[This is the second section of the blog post “how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 2: OCA bands”]

The Ontario College of Art & Design University (until 1996, just “the OCA”) lies just up the hill from Queen Street West, perched along McCaul Street with Grange Park and the august Art Gallery of Ontario at its back. The AGO features the most important collection of works by the Group of Seven, a cadre of painters from the 1920s whose luminescent renderings of Canadian landscapes helped the country reimagine itself outside of its colonial history and developed a fine art tradition of Canadian cultural nationalism. The Group of Seven are likewise all over the institutional history of the OCA as senior administrators and faculty as well as storied participants in bitter internecine battles over curriculum and artistic legitimacy that have wracked the college from time to time.

OCADU Main Building beneath Sharpe Centre for Design.

From Grange Park, view of Art Gallery of Ontario with Frank Gehry addition.

It’s a curious fact that despite the OCA’s proximity and prestige, its institutional footprint on the Queen Street West neighborhood was very modest until the 1970s. Before then the street and its environs to the south were largely industrial; its residents were mostly immigrant and working-class, not students or bohemians. (To this day the OCA has no official student or faculty residences in the neighborhood to speak of.) The OCA’s very gradual influence upon QSW can be better understood alongside the development of art communities and bohemian spaces in Toronto.

 

Previous arts bohemias in Toronto

In her article “What Ever Happened to Queen St. West?” art historian Rosemary Donegan (1986: 16) documents how an art community of Toronto first came together in “favourite restaurants, exhibition rooms, clubs and studios of the visual artists, writers, architects and bon vivants of the Bohemian set of the 1880s” deep downtown along Adelaide, King, and Toronto Streets east of Yonge Street. At this time there were no private galleries of the kind that today support most professional fine artists; major exhibition space was instead provided in events sponsored by affiliated formal art societies like the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists, and by local entities like the Toronto Art Students League and the Mahlstick Club. This was “where the public role of the artist was played out,” Donegan explains. “From a contemporary perspective, they seem like rather odd men’s clubs masquerading as formal organizations.”

The 1920s brought another step in the development of a fine arts milieu that would converge socially around the OCA. In 1921 the OCA purchased its first building in Grange Park, the start of its current campus location along McCaul Street. As previously noted, the Group of Seven made its mark in this decade. Also in the 1920s and through the next decade, art studios and galleries along Grenville Street (to the north of the AGO) extended the spatial footprint of the Toronto arts community. In the 1940s, private galleries as we now know them began to appear in Toronto, ushering in an era when groups of painters became associated with streets with key galleries located on them, e.g., the Hayden Street or “Studio Group” of artists such as Barker Fairley, Isabelle Reid, John Hall, and future OCA painting professor Aba Bayefsky. In this period, the Gerrard Street Village cultivated a specific milieu for what Donegan called its “folksy Bohemia.”

There were places like Angelo’s with its Italian food, red-checked tablecloths and bottles available on the second floor, if you were discrete; or Mary John’s, ‘the’ social centre of the Village, where multi-varnished travel posters covered the walls, known for its butter tarts, and the fact that Albert Holmes would hand-deliver meals on a tray in the neighbourhood. Everybody from the Group of Seven, Steven Leacock, Ernest Hemingway to the doctors from the nearby hospitals hung out there. There were a number of blind-pigs in the area and bootleggers, like Sam, the Italian, at the corner store of LaPlante and Gerrard. The Little Denmark on Bay St. was famous for its breakfasts and cleanliness. It is the public places and popular stories which are synonymous with the Gerrard St. Village, and identified it to both the Village residents and the rest of the city. [Donegan 1986: 12, 15]

The post-WWII development of an emancipatory artistic modernism — abstract expressionism, beatnik poetry and literature, free jazz, John Cage’s musical innovations, etc. — gave a jolt to the city’s art community and began the thaw from the cultural doldrums associated with Toronto the Good. A group of Canadian painters under the name Painters Eleven embraced abstract painting, with the encouragement of American critic Clement Greenberg. A few members, like Jack Bush, were OCA grads while others, most notably Jock Macdonald, were faculty. In 1956 gallerist Avrom Isaacs opened the Isaacs Gallery (initially named the Greenwich Art Shop) on 742 Bay Street. His was the first in a burgeoning network of private galleries in the Gerrard Village Area. By the next decade, the Isaacs Gallery became a home base for “the second generation of Toronto abstractionists” (Donegan 1986: 17). This group of artists was especially likely to seek the giant spaces and urban grit of the city’s industrial/commercial areas for their studios and residences, with Spadina Avenue (the north-south thoroughfare that intersects QSW) a favored location. If not yet a street scene, an urban bohemia was beginning to form downtown.

Spadina Avenue… was the stomping ground in the 1960s for one of the most mercurial, argumentative, thoughtful, hard-drinking and seriously talented coteries of artists in Canadian art history — I mean Gordon Rayner, Graham Coughtry, Robert Markle and the rest of the gang that had second- or third-floor studios up and down Spadina Avenue and along College Street, showed mostly at the Isaacs Gallery and drank at Grossman’s Tavern (379 Spadina Avenue), the still-boisterous live-music venue wedged into an elegant, Second Empire–style home. [Goddard 2014]

OCA student and future Muffin Mark Gane remembers Graham Coughtry, himself an OCA graduate, holding a residency at the college in the mid-70s:

I know he did at least one residency, but basically what that meant was he would set up in the Annex, in the Experimental Arts — it was like a big trestle table — set up a huge canvas, have a bottle of Jack Daniels, and be playing crazy music on his blaster, getting drunk, sort of coming on to the girls. And over the course of a month, this fantastic painting would appear. He’d be flinging gobs of oil paint. He was one of those male artists that came out of the ‘50s that were sort of godlike, and super macho. If he, you know, wanted to screw your wife, he’d probably tell you to your face while he was plastered, then get punched down the stairs, then wake up the next morning and do another great painting. They were all sort of like Hemingway, that sort of thing. He had a beard and crazy hair. But those guys were all sort of larger than life. So he’d teach there. [Mark Gane]

Artists’ Jazz Band: By some criteria, perhaps the first “OCA band” was the Artists’ Jazz Band, a roughly two-decades-long project that included Coughtry, Rayner, Markle, Michael Snow, and Nobua Kubota among its rotating line-up of artists. None was musically trained when they started the AJB, but they took seriously the musical and aesthetic principles of free jazz in creating an idiosyncratic form of improvisational music. Hardly a party band, much less one aimed at OCA students, the AJB eschewed high-profile nightclub gigs and music press publicity for sporadic gallery events, loft concerts, and institutional performances. The macho, rugged quality of the Toronto abstractionists’ worldview emerges in statements by two noted AJB members:

The AJB has played for itself, for our women, for our art, for the joy of music. We’ve done John Cage music for the mixed media concerts organized by Udo Kasemets, played for Ferlinghetti plays, and done concerts at the Ontario College of Art, the New School of Art, York University, Sarah Lawrence College, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the University of Windsor, and the Plaza de Toros in Ibiza in Spain. [Robert Markle, quoted in Gallagher 1976: 44]

I took the AJB [to an isolated north Ontario cabin] a couple of times and I’ll never forget the tiny rowboat struggling across the river, barely above the waterline, laden down with the complete band, including a saxophones, trombones, a contrabass, and a whole set of drums. During the night I would walk down to the river for a couple of buckets of water and I’d hear the wonderful improvised music emanating from the cabin on the hill, filling the wilderness with sounds that seemed to flow naturally with the wind and the river. [Gordon Rayner]

 

The revolution at OCA

Arts development in the specific neighborhood now known as QSW was still negligible for much of the 1960s, notwithstanding a few noted exceptions like Painters Eleven member Jack Bush renting a studio in the neighborhood. Painting and sculpture were the dominant art media in Toronto at the time, displayed with high visibility (and some grumbling about their derivative quality) at private galleries like Carmen Lamanna’s uptown, not far from the flourishing of folk music and psychedelia in Yorkville. Some might argue the most significant local development for Toronto art in this decade was the writing and lectures that Marshall McLuhan was doing at the University of Toronto, just a few blocks away from the OCA. His provocative body of theory — often distilled around the statement “The medium is the message,” from his 1964 book Understanding Media — stimulated a new reflexivity and experimentation with communications media throughout the world of fine art, alongside the similarly salutary influence of Roland Barthes’ semiotics and the nascent postmodernism of pop art.

If OCA faculty entertained such conceptual concerns, the historical record suggests they were in the minority until the institutional earthquake brought about by Roy Ascott, a British artist and teacher, who became OCA’s president in 1971. As a pedagogue, Ascott was a proponent of integrating cybernetics — e.g., “behavioural control, conditioned communication, feedback, participation and systematic relationships” — into art instruction, as Michael Bracewell explains in his Roxy Music monograph Re-make/Re-model (2007:195). (Famously, Brian Eno found great inspiration in Ascott’s courses at England’s Ipswitch Civic College in 1964-65.) With little consultation of college administration or faculty, Ascott hired a number of “non-visually oriented” instructors, such as Estonian composer and John Cage acolyte Udo Kasemets. Another such instructor, writer Morris Wolfe, recalls Ascott’s agenda:

Ascott announced that he was abolishing departments and formal classes. His OCA would be a ‘free’ school, a place where students reached out for what they needed to learn. The College’s primary responsibility, as he saw it, was to provide as broad a range of human and physical resources as possible for the students to draw on. [Wolfe 2001: 45]

OCA President Roy Ascott recorded his campus address onto a 7″ single.

Many OCA students, particularly independently minded ones, thrived in this experimental setting, while many others, particularly those seeking practical skills or conventional art training, felt rather lost. Yet separate from the intrinsic merits of his radical pedagogy, it appears that Ascott, either unknowingly or heedlessly, had walked into the minefield of rancor and conflict that preceded him: between figurative and abstractionist painting faculty, between arts faculty and external advocates for applied design education, between advocates for faculty tenure and their opponents, between rebellious students and stodgy instructors, and so on. These divisions became realigned almost immediately into pro-Ascott and anti-Ascott factions, whose battles waged through the rest of the year until the OCA Council literally locked Ascott out of his office on May 5, 1972. By the end of the following month, having barely presided over the college for one academic year, Ascott tendered his resignation in exchange for a year and a half’s salary.

It’s often held that Ascott’s exit represented a victory for reactionary OCA faculty and restored the conservative mood that held sway prior to Ascott. For instance, Morris Wolfe (2001: 74) contends, “It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the conservative hold on the College began to loosen and a shift to a more democratic OCA slowly gained momentum.” Yet Ascott left an important if small legacy.

In a conciliatory gesture to Ascott’s supporters, [new President] Clifford Pitt and the chairs created a small Experimental Arts Department, its faculty made up of abstractionists and other avant gardists… The other exception was the creation, under Richard Hill, a McLuhanite, of a small Photo/Electric Arts Department, with hands-on and academic courses in photography, film, video, and computers. (I taught film history courses in Photo/Electric.) Along with Ex Arts, we were separated from the rest of the College and housed in other buildings. [Wolfe 2001: 71]

This small legacy would bear fruit in the QSW soil nourished by contemporaneous developments in the city’s art world.

 

A new arts generation emerges

In the 1970s, innovative art in Toronto increasingly employed conceptual turns and methodological/organizational techniques that were at least entertainable if not exactly envisioned under Ascott’s agenda. As Philip Monk (2016) observes, a new cohort of artists and arts media drawn heavily from “hippies and draft dodgers” began making its presence known in Toronto art and seeking space for their production and presentation activities. Although they didn’t originally locate in QSW when the 70s began, by the decade’s end they would be synonymous with the neighborhood.

The trailblazing institution here is the art and performance venue A Space Gallery, opened in 1971 in Gerrard Village. In contrast to Isaacs’ gallery, the Carmen Lamanna Gallery, and other private galleries dedicated predominantly to painting and sculpture, A Space was focused on new media for artistic expression and was pointedly artist-run.

A Space was a place that had a very wide sense of what an art gallery was about and sort of originated many of those notions for Toronto. Because it was not only, you know, painting and sculpture, [but by the mid 1970s also] printmaking, xerography, performance, new music, jazz, rock bands, Talking Heads, video theater, avant garde theater, publishing, poetry readings. Only Paper Today came out of that. So the whole so-called underground scene was really consolidated at A Space. [Philip Monk]

Also from a quasi-hippie background came three artists — AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal — who operated under the collective moniker General Idea. Initially the trio worked in the self-distributed networks of “mail art” inspired by the Fluxus movement; to that end they established an arts magazine, FILE (a tabloid-sized detournement of LIFE), in 1972 and a bookstore, Art Metropole (originally located downtown on 241 Yonge Street, across the current Eaton Centre). General Idea’s dissemination of others’ art was soon eclipsed by their own work: photography and staged events that drew upon mass media vocabularies of celebrity, advertising, and glamour. Frequently dismissed at the time by critics and rival artists, General Idea’s work transcended pop art facsimiles and quotations with original imagery (typically featuring the three artists themselves) that foregrounded issues of identity, bodies, and sexuality in ways that would later preoccupy feminist and queer art and criticism. Quickly, the trio became the most significant new artists to come from Toronto.

General Idea: Self Portrait (1969)

Premiere issue of FILE Magazine (1972)

Together, A Space and General Idea opened up the Toronto art community to a whole new generation of participants in a number of ways. They represented the vanguard for a new artistic cohort who had no place or interest in the Spadina Avenue fine arts scene; they demonstrated the significance of new artistic media like performance art, video, and arts publications; they exemplified artist-run praxis in behind-the-scenes activities, like venue management and curation, traditionally ceded to institutional gatekeepers; and they gave a new public profile, in terms of audience access and street-level presence, for modern art.

CCMC: From a distance, the emerging art scene seemed at aesthetic and generational odds with the old guard ensconced in the Isaacs Gallery and along Spadina Avenue; “painting and drawing became kind of thoroughly discredited in the mid-70s,” explains former OCA student [and future Diode] Ian Mackay. Yet experimental music was one area of affinity between the two worlds, at least in the hands of former Artists’ Jazz Band members Graham Coughtry, Nobuo Kubota, and Michael Snow. Along with Peter Anson, Larry Dubin, Greg Gallagher, Allan Mattes, Casey Sokol, and Bill Smith they formed the Canadian Creative Music Collective, more commonly referred to as CCMC, in 1974 as a new vehicle for free-jazz improvisation. Active to this day with various memberships, CCMC appears to have brought the prior Artists’ Jazz Band to an end.

More significant to this story than the CCMC’s musical creations was its organizational legacy: the Music Gallery, opened in 1976 at 30 Patrick Street, next to the OCA. Still in operation today, the Music Gallery provided a stable location for avant-garde music in the OCA vicinity, complementing what in a few years would be a growing number of bars and clubs presenting the rock counterpart of “challenging modern music.” Its institutional bona fides lent momentum, for instance, to an associated Music Gallery record label that would release albums by CCMC and similar art-music artists (such as the Nihilist Spasm Band). Just as important, the Music Gallery was the first in an extensive list of artist-runs spaces that set up in the Queen Street West area over the second half of the 1970s, following the example of A Space and General Idea outside the neighborhood. Collectively, these establishments created a particular niche for QSW as an arts scene, corresponding to the needs of the emerging arts media.

Timeline of art venues and artist-run centres. Source: Monk 1998.

The production of the visual arts, especially traditional painting, sculpture, photography, is usually regarded as a private activity… the individual creative act. What is unusual about the 1970s and 1980s, specifically in the Queen St. area, is the development of co-operative spaces, workshops, audio-visual studios and performance spaces. These production, exhibition and distribution centres are more than work spaces, but are in fact points at which the community of artists can meet, exchange valuable information, make production contacts, or socialize. Both the traditional visual arts and the newer related fields of video, performance, and audio art require a public social context, within which the implications of the work… its quality, significance, economic value… are established. It is the response by the public and one’s own peer group that defines one as an ‘artist’ or as a ‘musician,’ and as a member of the ‘community.’ [Donegan 1986: 12-13, ellipses in original]

 

Glamazon

By the mid-1970s a number of art happenings inspired by the broader ethos shared by A Space and General Idea sent out the call, if you will, to Toronto’s emerging community of artists, would-be artists, their friends and audiences to model, perform, and entertain. Steven Davey appears to have heard the call early on.

My brother [Steven Davey], who was always an artistically bent guy and, you know, a gay man, moved downtown and hung out with people of like mind. And he met artists. Those were the people who became his friends, initially along with the friends he had from high school. And he got into that whole community of people who were working professionally as artists, who were young inspirational people, people who had some vision and ideas who were doing things. And those are the kind of people he wanted to be around. [Scott Davey]

While Steven Davey was playing music with Thornhill friends in the Dogs, he was also studying film history at York University. There he struck up a friendship with David Buchan, a young gay artist with an affinity for the conceptual imagery of General Idea (he was an early employee at Art Metropole) but a keener interest in fashion and the runway. Through Buchan, by the mid-70s Davey was embedded within the General Idea clique, where he socialized and, importantly, sharpened his precocious artistic sensibility. After college Davey began to write professionally and had a number of film reviews published in the Toronto Star; this work further mixed him with the city’s enfants terrible of culture. In keeping with his character as a gregarious “hipster” and his central role in the Thornhill sound, Davey is the figure who most influentially bridged the Thornhill sound with Toronto’s emerging art community, a connection forged (if his brother Scott Davey’s reports are reliable) at least two years prior to their band the Dishes.

‘Cause the whole Queen Street thing’s all him. He’s the guy, dude, you know? Everybody else was just kind of his friend. [Scott Davey]

However, Steven Davey wasn’t the first Thornhill Secondary (‘70)/York University student to make a splash in the Toronto art community. That distinction belongs to Dawn Eagle, a multimedia artist who organized (with Granada Gazelle) the “fashion show” Glamazon on December 14-15, 1975. A full list of participants, not to mention images from this event, is hard to find, which is telling; Philip Monk (2016) argues Glamazon has been unfairly neglected in histories of women’s performance art in Toronto and Canada. However, David Buchan is recorded as stage manager for the event. Also, Martha Johnson (Eagle’s Thornhill Secondary classmate) remembers participating in Glamazon, which makes likely Steven Davey’s presence, if only in the audience. It was a women’s fashion show, after all:

I think that was the show in which I did the song “Shout.” And I did a lip sync to it or something. Maybe I sang it, I can’t remember. [Martha Johnson]

But it didn’t take Barthes for a group of feminist artists, writers, singers, and fashionistas to perform their own critiques of the suffocating traditional roles of women as played out in and reinforced by the mass media. They had first-hand experience of the liberating yet debilitating effects of popular culture: all that girl group sorrow of boyfriends’ beckoning and mothers’ no. It was not only Bryan Ferry who could recuperate these songs of teenage girls’ angst as camp. Second wave feminists could, too. So for a couple of years in the mid-1970s, these women lip-synched and paraded themselves down runways in period costume sewn up and fashioned from thrift shops or vintage stores, notably in Glamazon, 1975, organised by Dawn Eagle and Granada Gazelle. [Monk 2016: 29-30]

Dawn Eagle and David Buchan, 1976. Photo by Isobel Harry.

The gregarious, collaborative art process modeled by the emerging art scene would find parallel in rock bands beginning to surface around OCA. Here again, the Thornhill sound played a crucial role.

Next – Oh Those Pants! bring the Thornhill sound to OCA.

 

ROAD MAP TO QSW:

how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 1: the Thornhill sound
the Thornhill sound
suburban dream
precocious urbanites: the Ross sisters
the starmaker: Steven Davey
the bands of Thornhill

how the Queen Street West scene began, pt. 2: OCA bands
the Thornhill sound leaves home
how art came to QSW
Oh Those Pants! bring the Thornhill sound to OCA
the Dishes open up QSW to new music
punk and art: the Diodes
the Thornhill sound set loose on QSW
the last house band: Martha and the Muffins

sources, citations and updates