Marie-Judith Jean-Louis describes herself as “a curious artist”. In addition to being a designer and artist, she also hosts Toronto Real, a podcast which comes from the ever-growing London Real Academy community, the global network of influential thinkers, activists and entrepreneurs of which I am also a founding member, and she is the founder of Toronto Urban Sketchers, a group of around 500 artists who regularly visit different areas of the city to sketch on location.
Toronto Urban Sketchers formed out of a group of artists during last summer with the mission of setting out to sketch some of the disappearing landmarks in the city of Toronto. Their project was “a way to tell the story of these landmarks from different points of views and connect with some of the history of the city”. It also has the aim of raising awareness of the effects of the disappearance of older buildings and structures, and to “express the beauty we see in the old, the historical, the disappearing traces of the city’s past”.
Last December Marie-Judith published the book Urban Sketching: Disappearing Landmarks in Toronto. It opens with the manifesto of the contributing artists:
- We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.
- Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.
- Our drawings are a record of time and place.
- We are truthful to the scenes we witness.
- We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.
- We support each other and draw together.
- We share our drawings online.
- We show the world, one drawing at a time.
One of the themes I explore on Transition Consciousness is our sense of place, and so it was great to be able to have the opportunity to speak to Marie-Judith about the concept of urban sketching, her book and her creative work in Toronto.
SR: You are not originally from Toronto. How long have you lived in the city, and what originally brought you there?
MJ: I moved in the city in 2013 just after coming from a trip to Spain where I attended my first international Urban Sketcher Symposium. We had been wanting to move to Toronto for a couple years looking for a change in lifestyle and energy. It felt like Toronto better matched our aspirations. Urban Sketching was a great way for me to explore the city and meet like minded individuals who also love arts and sketching.
For me the experience was awe. I was impressed with the diversity of the city, not that the cities lived before weren’t diverse, but they don’t compare to the diversity in Toronto. And there’s so much to explore and appreciate. It was great to connect with people who had been living in the city for a while and could inform me of various place and tell me some of the stories of the city. And I’m still learning new things about the city after having lived here for almost 3 years.
SR: I moved to São Paulo in Brazil, and for me I experienced a huge amount of culture shock. I started to use photography to explore my own sense of place in this vast metropolis. How would you describe your own experience of “sense of place” in Toronto? What does this term mean to you, and do you think it is possible to develop it through sketching?
MJ: In terms of a sense of place, I felt welcomed. I felt like there was a place for me to be myself, do what I want to do, have the resources and support I need to make things happen. I also got a better appreciation and understanding of where I come from and what I bring to the table as a new resident and I just wanted to participate in the community.
Sketching was a way for me to start connecting to the people of the city and the city itself. By sketching the city and its people I feel like I get to know them on a deeper and more personal level. I think, after a while, I also get to see opportunities to make it better by improving certain aspects of it.
SR: Where did the idea for Toronto Urban Sketchers come from? How did the group form and develop as a community?
MJ: The idea for the Toronto Urban Sketchers came from my participation to the Urban Sketching Symposium in Barcelona in 2013. A couple months before, I was introduced to the concept of urban sketching and discovered the group was composed of sketchers from all over the world. I jumped at the opportunity to learn from them and see first hand the beauty of being able to not only connect with sketchers from around the world but also observe the city from their viewpoint.
When I couldn’t find a group in Toronto where I moved, I decided to start my own. I looked for the members of the group who lived in Toronto and sent them an email to see if they would be interested in forming a group in Toronto. We met at a pub, sketched together and I put together a Facebook group and blog to start publishing all of our work. I started organizing sketching event for people to meet and also started meeting more artist in the city and soon, we started to meet on a regular basis at various locations that caught my interest. The group grew consistently and soon some people became regulars and we started to talk about ideas of things we could do together, like the book.
SR: Could you tell us a little more about your book? What was your vision for it, was there any collaborating between artists and did you have a grand plan for there to be a narrative?
MJ: The book was an idea that we came up together just to do something tangible and fun. We typically just upload pictures online but having a book seemed like a fun project and the topic of the disappearing landmark seemed appropriate, as we’re constantly surrounded by new construction in the city. The idea was to capture some of them before they disappear, as a keepsake.
There’s often articles in the media about buildings sentenced to be demolished and locals voicing their disappointment or disagreement about the decisions made by the city. Many of the sites have a lot of history and we thought it would be great to capture some of them in an illustrated book.
SR: Is the book just aimed at Toronto residents, or do you think other artists and aficionados would enjoy it as well?
MJ: The book is aimed at anyone who’s interested in art, Toronto and architecture. We’ve had comments from people who used to live in Toronto and love the idea of having a keepsake of a city that’s constantly changing. Some of the sketches brings back great memories for people who’ve been living in the city for a while and have seen the changes over the past couple years. Others who are curious about knowing more about Toronto might also be interested in this book.
SR: In addition to your book, you have also been involved in hosting exhibitions of the work of Toronto Urban Sketchers. What has the reaction been and what would you like the community to achieve in the years ahead?
MJ: The exhibition was well received. It was our first time, so we learned a lot on the way, but it was a great opportunity to showcase the work of all the participants. This also gave us the opportunity to be invited to exhibit at a show celebrating the anniversary of the city, which I suspect will also be well received. I would love for the Toronto Urban Sketchers to take an active role in the community wherever we can.
This year we’re planning to create another book on the subject of local independent coffee shops as a way to connect but also showcase what the city has to offer to anyone who’s interested in visiting. The beauty of taking part in projects like these is that new opportunities that we haven’t thought about tend to pop up. So it will be interesting to see what this new project brings. It’s also great to see how working collectively brings new opportunities for the sketchers as well.
SR: Could you tell us about Toronto Real? How does the podcast and the conversations you have with your guests connect with your work as a designer, artist and writer?
MJ: Toronto Real was one of those opportunity that I had to get involved in because it just seemed like the right thing to do. Perhaps it relates to my curiosity about the city and the people that make up this city and where everyone fits in its progress. Interviewing people who live and pass by the city is another opportunity to better understand the city and its people and also see where I fit in and where I can contribute. A bit like urban sketching it’s a way for me to take a deeper look into our city and share my findings with others.