Between the tangle of cafes and Portuguese bakeries on Dundas West, an empty space with hardwood floors and stark white walls overlooks Toronto. On the walls, a modest selection of paintings are hung sparingly. Two homemade wooden benches are positioned in the centre of the room, rising out from the hardwood.
“Back here is where our studios are,” says 29-year-old Toronto-based artist Mony Zakhour, welcoming us into his work space. Zakhour is one of the artists who uses Creatures:Collective, a Dundas West gallery and studio space directed by Erin Kjaer and and owned by Darren Leu.
He leads me through the empty, light-soaked room to his studio, where a gaggle of canvases are woven together by spray paint cans, easels, empty Perrier bottles, and the heavy pigmented smell of acrylic paint. Portraits line the walls, staring out at the studio’s inhabitants. Mona Lisa, Albert Einstein, Jay-Z, and Bob Marley smile and squint at me through canvases of melted colours and disjointed shapes. The circles, squares, and triangles that compose each portrait snap into one another with sharp precision. Each icon, although from a different era, rests comfortably beside his or her neighbour. In these humble confines, Jay-Z and Einstein look like the best of friends.
We make our way back to the gallery space, slinking into the wooden benches as we begin hashing out the realities of the lives of Toronto artists, who supplement their income by doing double duty as bartenders and baristas.
Zakhour divulges how Toronto plays a role in both his work and the work of other artists based out of our city: “I love that it’s fast. I grew up in a small town, so I always looked for a busier, bigger city. I love just walking the streets with a coffee and kind of taking it.”
Reflecting on how he started out as an artist, Zakhour recalls: “I never knew what I wanted to be when I was a kid. My parents had a pizza restaurant, so I was raised in that industry. Working with them in the pizza restaurant, I always wanted to open up my own restaurant and work in the food industry. I only got into painting in 2008. I was taking a business course at a community college in Halifax. On my lunch breaks, I would go to a local gallery and see Justin Bua’s paintings. He’s a Brooklyn artist. They were amazing; I was blown away by him. In the time that I did have off, I wanted to do paintings like those. I wanted to mimic him. And I thought, because I had always drawn, that maybe I wouldn’t be as good, but I could do my own thing with it. I was living with my cousin at the time and decided to pick up a canvas and start.”
It took some time for Zakhour to hone his skills: “Everything turned out horribly wrong. I couldn’t for the life of me get a painting right. I finally did a Bob Marley painting. I tried doing the painting at least eight times and finally it worked. It actually worked. That got me painting even more.”
Zakhour was particularly inspired and influenced by urban milieus. “As a kid growing up watching films by filmmakers like Spike Lee, I thought everything filmmakers like him did was absolutely amazing. I was always drawn to that. I was also always drawn to urban culture like New York City.”
A highlight of his career was when he gave Spike Lee one of his paintings at the director’s request.
Zakhour’s time living in Japan in 2009 was also a major influence on his work. “Being away from the Western world, I found I really missed it — I missed the culture, so I started reaching out to films that I hadn’t seen in a while. I tried to listen to music that I had been neglecting as a child growing up… I was also doing a lot of painting. It was all fueled by missing the culture.”
Longing for Western culture, idolizing Justin Bua, and working as a bartender all bleed into the final products that are Zakhour’s paintings. As we go on in our discussion, the interconnectedness of each element involved in creating art is revealed and our talk begins to take on the composition of a Zakhour painting — each part of the conversation rests comfortably on the last as it starts taking on the shape of a distinct icon.
Zakhour continues to work, bartending Monday to Friday. “It’s the interactions with people and their different stories that you take in. I think interaction with people in general kind of keeps you going and keeps your mind going. As artists, we’re lucky that we have the freedom to do what we love. Really, I just want to continue to paint,” he says.
He sits beside me in a hoodie and jean jacket, squinting at the sunlight beating into the empty room. I ask him if he would be open to doing a bit of painting on camera and, after a brief phone call to get permission to use the wall in the back of the studio to paint, he leads us to an exposed brick hallway outside.
“I’ve actually never graffiti spray-painted before. This is my first time doing that. I think it turned out alright,” he muses as he observes the portrait.
His willingness to expand and be seen as an artist begins to peer out through the portrait’s wet paint eyes. I ask him what he thinks about artists of all forms reaching the levels of iconic success that they had once aspired to.
“I grew up in a small town, so I always looked for a busier, bigger city. I love just walking the streets with a coffee and kind of taking it.”
“It’s no longer the struggle,” he says. “As an artist, you’re someone documenting your life and what you’re doing. When [artists] become successful, they’ve done that, and they forget about it. What they’re doing is new but… it’s no longer the struggle.”
“They’re no longer the outsider looking in?” I ask.