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The Roches, the post office, and an old hardware store on Ossington Avenue

I hadn’t thought about The Roches in years, when somehow or another they recently came up in conversation with a friend. Now some of their tunes are buzzing around my little brain again, so I thought I’d share. I first heard them in NYC in the early 80s, and later wore out a copy of that wonderful eponymous album, with We, The Train, Married Men and more.

Listening to these songs again brings me back to my days living in what must have once been hardware store on Ossington Ave here in Toronto –  because the record I just mentioned got a lot of play during those years.

I had divided the space into two studios with a shared kitchen between them. It was a rough and tumble reno job, but it worked out pretty well, considering I didn’t much know what I was doing. There was a bathroom and some painting storage downstairs in a somewhat scary basement. My painting studio was in the front – I had paper screens over the windows for privacy. Bookshelf dividers separated my painting studio from my modest living space. I think it must have once been a hardware store because it had pegboard walls, which I kept in place. I bought a selection of pegboard hooks and this allowed me to hang up paintings wherever I needed on the walls.

In those days I was working “3-shift” at the post office, first in Mississauga and later on Eastern Ave. I was a postal clerk sorting mail at that time, and I was getting by working part time, thanks to a great deal on rent. 3-Shift meant working something like 7:00 pm until midnight. I’d get home at 12:30, or maybe a little later, have a snack and a cold beer, then get to work in the studio. I never dreamed the post office would provide me with a good steady income for 30 years, and an excellent pension after that, nor that I would stumble into all kinds of interesting jobs there along the way, while I continued to feed my art habit – jobs which included managing the biggest shift of the biggest parcel plant in the country, working on two enterprise software implementations, and eventually becoming a spokesperson for the company. Given that I was a square peg in a round hole when it came to fitting in with any kind of corporate culture, I look back on the whole experience as a strange miracle.

I say get to work in the studio and it sounds like such an “action” phrase, but it usually started out with sitting down, contemplating my paintings for a long time. Then I would organize things in the studio, maybe sweep the floor and generally clean up. This was a kind of ritual which enable me to get to that peculiar state of mind in which I could paint. It took years for me to learn to get there without the ritual.

Back then I was a more disciplined painter than I am now. By that I mean I tried to do something in the studio every day. The problem with that is that some days, or nights back then, I could paint up a storm and other nights I had nothing, but I would stick it out in the studio anyway. Some nights I would read novels in there if painting wasn’t going well.

Later I learned to recognize when to paint and when to do other things. Painting can be fickle and unpredictable that way. There are times when I’m on, when I could just keep painting, keep creating, improvising, inventing. These are times when painting is thinking, when the work just flows, and that is an amazing experience. Other times, not so much.

Here’s one of the paintings I made in the Ossington Ave studio. I don’t remember the title. I’m very grateful this painting has a good home.

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I still have some woodcuts I made back in those days, but few of the paintings. Some of them I remember well. The Listening Machine. The New Murphy Power Plant. The Bad Inventor. They still resonate with me.

I went through a phase when I was making paintings which I thought of as post-industrial ruins. I remember working on one of them, a painting with a smokestack belching sick greenish smoke. I was working on the smoke one day, really concentrating on getting the ugliest colours I could muster, when I had what I thought was a synesthetic experience. I could smell the colours. How fantastic is that? As I was working, I became conscious of this phenomenon happening to me, and it caused me to concentrate harder on what I was doing. The smell became increasingly intense. Suddenly I looked up and my studio was filling with smoke. I ran into the kitchen where the person who lived and worked in the back studio was making toast. My studio-mate was nowhere to be found, the toast was burnt black, and flames were shooting from the toaster.



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