by Baichwal and de Pencier in Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island.

Before …

and — boom! — after.

All good.

So-called “danger trees” — ones that through age and other frailties pose danger to workers and visitors — are routinely exploded. Their debris settles back to the forest floor, hastening the return of their nutrients to the soil.

More good anthropocene — a thriving coral reef lying more than 18 metres underwater in Komodo National Park, a World Heritage Site in Indonesia.

As we walk out, I tug Cyndie over to the huge work hanging by the exhibition entrance, one I have always loved in the AGO’s permanent collection.

With that coral reef still dancing in my mind, I suddenly know why this glorious work by Québécois master Jean-Paul Riopelle …

is such an appropriate visual introduction to the show.




Good-bye, TDOT

14 March 2018 – The visit ends as it began. With a great visual punch of art.

But, this time, not street art!

Contrary to what I may have led you to believe, not all of Toronto’s art is on the street. Some of it is on walls — interior walls, you understand,  and sometimes visible only by paid admission. Really.

I spend my last day in Toronto — indeed, I am en route the airport — at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The architecture and exhibitions come second to the power of memory and the joy of seeing old friends and former colleagues.

Mind you, as “second” goes, it’s first-rate.

I visit the Burning Forest …

La Forêt ardente, Jean Paul Riopelle, part of the Mitchell/Riopelle exhibition …

wander through the Narcissus Garden

one installation in Yayoi Kusama’s multi-floor exhibition …

and drink my latte under a bright winter sky in the AGO’s Galleria Italia café.


All that skyscape is curated into multiple images by the lines and curves of Frank Gehry‘s architectural magic, a fitting tribute by this native son to his home town — indeed, his home neighbourhood.

Over the years, one weekly shift after another, I nursed my coffee-break lattes under these soaring arcs, exposed to the weather visually but protected from it physically, and so free to enjoy its every mood.

One more latte, this time as a visitor. The perfect end to the perfect final day of my visit.

And I’m off to the airport, and home.


Art & Art, High & Low

17 April 2017 – I’m not too sure about that “high & low” distinction, but I stand by “art & art.”

And every molecule of it breathes Toronto.

Henry Moore’s Two Forms, for example, an icon of the Art Gallery of Ontario, long resident at the AGO’s N/E corner (and due to be relocated to Grange Park).

Fine art, “high art,” that inside the Gallery would be guarded & untouchable.

Out here on the street corner, it is beloved by all, stroked by all, sat upon & slid through by many, and never vandalized — except by all that love. “It’s worn through to the rivets,” a conservator once told me ruefully. “One of these days, we’ll have to have it repatinated.”

Inside the AGO, I revisit one of my favourite rooms, a quiet little room tucked away in a corner of the 2nd floor, housing only two works by Inuk artist Jacoposie Oopakak.

I love the simplicity of the caribou skull, title Family, its antlers delicately carved with images of people, a family tree.

I love, too, the painted line of caribou slanting down the wall, refracted by the case to dance with the skull as they walk and keep it company.

I’m back outside again, dog-leg into an alley just N/W of McCaul & Dundas — and look at this!

Street art featuring a high-minded quote by a brand-name thinker.

(Ignore her. She is not contemplating the art. She’s on her cell with her boyfriend, comparing their respective holiday weekends.)

I am impressed. I look up the Voltaire quote later on, back home. Many sources agree, it’s by our man Voltaire all right. One disagrees. Nah: Pierre de Beaumarchais said this in 1775, while working on the 2nd scene, 1st act, of Le Barbier de Séville. (Well, strictly speaking, no. What he said was: “Aujourd’hui ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d’être dit, on le chante.”

Really? I have no idea. Click here & decide for yourself.

Or ignore all that, and instead contemplate this next bit of alley-art philosophy, cheek-by-jowl with M. Voltaire/deBeaumarchais. No authorship dispute here: it’s the work of Blaze Wiradharma.

We are spoiled for choice. We can say something, sing something … or just spray it instead.



3 February 2017 – These days, my favourite corner in the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) is, literally, a corner.

This corner — in gallery 229, Canadian permanent collection, 2nd floor.

detail, Gallery 229, AGO

I visit it when I’m walking my beat on shift; I return outside shift hours (e.g. today), just to spend more time with it.

Above all, for me, it’s the wolves.

No. Above all, for me, it’s the electricity between the wolves. Their stance, their gaze, their fierce connection, frames the corner, defines the space.  I cannot, cannot, break that force-field & walk between them. I always go around.

The signage includes a comment by curator Wanda Nanabush, along with the usual artist information.

sign for McEwen wolves, gallery 229

I have my own personal association: my Husky dog Kim, long a cherished memory but still vivid for all that. We’d walk trails and every now & then she’d freeze into exactly that posture, intensely focused on the messages flooding into her brain through nose & ears.

Every time I visit the corner, I drop to my knees behind one wolf or the other, sight down the spine & between the ears as if down a gun barrel, to see as he sees. (I did that once with Kim, walking a trail in Banff National Park. Aligned between her ears, thankfully quite distant, I saw a bear. He, like Kim, was on full alert. We all chose to back up and walk away.)

the McEwen wolves, gallery 229, AGO

One of my favourite paintings in the entire Gallery hangs on the north wall, within the wolves’ triangle of protection.

Aforim, by Rita Letendre

This time the artist herself comments on the work.

signage for Aforim

Here again, I bring my own personal association to the image. I look at this, and I see Lake Ontario from the eastern end of The Beaches, with sky & water married at the horizon in shimmering blue-grey light. I no longer remember if I brought familiarity with Lake Ontario to the painting, or if, one day, I stood at the lake and saw it through the painting.

It doesn’t matter. Each time I visit one, it dances with the other.

The wolves & Rita Letendre are so comfortable with the corner’s third element that I was immediately comfortable as well. Even though I’d never heard of this artist.

Folia #1 and #2, gallery 229

The first time I saw it, I just cocked my head and enjoyed myself. It was maybe my third or forth visit before I got around to reading the signage.

sign for Kubota's Folia Series #1 and #2

Zen Buddhism and wrinkles on the brain. That makes me enjoy the work even more.

My visit today was after my shift, so I could linger as much as I liked. Which I did.

And then I turned to go, with a last look back over my shoulder …

one wolf, with Aforim behind

a last salute to the vigilance of the wolves.



Mood Misty, Mood Indigo

10 January 2016 – A Saturday walk to and from Yorkville, with gallery-hopping in between. The gallery-hopping is great fun, a group activity with volunteer colleagues from the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario).

The to-and-from is also fun, albeit a solo engagement with real-life tonalities and a much more limited colour palette.

Going up: the muted shades, not just of winter, but also of mist. No “bright blue sky” today! Instead …

lane nr Sherbourne & Dundas

This alley is near home, & one of my favourites. I love the rippling warmth of the old brick on that corner building; I love the care & pride of the residents. Never a scrap of litter; minimal but thoughtful landscaping (the conifer, the rocks, the red barrel that, in summer, bursts with geraniums). Always, too, the signs of active lives — a shining motorcycle just out of frame, and someone’s canoe, tidily racked half-way up a building while it awaits summer.

Later I cut through Wellesley-Magill Park. More near-monochrome, but look at all the texture.

Wellesley-Magill Park, looking west

Veined shrub leaves, in their winter-ochre; crunchy gravel up & down the scale of grey; dark shiny rocks; Ed Pien’s Forest Walk fence with its ribbons of colour toward the rear; pale, strong-lined condos beyond that.

And on, and on some more to Yorkville, to my friends and our visits and chatter — both in the galleries and over tea, coffee & treats later on.

It’s not late when I start back home, about 5 p.m., but we are still caught in short winter days, and the light is already yielding to dusk.

By the time I reach Bloor & Yonge, dusk owns the sky.

One Bloor East condo tower, from the west

I put away my camera, and hike on home.

Basquiat on Bathurst (In a pawn shop)

23 February 2015 – Basquait is not top-of-mind on Saturday morning, though in general he is very much in my mind, since the Art Gallery of Ontario has just opened a spectacular retrospective of his work.

Top-of-mind is the weather: it is mild, and very grey, and snowing. It looks like this.

College TTC streetcar, at St. George

You see? I need colour. That’s why I’m trundling west in a College Street streetcar, heading for a couple of small art galleries up Bathurst Street, near Dupont. I pity the streetcar drivers, and private car drivers as well …

shovelling, Bathurst nr Dupond

… digging themselves clear. But I’m just fine, I’m in my tall Sorel boots, veterans of the Canadian Arctic, I can mush through anything.

If you ignore all the inconveniences that come with a snowfall, it is also very pretty. It highlights line & shape, turns everything into a sculpture. Quite Mondrian, this grid-composition of stairway framed by gate & narrow laneway walls.

lane east side of Bathurst, south of Dupont

That could even be quite a Mondrian-inspired punch of yellow, bottom left. (Sorry, it’s a snow shovel.)

In & out of a couple of art galleries, good art, well displayed, why am I not more grateful? I don’t really perk up until I see this pawn shop window. Specifically, what stands between the bird house & the Mike’s Hard Lemonade advertisement.

Annex Pawn front window, 1044 Bathurst

I am now fully perked-up. I go in. I must here confess that I’m not yet registering the mannequin’s Basquiat references. I’m drawn by the torso’s vibrant energy and — once I’m inside — gob-smacked by the abundance & eclecticism of Annex Pawn. It’s definitely “more than a junk shop” as its slogan promises, and I’m not surprised when staff later tell me it’s also more of a consignment store than pawn shop.

I do wander around — Lalique & Tiffany here, war memorabilia there, neon signs & a knight in shining armour & vinyl records & guitars (including a Fender Stratocaster) & vintage clothes & art & stuff & stuff — and then I make my way back to that front window mannequin. When I ask permission to photograph it, the young saleswoman points out it is a tribute to Basquiat.

back, Basquiat-style mannequin

A piece of found art, she says: brought in by someone at multiple degrees of separation from whoever so lovingly painted it. And, presumably, who also composed the tribute poem on the bright green thigh. (“I searched online, but couldn’t find the poem,” she adds.)

tribute poem to Basquiat on mannequin thigh

By now, of course, I can see the Basquiat style & imagery.

The face on the other thigh, for example …

image on Basquiat-style mannequin

… jumps at me again the very next day, when my partner & I spend hours in the AGO exhibition. There it is — identified as Untitled, 1981 —  large & powerful, bursting from the gallery wall.

This is a tough act to follow!

Good thing I next discover Weird Things, still on Bathurst & just a bit farther south. “It is a place with all the weird things you need,” promises its Facebook page. The first thing I notice isn’t all that weird, but it sure is colourful.

piano in Weird Things, 998 Bathurst

I ask owner Jonathan Peterson, a cheerful face through a little hatch at the back of the space, if this is one of the Pan Am Games “Play Me” pianos. No. It’s one that he himself painted, commissioned by TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) for an event. “When they finished with it, they gave it back. I store it here — it’s too big for anywhere else.”

We talk a whole range of things, from piano art, to 19th-c pottery urns (Farrar a name we both quote), to keeping frisky kittens out of Bathurst Street traffic, to Soviet-era cartoon characters.

Really! Not a topic I would have thought to raise, except I am fingering my way through a tin box full of bright enamelled pins. I comment they seem like Disney characters, only .. well … to borrow the adjective … weird. By now Jonathan has emerged from the hatch & we’re exploring the pins together.

“A local guy brought them in, didn’t know anything about them. Later a Russian guy identified them — Soviet TV cartoon characters got their start when a Russian artist saw some American cartoons around the end of World War Two, and went from there.” Beavers with chain saws, rabbits with scary black eyes, very stylish bears & roosters, some sweet folklore characters, and — Jonathan singles him out — the wolf who started it all. (Think of Disney’s Pluto, gone bad.) Check out Nu Pogodi.

So I am having a very good time, I am highly entertained, and I decide that my Arctic boots & I will keep on mushing for a while yet.

Past bikes turned Bike Art.

Bathurst St. bike in the snow

Eventually down an alley near Bloor, between Bathurst & Albany. From Bloor, it looks promising …

alley n. of Bloor between Bathurst & Albany

… but no, it disappoints me. To my eye it looks like the original murals have been (my judgmental word) vandalized with tags by other hands over the lower half. Vandalism or not, the later additions certainly destroy the coherence of the original work. I am somewhat cranky by the time I reach the Albany end.

And then I laugh, & cheer up.

Albany end of lane between Bathurst & Albany n. of Bloor

Oh, thank you Matthew Del Degan and your “lovebot” campaign! This particular random act of kindness has just worked its magic.

The artist had planned to add a lot more lovebots to our streets this February, and what better month to choose. He seems to have achieved his goal. By now I’m around the corner, on Bloor West near Spadina, and look.

Over there, across the street, snugged up next to Lee’s Palace of alternative & rock music.

lovebot south side of Bloor West nr Spadina

By now I am so pleased with the world, I don’t even snarl at the signs on the fence around this very private club, firmly telling non-members to keep out.

I just admire the snow on the fence.

fence around Bloor West private club

I suspect they’d like the beauty of their snow also to be available only to members, but HAH … it’s right there for all of us to enjoy.

Street Art, Streetscape, & Some Shameless Self-Promotion

16 March 2014 — Oh, what the heck. If I’m going to be shameless, I might as well go whole hog, and put myself first.

Shameless Self-Promotion

I’ve just published a new Blurb book! Last time, the city’s waterfront; this time, the art of our streets & lanes. Please — go to and take a look.

Blurb book by Penny Williams

Before deciding to make this book available to the public — after all, it’s full of other people’s art — I asked the opinion of someone who works with art professionally but also “paints” (does street art), and is familiar with that community’s mind-set . The answer: no problem, go ahead.

So I have. Walking the Streets & Lanes is a celebration of work that caught my eye in 2013, and in some cases a memorial as well, for pieces that have already disappeared.

And now for yesterday’s walk, for my latest round of …

Street Art & Streetscape

It’s another take-the-streetcar-out-&-walk-back adventure. I ride west to College & Lansdowne, jump off, & head east on College.

Not immediately east. First I cross to the west side of Lansdowne, for another look at a building that the Tuesday Walking Society admired on an earlier trek.

1292 College St.

See why it deserves attention? This is 1292 College St., precisely tailored to fit its exact space, serving as both home and professional advertisement for architect Rohan Walters. He commissioned (I’m guessing it’s a commission, but that seems a safe guess) a mural by EGR to complete the look — make the building fit visually, as well as physically.

part of EGR mural at 1292 College St.

I’m just beginning to recognize her work. I should visit her website more often, and soak it in.

No trouble identifying this one! ANSER is the first artist I learned to recognize, and here he is at College & Dufferin.

ANSER, College & Dufferin

Not many side trips down alleys today, and I almost don’t walk down this one near Dovercourt at all.

Then I’m glad I did. It’s not the mural on the building side wall that snags my eye, it’s this enigmatic message at the back, half-obscured by litter & signed © TP 13.

wall message off College nr Dovercourt

How extraordinary. What a discovery, in such a grotty alley.

Extraordinary because so unexpected. This next image is extraordinary for every reason you can imagine. Just look at it, blazing up the side wall of The Slow Room (near Ossington), one of the city’s newer espresso bars.

Bruxas, 874 College

It’s signed Fiya Shalak Bruno Smoky Bruxas. That’s Fiya & Shalak (the Bruxas Crew, aka Fiya Bruxa & Shalak Attack) and Bruno Smoky. This mural looks very new. I think (but I’m not certain) that it replaces an earlier “Bruxas” mural, a tribute to Frida Kahlo, by the two women.

Next, something that is more streetscape than street art, though art is also involved — both the art of the cinema, and the sheer physical art of locking those letters into place.

new movies at The Royal, 608 College St.

The Royal is an indie movie theatre at College & Clinton, and Missy Letter-Wrangler is making sure we know the three current offerings: Ernest & Célestine for the kiddies, plus A Field in England and American Hustler for the older crowd. (I always wondered how they got those letters up there. Now I know.)

I walk down one more alley, this time a long one dropping south from College to Dundas St. West, parallel to Palmerston. It’s full of garages, so I am hopeful.

Alas. Lots of tags, door after door, but I can’t interpret them and don’t find them interesting. Then I see this…

garage art, alley e. of Palmerstone between College & Dundas West

I slide my eyes past the large, crude message & read the artist’s own message, small & precisely lettered: “As the storm passed and the sea mellowed.. they realized their mistake”

What’s really got my attention, though, is the imagery. I like it for itself, but I’m also struck by its resemblance to the series of boat sculptures by celebrated Inuk artist Joe Talirunili. Here is one of them.

Joe Talirunili sculpture, AGO collection

This piece is in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the photo is from the AGO website. See below in CLICK!! for more information.

One last hit on Dundas, before I yield to the temptations of a passing streetcar at the Bathurst St. stop, and take the lazy way home.

gate at Dundas & Bathurst

A double hit, actually. The peacock mural is signed K. Won, and so is the mailbox next door.

mailbox, same K. Won artist, at Bathurst & Dundas West

And then I grab a streetcar. It’s getting cold out here…



    "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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