Medium: Multidisciplinary, print, literary, urban intervention
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Image: Embroidered postcard. Photo courtesy of Shari Kasman.
Shari Kasman is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist and writer. Her work ranges from large scale urban art installations to spoof route diversion signs to embroidered postcards. She has created art books and a collection of short stories, as well.
Shari Kasman, photo by Henry Chan.
1. How would you describe your art/practice?
My practice is multidisciplinary, with humour as a common thread throughout my work. I often use my surroundings as inspiration, so a lot of my work deals with the hyperlocal, such as Galleria Mall and public transportation. Some of my work has taken the form of printed matter, including postcards, prints, and books. Other work has been in the form of urban interventions. Parkdale Provincial Park is a project that followed in the footsteps of Bloordale Beach—for both of those projects I had the idea to reclaim unused spaces where construction had been stalled, and along with collaborators, I reinvented those lots.
2. How do you find and choose the sites and projects with which you work?
My urban interventions develop out of elements of the city that I find to be problematic. It can often be slow or impossible to create effective solutions to problems by phoning 311 or dealing with authority. So, rather than wait for someone else to fix certain problems, I’ve taken matters into my own hands and have created unique solutions. That’s why I designed my own version of route diversion signs for the TTC, for example, and why I had a photoshoot with ducks in a flooded bike lane—if the City was going to create this pond as a result of poor infrastructure, I thought it may as well be home for ducks.
Image: Ducks at Bloordale Pond, Toronto. Photo courtesy of Shari Kasman.
As for Bloordale Beach, the site is close to home, and Parkdale Provincial Park is across the street from my boyfriend’s house, so I chose these spots based on convenience.
Image: Bloordale Beach Postcard at Bloordale Beach. Photo courtesy of Shari Kasman.
The projects related to Galleria Mall emerged since I knew the space wouldn’t be around forever, and I wanted to capture its essence before it disappeared. Then there was a project where I collected facts in a box outside of my house in exchange for books I was giving away, which began since I wanted to offload books and receive something in return—I saw it as a kind of exchange of knowledge. At the outset, I didn’t intend for this project to turn into a book, but that’s how things evolved. I’ve created postcards for my projects, like the beach and provincial park, but I’ve also worked with embroidery on existing postcards, since I noticed postcard pictures that were in need of certain improvements.
3. Could you walk us through your creative process, from idea to launch/installation to keeping it open?
My work on Bloordale Beach evolved very organically. There was this empty gravel-filled lot, enclosed by a fence, which occupied a block of Brock Avenue. A school had once stood there, so community members had been able to take a shortcut across the school’s parking lot, but this new fence eliminated the short cut. A friend began removing fence panels to bring back the shortcut, but since this lot was property of the school board, they’d constantly replace the fences and lock them up. We thought that if others were interested in using the space as well, perhaps the school board would be less inclined to close the fences. In May of 2020 I saw someone wearing nothing but shorts, lying down on the property, which spawned the idea for Bloordale Beach. I mentioned this to my friend who immediately suggested we paint Bloordale Beach signs. And that’s how the beach was born. It was a huge success, as the fences at the beach were open for long stretches of time. I made many beach signs, changed the Danger signs into Linger signs, created a Sea Turtle Nesting Area, and offered beach tours, combining fact and fiction, as a sort of performance art. Other community members added elements to the beach, including a Barkour area where dogs could improve their agility. Sometimes the school board would lock things up, but my friend would eventually reopen the fences. At one point, they hired security to ensure nobody would use the site, and we had to wait about a month until the security team was gone for good, until we could reopen the site. In 2021, a group of gardeners grew food in a corner of the beach, so when the school board wanted to shut the beach that summer, we were able to convince them to keep it open longer, until the last possible moment, so that the gardeners would be able to have their final harvest in September 2021.
Image: Signage from Bloordale Beach, Toronto, 2020. Photo courtesy of Shari Kasman.
Parkdale Provincial Park, has had a shorter lifespan. It opened in December 2022 on the site of a liquor store that closed its doors in 2015, and right now, the park is closed—I’m not sure whether or not it will reopen. Like the beach, it’s a gravel lot surrounded by a fence, but it wasn’t permanently locked at the outset—the site had been open in a couple of spots and was used by dog walkers as an unauthorized off-leash dog park. So, gaining access to the site was initially not a problem. When I suggested to artists Martin Reis and Stephanie Avery that we create a provincial park at this site, they were enthusiastic and we got to work right away. Martin and I created park signs and Steph created little signs for a botanical garden where she identified things at this site, such as broken glass and cigarette butts. Others also added signs to the park, like the ones warning people of dangerous wildlife. In January, we collected discarded Christmas trees and arranged them inside the perimeter of the fence. These days, the space is property of the City of Toronto and apparently they don’t appreciate the park, as they removed the trees in April. Next they removed all of the signs and locked up all the fences, so it was closed by May. I haven't been able to get an answer from the City as to why they deconstructed our park. In the future, this will be the site of affordable housing, though nothing seems to be happening there at the moment. Maybe the City of Toronto has imminent plans for the site, or perhaps they don’t appreciate fun, funny, or whimsical things. There’s a chance more will happen with this project, but things are up in the air right now.
Image: Signage from Parkdale Provincial Park. Photo courtesy of Shari Kasman.
4. How has the way you approach an outdoor installation project changed from Bloordale Beach to Parkdale Provincial Park?
Though the idea for the two projects was similar, they did come together differently. This difference is a result of the different circumstances between the two projects, the different collaborators, and the different sites.
5. What challenges have you faced creating guerilla art installations?
When you’re working on property that doesn’t belong to you, it’s hard to know when you’ll have access to the site. Also, when you leave things in public, there’s a chance those things will disappear. For the beach project, we bought beach chairs from Value Village and collected a couple other chairs from the side of the road, and despite labelling them in Sharpie with “Property of Bloordale Beach,” they all were eventually taken. The turtles in the Sea Turtle Nesting area all disappeared as well. As I mentioned prior, everything has been taken from Parkdale Provincial Park. With the spoof TTC signs that I created last fall and again recently, I’ve faced the same issue with signs being removed. Plus, financing these projects can be tricky—these aren’t the kinds of projects that are eligible for funding by any of the arts councils.
Image: Spoof route diversion sign. Photo courtesy of Shari Kasman.
6. In what ways does your art/practice push conventional boundaries?
I’ve created innovative and unique work in a variety of media. If my work were more conventional, I believe I’d have an easier time explaining to people what my work is like.
7. Have you encountered anything particularly surprising or unexpected over your career so far?
All of this is a little bit surprising to me, as my background is in music. I really haven’t planned my career, and have instead allowed things to evolve naturally.
8. How can cities become more hospitable for artists?
Perhaps the city’s organization for funding artists could be more open to offering financial backing to projects that are beyond their current rigid categories. Their rules sometimes make it impossible for innovative art projects to qualify for grants. I would also like to see organizations within cities, both arts-based and those unrelated to the arts, find room in their budget for artist-in-residence programs.
9. Tell us about a favourite project and why it’s so memorable.
I loved working on Bloordale Beach, because I found it to be very funny and entertaining. It was especially important to have this slice of humour during the pandemic. I also loved working on the Galleria Mall project, as I was able to capture the essence of that place before it was demolished. Because the mall was meaningful to many people, I was able to create a memento that many people have really appreciated.
Image: Bloordale Beach Tour. Photo courtesy of Martin Reis.
10. Pay it forward -- tell us about something or someone our readers should know about.
I recommend lane swimming at Jean Drapeau Park in Montreal, Mexico City is a very wonderful place, and fermenting fruits and vegetables is an especially good activity for the summertime.