It was in the summer of 2020 — the first dog days of the pandemic — when artist Zack Rosen began his regular trips to the Toronto Islands.
“I had nothing else to do, so I started going to Hanlan’s Point a lot,” Rosen says, “and I realized that it’s just the most beautiful place in the entire city.”
Rosen had been pondering his future. Should he become a full-time writer? Artist? Dog trainer? He’d studied art and design at George Brown a few years before, and months into the pandemic, Rosen says that art chose him. “And because of the pandemic, I had all the time to practice it.”
One day last June, during one of his twice-weekly treks to Hanlan’s Point — believed to be the first nude beach in North America and the oldest continuously used queer space in Canada — that the idea for his current exhibition came about. The show, titled “Take Me Back to Happiness,” is at the Northern Contemporary Gallery in Roncesvalles through March 14. “It’s cold, and summer feels very far away,” he says. “I hope to make people remember that summer is coming, and the beach is still there.”
As Rosen was getting the show in order, he wasn’t prepared for the controversy surrounding Hanlan’s Point that would spring up just weeks before the opening. As reported by the Star in February, a proposal to build an event space on Hanlan’s Point was met with opposition by LGBTQ advocates who feared the community would be pushed out. The plans have since been rescinded. But, as Rosen points out, the fight for this space is far from over.
What inspired this exhibit?
Hanlan’s Point itself was my No. 1 inspiration. When beach season started back in early June, I didn’t feel like reading, so I bought a small spiral-bound pad of watercolour paper and a set of watercolour pencils and began drawing the little slices of queer male life and avian wildlife that I saw all around me. It was almost a game, how quickly can you sketch a scene before it disappears — before the person you see moves?
I was very happy with how these little pieces turned out, and in August I made the decision to expand it into a full show.
What does Hanlan’s represent to you?
It’s a collision with what’s still wild inside of us and inside the city of Toronto. It’s a brush with nature. Queerness cannot be stamped out or erased, despite all efforts. Neither can the grass or the trees — they’re a part of city life, even if you have to strain sometimes to see them.
At the heart of Hanlan’s is freedom — freedom to be naked, freedom to be openly queer, freedom to be oneself, free from judgement and clothes. Hanlan’s is almost Toronto’s version of Stonewall in some way. It’s a very important place and it’s a safe space for us.
Though the city has rescinded the plan to build a venue in the area, the proposal was met with a swift response from the LGBTQ community. With this exhibit coming on the heels of that controversy, what are your thoughts?
I don’t think we’re through the woods yet. An Instagram page called Hands Off Hanlan’s says there’s still a lot of work to be done. And given that City Hall seems to desire to destroy everything beautiful and public in this city, I think it’s well worth organizing around.
I’m happy that my show can galvanize a bit of love and support around Hanlan’s when we need it the most, and to remind people what we’re fighting for. It’s the queers’ safe place but it’s also a little patch of wilderness. I hope people come away with that appreciation and maybe they can see Hanlan’s through a fresh perspective.
What is the importance of an LGBTQ space in Toronto, and how has that need evolved over the last few years?
The foremost importance is the ability to express oneself and one’s queerness without the threat of physical violence. Everything else pales in comparison to that need. Further down the pyramid is the joy of having a place where everyone is just like you — where you will not be scorned or judged for being yourself. I’m scared for the future of the Islands, and I really can’t imagine Toronto without this. It’s built into the fabric of the city and so important to the queer community. You can’t just separate the two: an attack on Hanlan’s is like an attack on us.
What would you like to see for the future of Hanlan’s?
Leave it alone! It’s absolutely fine as it is. We’ve managed for this long. and there’s no reason to fix something that isn’t broken. Save that for Ontario Place. Toronto is for developers, it seems, and they find things that are beautiful and historical and just take them away.
Where’s your favourite public art space?
The Toronto Music Garden. It’s the perfect merging of natural and planned beauty and is the gold standard for what a park can be.
What are you currently working on?
Now that “Take Me Back to Happiness” is out of my hands, I’m returning to a series of paintings of dog parks, inspired by my work as a dog trainer and the ways that taking packs of dogs out has connected me to the city’s nature spots.
With the cost of everything rising, it’s never been harder for artists to eke out a living in Toronto. What’s the future of the art scene here?
The more pressing question is “What’s the future of Toronto in general?” It’s hard to go home and paint if you spend 20 per cent of your day waiting for a westbound 504 streetcar that never actually comes.
I see Toronto at an impasse right now, especially on the eve of our mayoral turnover. If the city can fix its infrastructure, lower its housing costs and curb the rampant development that replaces everything old and beautiful with an unneeded concrete luxury, then the city can reclaim its position as a world capital of art. If not, the daily difficulties will rise — and produce some great art through the struggle — if the artist can afford to keep living here, and if the streetcar actually ever shows up.
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