Behind a sturdy, industrial security door, there was a courtyard tree bedecked with ornaments. An outside staircase led up to a sunny second-floor terrace shared by the building’s artist tenants. When Amis opened the door to the light-filled unit he had lived in for 26 years, he apologized for the boxes, even though I was well aware he and his partner were in the process of moving out.
After their landlord sold the building and evicted all of its tenants, Amis and Campbell were forced to downsize. Their studio loft was big enough for two separate work spaces plus an ample living area. What they could afford in a similar price range: a 650-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with a single 550-square-foot converted garage for studio space. That left them with the conundrum of what to do with two careers’ worth of creative output—Amis is a photographer, and Campbell started in drawing and painting, but spent much of her career creating sculptures and installations.
Amis and Campbell have been facing a tough—and increasingly prevalent—reality for Canadian artists: shrinking work spaces. In Toronto this year, artists were forced out of studios in a Wallace Avenue warehouse by a French software company, and priced out of a Sterling Road factory by condos, leaving many with the problem of finding a new space, and then finding ways of fitting their old art into it.
Though most of Amis and Campbell’s belongings were already moved out when I visited, pieces of Campbell’s largest installation, Faith, remained stacked in the corner of her studio within the loft. The 40-foot-long and 9-foot-high work is made from interlocking crosses to describe faith, hope and charity in a secular context. It is too big for any of the galleries it has showed at over the past 25 years to take in on a permanent basis, and Loop, the artist-run gallery she belongs to, has no capacity for storage. She gave sections of it away to friends, but Campbell said the rest was destined for the dumpster.
“It has many symbolic meanings,” Campbell explained of Faith, with tears in her eyes. “Those meanings are realized by living one’s life, and the accumulation of life experiences built on it. Each time I showed it, it took on a different configuration in a gallery, constantly changing, to form a wall, a cross, the union of opposites, feminine and masculine principles.”
First created in 1991, the work was with Campbell for a quarter-century, and she was struggling to part with it, even though she acknowledged it was, like all her major works, well documented. She’ll still have the catalogue write-ups and photographs of it.
Amis explained that in the past artists rented larger commercial studios, which don’t come with the same tenant rights as residences. As neighbourhoods in the big cities gentrify, commercial lease prices spike, older buildings are torn down to make way for condo towers and artists are forced out of bigger units into whatever spaces they can afford.
Small spaces in the city are livable for many people, but what if your livelihood comes from making art, and you’ve accumulated hundreds of works?
It’s worth noting that some artists have made a practice—made art, in fact—about getting rid of old work, or dealing with its storage.
One iconic international example is British artist Michael Landy. In his 2001 piece Break Down, Landy systematically destroyed all his worldly possessions after meticulously cataloguing them. Nearly a decade later, he opened up the same possibility for other artists with Art Bin, a structure in which he invited other creators to discard their works.
More recently, Toronto collective VSVSVS, upon receiving news that their longtime Portlands-area studio would no longer be usable, staged a show at Katzman Contemporary that involved them, in part, using the commercial-gallery space as storage for studio materials.
One of the main features of that VSVSVS exhibition (called “to space in”) was a large shipping container that became an element of an installation and video during the show; following the exhibition, all materials from the show (and the VSVSVS studio) were packed into the container for future storage.
In an interesting turn, VSVSVS painted the container a green-screen hue, rendering it “invisible” in related videos—highlighting the fact that storage is an element of the artist life which often remains sealed off from the public.
But to artists who work less performatively, or tend not to use downsizing itself as fodder for an art piece, the options for older work seem limited: sell it, store it or get rid of it.
When artists have to downsize, the oft-repeated Marie Kondo advice to only keep things that “spark joy” is not always a helpful guideline—there can be a strong personal attachment to, and history with, all of one’s art pieces.
In terms of downsizing, obviously, selling is the ideal, but not everything sells, and especially not right away.
Peter D. Harris, a painter who also downsized last year when the building his work-only studio was in was sold, now works from a 250-square-foot studio within his live/work space in Artscape Triangle Lofts in Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood. He stacks paintings against the wall, sends them out to galleries, and then if they come back unsold, he keeps them in storage unit facility nearby, for which he pays a monthly fee.
“I have regretted destroying some work in retrospect. So now I try to hold onto any unsold work and add it to the archives,” Harris says. “Collectively, those paintings in my storage locker are the thousands of hours I spent in the studio, the struggles and small triumphs of daily creativity. They are a summation of everything that is of interest and importance to me. To not keep those works—regardless of their commercial viability—would be like hitting the delete button on a hard drive, or worse, an amnesia and forgetting of my own past.”
Harris, who also hangs some of his favourite unsold works in his home, which he fondly refers to as “the house of rejects,” notes it sometimes takes time for a work to sell. “It’s not unusual for people who see my work to come back five or more years later asking about a painting that’s still in their memory and are finally in a position to purchase.”
If an artist can’t afford to store works, or has accumulated too many, donating to an archive is an option. But this is a process that takes time, and not every work or collection will be accepted. Barbara Fischer, the executive director and chief curator of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, says the intake process for a work or collection can be anywhere from two to six months or longer.
“The Art Museum collects on the basis of our mission, mandate and especially educational value,” Fischer says. “The proposed work has to pass through a condition examination, the curatorial consideration, the acquisitions committee of the Art Museum, the university’s protocols and stages of acceptance, through to the signing of agreements.”
If work isn’t selected for archives or sold, artists are left with the last resort: getting rid of it.
This isn’t easy. Campbell describes an emotional connection with her work that comes from “giving of yourself in a deep way” through the creative process.
But as Amis points out, sometimes you have to go through a process of questioning why you’re keeping things. He and Campbell hired Cecilia Moorcroft during their downsizing process: she’s a decluttering and feng shui expert who specializes in helping artists clear space to create new work. It’s a process Moorcroft says is freeing.
“It’s about being really honest about where you are in your life and where you’re going,” Moorcroft says. “With artists, there’s always potential. But if you have untapped potential that sits there for years and years it can be a drain. Your stuff has to be paying its rent. If you’re looking at your stuff, ideally it’s all being used and engaged with. It’s part of your current reality and leaves you with the space you need to create.”
A staircase analogy is what Amis says helped them through their downsizing process the most.
“You can acknowledge the old art as a stepping stone to get to the place you are now.” Moorcroft says. “Imagine you’re going up the steps but trying to carry all the steps with you. At some point you can’t carry them all anymore. You have to let them go to keep going.”
Moorcroft, whose methods at times seem almost magical as well as empowering, talks about getting rid of old art with a passionate zeal. She says she adores the idea of throwing a big party to give away work when you need to.
Yet Moorcroft is practical, too. She says sometimes you just have to get it done, whatever it takes.
“It’s a funny thing, what to do with old artwork. People think, ‘I couldn’t possibly throw it in the garbage,’ but you can. There’s a perfect way to do things and then the way you’re actually going to get it done. If you’re feeling stuck in your process, ask yourself what you’re holding onto. It can be cathartic. When I help people get rid of stuff they’re so much happier afterwards. You don’t have to lose the experience of having created things. You’ve graduated from it!”
In her new garage studio, J. Lynn Campbell, now divested of Faith, plans to work on smaller works again—drawings and paintings, like when she started her career.
“I’m completing the circle,” Campbell says. “I always thought I would go back to drawing—but I also knew it would be different from what it was, and it is.”
Suzanne Alyssa Andrew is the author of the novel Circle of Stones (Dundurn Press, 2015), the associate editor for Taddle Creek magazine and a freelance writer. She also plays bass.