Making Magic at the AGP
Remember the story that went viral of the busker in the Washington D.C. Metro station who was actually Grammy award-winning musician Joshua Bell? It was rush hour, 1,097 people would stream by as Bell, dressed down and in baseball cap, played Bach pieces on his $3 million violin. He didn’t do badly. He made $32 in less than an hour. That said, in 45 minutes only seven people stopped to watch, the most attention paid, apparently, was by a three-year-old. He would play the same six Bach pieces the very next night, albeit in different attire and to a rather more generous paying audience.
In this scenario you aren’t that three-year-old, assuming you didn’t play a classical instrument for 20 years like someone I know that I happen to be married to, and who just started taking piano lessons again and who who can name the classical stuff I play for her, and not because she heard it in a Stanley Kubrick movie either. Assuming you aren’t my wife, then, or otherwise classically trained, or extremely well-versed in music like my friend Peter or the way my nephew Simon is so quickly becoming, other than that like me you would have walked right by the famous violinist. Why? Why is it so hard to spot great art? Why, like in the Anthony Lane piece about Van Gogh in the movies I recently posted, would none of us have scooped up a single swirling painting, only some of which had the name Vincent scribbled across say a vase or near that famous yellow chair? Not at the time we wouldn’t have. As Lane so adroitly puts it:
Van Gogh sold one painting in his life, but we—so we reassure ourselves—would have purchased everything, down to the meanest daub. We would have summoned medication and therapeutic care for his afflicted brain. The fatal bullet could have been extracted. We could have saved him.
This is nonsense. Although we know more, we are no better. Most of us would have avoided van Gogh, ignored him, or taken offense at him, as his contemporaries did.
Okay so we tend to avoid weirdos. And Van Gogh did some pretty despicable things, according to Lane. But why, with less extreme examples, do we need our musicians draped in tuxedos on grand Carnegie-like stages to recognize their talent? Nay, simply just to pay attention to what they’re doing. It’s a self-serving question, to be sure, since I am one of countless unknown artists struggling to produce work that might reach an audience. Still, the question has some broad value, I think. We can become so enraptured by the artists we love that a visit to Paris for so many young Westerners will be as much about seeing Jim Morrison’s grave as it is seeing the Mona Lisa. Heck, you get travel articles from History.com like “7 Places from Famous Paintings That You Can Visit in Real Life”. And yet, were we to have passed the real Cafe Terrace at night in Arles back in Van Gogh’s day, even as the bearded man painted it, we’d have kept on walking by.
Which is my very long and winding way of asking: What if we could visit a place ahead of its time? What if we could visit a place like the famous yellow house where for a scant couple months in the fall of 1888 Van Gogh and Gaugin lived and worked together, if not exactly joyfully? What if it were possible to visit a place where future great works of art are being made even as we speak? What if, as Ray Kinsella asks old Dr. Graham played with such exacting grace by Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams, if there was a place where dreams came true, a place where there was enough “magic in the moonlight” to make a wish come true, if he would want to visit such a place … The field of dreams of which I speak, the figurative yellow house that is neither in France nor does it serve coffee (unless you bring your own). It’s not about baseball either. It’s an old converted school on Hanlan’s Point, the least visited of Toronto’s islands. If you’ve even cycled or walked by, you probably hardly noticed the nonprofit called Artscape Gibraltar Point (AGP). I don’t think Gaugin or Van Gogh, either one, could have given its drab colour much vibrancy. But that’s not where its energy lies, this place that houses studios and bedrooms for artists, visual and writerly in the main, but I’ve also met musicians there. The rooms are simple, the prices for staying reasonable. Towels and linen are provided. You bring your own food.
At this place just a couple kilometres from the island’s edge, where the small airport sits, year round, artists toil away at their various crafts. Quite a few are retired residents of the island itself, who come by day to their allotted studios. But you also get those us from the mainland, so to speak. And not just from Toronto and her surroundings. Also, Americans, like the couple from Florida that I once met. You get visual artists travelling in from Montreal, from all over really. The AGP take groups too. This place that has an expansive room called the Fireplace room, for literal (and thus mid-winter joyous reason), a kitchen with a wall of windows and windowsills filled to the brim with greenery. There’s also a turntable, but I couldn’t get it to work. There is a library of books people have left, shared, given. Of course there is.
Sometimes I wonder at what keeps people going back to placid chain restaurants (of the Moxies and Boston Pizza Variety) that charge high prices for food that has been exactingly portioned out, like McDonalds chicken nuggets, to gain the most possible profit from the least possible generosity. Oh they’ll give you a lot of fries and the $2.99 Pepsis, have your endless refill of those. But what of a bit of soul? What of mama in the kitchen? What of a single person who actually cares about food? The AGP, like the local French bakery down the street owned by your sister’s neighbours, that lovely couple, he from Morocco, she from Canada, the AGP is for those folks who like a little real in the their meal. A little soul in their city. Too often I begrudge Toronto for all she lacks. But the AGP, man, it’s the bees knees. Yes. like an excellent almond croissant, it is that good.
And if you ever were so lucky to visit after October, when it’s only the little ferry (there’s no upstairs desk on this guy) heading out each half hour, and only to Ward’s Island, to walk or get a ride, or take a bike to the AGP, when the island is yours, and practically yours alone. The few short visits I’ve made to stay and to write over the last couple years, I’ve gone in the off-season when not even the Rectory Cafe on Ward’s is open. Nothing’s open. You bring your food to cook, to snack on, to sustain you because nothing, and I mean nothing is available on the island. But I go then as much for the wonder of a place that facilitates the making of art, as I do, for a the island in winter. The beach behind the AGP. The beach that faces south, not to Toronto but, if you look straight ahead, it looks like you’re out at the sea and on a wavy windy day, when the waves crash in constant and true, that beach is yours to walk on, to pray on, to sing your heart out on. Make a fire. But mostly it’s to stretch your legs and to gather your thoughts. And to refresh and reset and recharge as you head back into this magical mystical building they take such good care of. The old building, down the halls with paintings and scultptures and all sorts of art festooned along the walls, and even in the main bathrooms, until you’re back in your simple writer’s room. A bed. A desk. The window from which you can see that spooky old lighthouse. Back to the desk.
Most art isn’t very good. It’s like restaurants, except that you can’t live off mediocre crap if you’re an artist, unless you’re extremely lucky. But good, bad, ugly and in between there is no doubt: real art is made at the AGP. And I write this because I truly believe that one of these days, or more likely, a century from now. a handful of great artists will have been known to spend wintry nights, weeks, even months at this simple place, and people will look back in wonder. That little old building across from the lighthouse. Perhaps the tourists one day will go there to marvel, like we all do, when a great thing has been made in a place. As if it were the place itself that helped install that thing, that art, that artist, with magic. Which of course it did.