Arts and Music

There is Only One Hamilton

As artists flock to Hamilton for its rich social and aesthetic diversity, some artists are using the unique urban landscape to create authenticity in their art.

By Chris Erskine
Published April 10, 2013

While developers and city council are running away from our past, trying to demolish every last piece of distinctive local character, hundreds of artists are rushing to it. They're trying to capture something that they can no longer find in Toronto - authenticity.

The social and aesthetic diversity of Hamilton's different communities is providing a feeding ground to today's emerging and mid-career artists. A few are using the physical landscape to inform and shape their art.

I believe the authenticity of their work comes not only from the unique physical features of the local landscape but our ability to associate personal experiences with particular places.

Christina Sealey

In the paintings of Christina Sealey, the city is almost like family - always present, always hovering over your shoulder; demanding your attention, questioning the process of creation even before you have started.

You wonder how fast you can run downstairs to the studio but you know sooner or later footsteps will follow.

In Self-Portrait, Bold Street (2002), the buildings are jostling for space outside the window. Their window eyes are peering into Sealey's workspace demanding to know what she is doing. Other times the world seems indifferent to the blackness of mood and is full of lightness and energy as in Underpass (2003).

Self-Portrait, Bold Street (2002)
Self-Portrait, Bold Street (2002)

Sealey's world is full of unique places and unique individuals. The urban landscape reveals itself as we experience it, one person at a time; one perspective at a time. In Self-Portrait-Hamilton (2002), the car journey may cross the entire city but we only see that landscape that is immediately outside the car window.

Paul Elia

On the other hand, Paul Elia breaks down this tyranny of perspective and reveals the city that our mind constructs. Instead of the city block moving beyond our perspective, we see the street as we know it, as whole.

You can see this with his pieces entitled Wellington Street North (2009) or Cannon Street (2009).

Wellington Street North (2009)
Wellington Street North (2009)

If you spend any time in the core of the city, you will quickly develop this mental image of your surroundings.

For example, a few years ago we lived in an 1859 stone townhouse on Bold Street. In the summers, we would sit on the front porch and listen and watch the city turn from day into night.

We didn't experience the street as one or two buildings but as several entire blocks - running from the new condos at 135 James Street South to the ancient 1853 Central Public School.

Using photography and a digital paint program, Elia re-constructs this is kind of experience using white, gray and black tones.

Clarence Porter

A recent series of pastel works by Clarence Porter explores the opposite effect to Elia, the individual feature of a building or object that captures our experience of place.

Porter, who lives in the Ottawa Street North area, depicts a number of local business signs from angles that you might see if you stood on the sidewalk and looked straight up.

While revealing only a portion of a sign or object, the visitor who is familiar with the street would immediately recognize the building or location. Since many of these signs are from times long past, his work also captures memory as place.

Avon Floor and Wall Décor (2010)
Avon Floor and Wall Décor (2010)

Porter's Avon Floor and Wall Décor (2010) or the Argyle Ave-Ottawa Street North (2010) works are good examples.

I still have vivid memories of driving home with my parents as a little kid. I lay stretched out on the back sit of my father's Ford Mustang convertible. The top was down, it was early spring and the sky was a brilliant blue.

I remember the Avon sign passing by to the sound of my parents arguing over the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey. These small landmarks capture not only a place but a time as well.

While Sealey, Elia, and Porter explore different themes, they each share a common desire to reference real places with real identities. This focus on landscape allows the viewer to enter the work of art and associate personal memories and histories to a particular place.

The result is their art gains a meaning that is authentic. This is something that you can't create when the world is filled with glass boxes and generic landscapes like much of corporate Toronto. In the global village, there is only one Hamilton.

Chris Erskine is a labour and community activist. He is also a print artist, exploring historic landscapes and building themes using lino-cut and woodblock printing methods. You can visit his website.


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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted April 10, 2013 at 14:58:24

Glad to see some local creatives on RTH.

One caveat: I appreciate the home-team sentiment, but Toronto is not a giant die-cut prefab megalopolis, just as Hamilton is larger than Wards 1-5. The question of "urban authenticity" is a sticky one, and nostalgia only confuses things.

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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2013 at 17:27:20 in reply to Comment 87800

Was flipping through an old magazine in a waiting room this week and came across an article that I thought might make an interesting footnote to the question of authenticity (which is much more nuts-and-bolts than, say, something more nebulous like the Hawthorne effect):

By the middle of the 2000s... Brooklyn the place had become "Brooklyn" the concept: a template to turn any downtown-adjacent slum into a reasonable facsimile of Boerum Hill or Williamsburg.

Now you can find "Brooklyn" anyplace in the country — in the world — where a low-rise, run-down old neighborhood has been colonized by the pickle makers and baristas, the craft shoe shiners and the mustachioed young butchers. The YUTs, as Karen calls them: Young Urban Tradesmen. Nashville, Portland — both Portlands — the Northern Liberties of Philadelphia, Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, the Marais in Paris, world without end. Wherever you go, the faux-ethnic restaurants and the retro cocktail bars end up being full of pretty much the same (skinny, tattooed, meat-obsessed) people.

But is it really so bad? Sure, it's annoying, like any me-too movement is. But at least the YUTs are neat and constructive, things the punks and the hippies and the beatniks before them were most assuredly not. And while "hipster" urbanism might be artificial and even silly, there's another way of dealing with shabby old neighborhoods that happen to be sitting on prime real estate that's a hell of a lot worse. You can see it in Manhattan, where over the past twenty years bricks and brownstone have given way to high-rise apartment towers marching cheek-to-cheek up the Bowery (where some of the brick buildings torn down were almost two hundred years old) and Sixth Avenue, and big-box chain stores have replaced a great number of the quirky businesses that made Manhattan such an interesting place to be.

You can also see it on my block. Brooklyn is, of course, not just an idea but a physical place, and that place has many neighborhoods with quick subway access to Manhattan. In Williamsburg, that fact has turned the streetscape into a schizophrenic jumble of Pennsylvania mining town and Coral Gables, with tired aluminum-siding-clad frame houses mingled higgledy-piggledy with tall chunks of whatever it is they're teaching architects in condo school. Down the street from me, Willie Sutton's old rooming house was torn down in 2008 to be replaced by a high-rise by Robert Scarano, the architect who fucked up Williamsburg. When the real estate bubble burst, they stopped work on it. Its skeleton stands six stories tall and is uglier than anything there in 1986. There's another somewhat better high-rise across the street from me, and another on the way. Out my back window, I can see two more construction sites. Compared with the hulking things they're putting up, the old garage down the block, which techno-hipsters have turned into a showroom for MakerBot (it sells 3-D printer kits), makes me gaze on it with downright affection. Hipsters might be parasites, but at least they leave the host alive, if only to feed off it. Given a choice between a neutron bomb and a hydrogen bomb, I guess I'll take the neutrons. At least they leave an illusion of life.

I miss the old Brooklyn, the one nobody was paying any attention to. I miss it the most when I stare down Atlantic Avenue at the Barclays Center, whose construction used eminent domain to wipe out several blocks' worth of pleasant row houses, old industrial buildings full of artists and YUTs, and Freddy's, a former cop bar turned Bohemian that we named one of Esquire's Best Bars in America in 2006. I hear now that a Shake Shack is coming to the neighborhood, and maybe a Dave & Buster's, a T.G.I. Friday's, and a Panera. Even, they say, a Hooters. Once you've got all those people coming, you've got to keep 'em happy. O'Connor's, the dim, cozy, decrepit old bar around the corner I spent many a happy afternoon in, has closed down so they can add an extra floor and turn it into a sports bar for the arena crowd.

There's a freedom in being ignored. Away from the spotlight, Brooklyn developed something that people want, and now they're coming to take it away. Fortunately, Brooklyn is a large place, larger than "Brooklyn." As long as there are still Trinidadian doubles shacks in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, outside the pickle belt, and Bensonhurst is still Sicilian enough to support Villabate, the greatest pasticceria outside of Sicily itself, I'll keep hope alive that city life doesn't have to be a theme park or a plastic desert.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted April 19, 2013 at 22:18:33 in reply to Comment 87800

Here here, I'll say though the focus on this site tends to predominantly target Wards 1-5 because there isn't much visably wrong with the other wards (other then their outrageous infrastructure costs associated with their continual expansion.)

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted April 10, 2013 at 18:58:57

Interesting piece! There are many other local artists of course, but any article focusing on Hamilton buildings should include Gord Leverton's wonderful, angular, colourful depictions of houses, commercial properties, and other buildings around the city.

(no affiliation, just a fan!)

Comment edited by BeulahAve on 2013-04-10 19:00:29

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted September 26, 2014 at 09:53:23

Great article. I enjoy the hand-drawn vernacular work and the real skill involved in it. Another excellent local artist is Paul Richard James' work: (I have, as above, no affiliation, but appreciate it.) Thanks, Chris.

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