My Canada, 39/150: Distilling industry into art

For many years, a once-flourishing industrial district in Toronto fell derelict, its Victorian-era brick buildings being used for movie-shoot backgrounds and not much else.

Gooderham & Worts, once Canada’s largest distiller, was based here until its merger with the Windsor-based Hiram Walker distillery, itself now owned by a multinational corporation: both were famous for “Canadian Whisky”, often called “rye”, that starts with rye and corn, and is aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years.

In the early 2000s, work got underway to transform this industrial site into a place for culture, retail and recreation. The goal was not to create a museum or historic re-creation but to revive the old buildings, using craft and techniques of the 19th century, and fill them with new life.

The Distillery Historic District, opened in 2003, is now home to the Young Centre for the Performing Arts with its three theatres primarily occupied by the Soulpepper theatre company; dozens of arts and crafts galleries and studios; and administrative offices for more than a dozen Toronto arts organizations. There are also restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries, stores, and plenty of people-watching on the brick streets closed to vehicular traffic.

The District continues to explore new ways to showcase arts. In 2017, for the first time it’s hosting the Toronto Light Festival, an outdoor light-sculpture exhibition inspired by a similar festival held in Amsterdam.

This is art that you have to see in the dark, and dark winter evenings are the norm in our northern country.

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Digital Origami Tigers by Laboratory for Visionary Architecture, Australia. Photo: Mark Mooney
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Bands of Friendship by Vikas Patil and Santosh Gujar, India. Photo: Mark Mooney
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My Light is Your Light by Alaa Minawi. Photo: Mark Mooney

My favourite of the exhibition is the light sculpture above by Alaa Minawi, a visual artist from Beirut, Lebanon who works as a lighting designer and writer. He also is an interpreter for Iraqi, Syrian, and Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in the United States – the inspiration for this simple sculpture of people walking to their destination. Only the smallest child is not hunched over in weariness. The placing in a Distillery courtyard is inspired, with the figures heading toward a green door illuminated by an overhead light.

Photographers have been having a heyday with this free festival – local publication Toronto Guardian picked four other sculptures to highlight.

The exhibition runs until Sunday, March 12. Go if you can. And if you need to warm up, you can always honour the spirit of the Distillery, cozy up at one of the many bars, and order a rye on the rocks.

Top photo courtesy Distillery Heritage District

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