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Lilac Time

Network, Spring/Summer 2005

Every spring, All Saints’ Kingsway holds an end-of-season art sale. The works are created by homeless men and women who come on Friday nights during the winter for a hot meal, a video and a place to sleep if they need it. The art program was started six years ago by volunteer Elisabeth Gibson, and the art sale has run for the last four.

Located in Toronto’s west end, All Saints’ Kingsway is one of more than 60 synagogues, churches, and other organizations around the city that open their doors one night a week, from November to April, in a coordinated effort called Out of the Cold. ‘Normally we feed between 60 and 80 people at All Saints,’ says Gibson, ‘and we have beds for 20.’ Out of the Cold is volunteer run and entirely funded by donations, including the money for art supplies.

‘The doors open at six. By seven, people have eaten, the meal is cleaned up, and the video starts,’ says Gibson, explaining the weekly routine. ‘At the other end of the room, away from the video, we push two of the longer tables together. They have two hours to paint before the lights go out at nine.’

Among the core group of seven or eight artists who share space around the table is a former welder named Tony. ‘He was so gifted from the very first time he came and picked up a felt pen,’ says Gibson, ‘I assumed he had been a graphic artist. His sense of design is unbelievable, and his colour sense is amazing.’

Tony and his mother emigrated to Canada when he was two years old. ‘He must be 60 now,’ says Gibson, ‘but he hasn’t lost his English accent – it says to me he didn’t mix a lot. His mother died when he was 15. He moved in with an aunt and went to school to become a welder.’

‘He’s extremely quiet,’ she continues, ‘but occasionally he bursts through the shyness and breaks into song. He has a very good voice. And he just loves going through his portfolio, pulling things out and saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t finish that, I’ve got to do more.”

‘They all have their own particular gifts,’ says Gibson. ‘It has changed the whole way I look at teaching. I believe the answers are within each of us, and all it takes is a few minutes of looking at the painting until they come to that knowledge. So I don’t ever tell them what to do next. I just admire what they’re doing, and they come to the next conclusion. When they’ve finished, it’s entirely their own work. You can see the change in them. They just carry themselves differently, because they know they’re good.’

At year-end, the artwork is priced for sale at $25 apiece, unframed. This year, 98 of 120 pieces were sold. All the money goes back to the artists.

‘When I gave out the money this year,’ says Gibson, ‘a man named Jordan came by, who hadn’t been here for a long time. ‘I ended up selling one of your paintings,’ I said, ‘and I have the money for you.’ When I gave him his envelope with $25, he said, ‘Somebody came in here and saw my painting and bought it? What are they going to do with it?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Maybe they’ll hang it up in their house. Something must have spoken to them.’ He was flabbergasted. He couldn’t believe such a thing would be possible.’

For more information about Out of the Cold programs, call 416-699-6682.

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