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Preserving Mirvish Village

July 3rd, 2015 · No Comments

Collection of photographs captures spirit and character of the area

Gerald Pisarzowski, poses in front of Charlotte Hale & Associates Gallery on Markham St. Photo Courtesy of Charlotte Hale

Gerald Pisarzowski, poses in front of Charlotte Hale & Associates Gallery on Markham St. Photo Courtesy of Charlotte Hale

By Annemarie Brissenden

Gerald Pisarzowski leafs through a series of platinum black and white prints bound into a beautiful book that is a work of art unto itself. His face quirks into the hint of an expression as he alights on a fresh image, each photo sparking a memory and a story.

“These people were so nice,” he remembers, hovering over a photograph of Ewe Dowlah and her co-workers at Caribbean Roti Place. “They were fun,” he comments about John Barthel and Maryse Claude of Vintage Video Collectables.

Mirvish Village People, produced in a limited run of 250 numbered copies, is the culmination of 80 days spent photographing the people who have built their businesses on the storied street. Many of the photos were exhibited during the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in May at the Charlotte Hale & Associates Gallery in Mirvish Village.

“Out of a conversation around the remarkable people in Mirvish Village sprang forth the concept to produce a series of portraits that would become a legacy to the unique magic that has existed on the little street for many years,” writes Charlotte Hale, herself a subject, in the book’s foreword.

The resulting portraits, in which the subjects stand in the centre of their place of business, staring directly at the camera, are arresting. When viewed together, they celebrate the quirky diversity of Mirvish Village, one of the city’s hidden gems, where you can buy yarn for a knitting project, pick up the latest comic book, visit an art gallery, get your clothing mended, and finish off with some New Orleans cuisine, all on the same street.

“I call it a little hub of wonder in Toronto,” says Hale in her gallery, surrounded by the photos.

With Westbank Corp. — a sponsor of the exhibit — set to redevelop the area in the coming years, it’s unclear what will come of the businesses that have thrived here for decades, but what is clear is that the subjects of the pictures are facing the future with pride and determination.

As Hale notes, “Someone commented that everyone looks proud; a strength of the exhibition is that it reflects the pride in the community.”

“This captures it just before the change,” explains Pisarzowski. “It had to be done now, not in two or three years’ time.”

“It’s a visual narrative of a community in the early stages of a major development,” adds Hale.

Traditionally Pisarzowski is a landscape artist noted for his hand-coated platinum prints, and so documenting the urban environment is a departure for the photographer, who admits to a bit of “vision block, like writer’s block”, before embarking on the project.

He expected to produce only 20 to 25 images, but in the end was hard pressed to keep the exhibit to 50, and plans to take additional pictures this summer. The collection of images has attracted much interest, particularly from Westbank, which will restage the exhibit in its community office, and the Toronto Archives. A copy of the book has also been put into the Mirvish Collection, as a tribute to the couple who — whether by design or happenstance — created the little neighbourhood.

“It was the vision of one individual, or really his wife,” says Pisarzowski of Anne and Ed Mirvish. “This was really an incubator. People, for not a lot of money, could start a business, and then as their mentor, you had Ed Mirvish. He seemed a pretty relaxed and easy-going sort who recognized that people came up through the system. He knew what it meant not to have hot water.”

Pisarzowski envisions returning to the project again in the coming years, suggesting that he’ll do the “next set of images in 2017, during the” — and here he struggles to find the right word, “destruction, tear down, evolution”, before settling on — “middle portion”.

It is a reflection of how, just as the conversation continues about the future of the area, this exhibition continues to expand and evolve, becoming a space for sharing and recording memories.

“The thing about the exhibition being here,” says Hale, “is that it opens the door for people to come in and tell their stories about the area.”

For a copy of Mirvish Village People by Gerald Pisarzowski, please contact Charlotte Hale and Associates at Proceeds from the sale of the book, which costs $425, will go to Covenant House.

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