Thursday, March 08, 2007

Shapetionary in the Parkdale Liberty

The Shape of Things as they Are:
Margaret Flood's visual dictionary projectis drawing her to some interesting places.

Toronto’s often called the “World Within a City” – but with a unique new project, there’s a Parkdale artist who might have gone one notch better.

Given the huge international response to her Shapetionary, a collaborative, artistic dictionary-type project, Maple Grove Ave. resident Margaret Flood seems to be creating a “World Within a Book” – or a world within her mailbox, at least.

The Shapetionary project began in September 2006, when Flood – intrigued by the idea of creating a shape-driven compendium of language – extracted 9,500 concrete nouns from her kitchen-shelf dictionary.

After advertising for participating illustrators on Internet artist message boards, Flood received responses from 900 artists worldwide, including ones from Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Tasmania, Indonesia, Austria, Turkey, Hungary, France, South Africa, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Mexico, Russia and Jerusalem.

Having farmed out words for illustration at 6 to 12 per person, she has received roughly 2,000 drawings back so far, with newly interested artists forced to go on a waiting list.

Though she’s only steps from artsy Queen West, the Shapetionary project has opened Flood’s eyes – and connected her to – other flourishing artists’ conclaves far and wide.

“I had one email from Tasmania,” Flood says, “And then in a couple of weeks I got a lot, maybe 15 or 20 more. I’m realizing in a very concrete way that there’s a contemporary art scene in Tasmania, or Lisbon or Poland.”

While Flood was eager to accumulate drawings for the project, there were some she couldn’t accept: “When something was illustrated in a political manner – like a garbage pail with Toronto shoved in it – it’s kind of funny but not what I’m looking for.”

Certain requests Flood received were also curious.

“Some people asked for depressing words to illustrate, while others asked for ones starting with the same letter as their name, others for food, and some even for ones that nobody else wanted.”

Interestingly, Flood says that the Shapetionary project, which has a collaborative, dispersed nature rather unlike her previous sculptural installation works, was unintentionally driven by Toronto’s skyrocketing real estate market.

“I think this project is partly a response to a lack of affordable studio space,” Flood says, “It’s a byproduct of needing a project I could do in my home. I didn’t want to nail stuff to the walls [as would be necessary in painting, sculpture or installation] and freak out my landlord.”

“I love our neighbourhood,” says Flood, who grew up in Vancouver, has lived in Hamilton and Halifax, and moved to Toronto and Parkdale a year-and-a-half ago with her partner. “But to be an artist in this city is difficult.”

Like many Parkdale artists, Flood has a day job; luckily for her, it’s one that’s compatible with her other work.

“I’m a crisis worker with a mental health centre,” Flood explains, “I’m lucky to have a job I find interesting and fulfilling and that pays me decently. Not all artists have that.”

Overnight 12-hour shifts on the job also gained Flood some quiet time to move the project forward.

“At first I kept thinking, how can I get all the concrete nouns out of the dictionary without actually reading it? Can I do it by computer or something?”

Since she couldn’t find a way to do that, her dictionary reading took up about a month of time on the night shift, in the bath, in bed and on transit.

In the end, though, Flood says the time invested is worth it. Her dream for the project is to have a book published.

“It’s daunting to organize all the drawings by shape, but it would be really exciting,” Flood says. “And I’d love to have a big party for all who participated.”

While it’s doubtful that all of Flood’s Shapetionary contributors could make it to Maple Grove Ave. for the party, one thing’s for sure: those who did, no matter where they’re from, would probably feel right at home in Toronto.

Leah Sandals, March 2007

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