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Honest Ed Was No Artist, but He Sure Can Draw a Crowd

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Amongst the racks at Honest Threads, a visitor reads stories about donated pieces of clothing. Photo by Meg Campbell/Torontoist.

“Honest Ed’s” is usually the answer to questions such as “Where can I get a complete dish set for $10?” or “How can I buy the pewter Elvis bust and two-dozen mouse traps I need from one store?” and not often “Where can I see a well conceived and interactive art exhibit?” But things change. Honest Threads is sponsored by the Koffler Centre for the Arts and is its first off-site exhibit—one that has attracted so many visitors that organizers extended its run, initially set to end March 8, to the end of the month.


Housed on the second floor of the store’s east wing in the Men’s Department, the exhibit features donated pieces of clothing, on loan from both local celebrities, such as Jamie Kennedy (his chef’s jacket) and former Parkdale—High Park MP Peggy Nash (her Tibetan chhuba), as well as items from the closets of “ordinary Torontonians.” Accompanying each item is a description of its history: where and why its owner got it, and where and by whom it has been worn. If anything particularly strikes their fancy, visitors are encouraged to take a piece home with them for a few days, after leaving their credit-card number as collateral (if an item is not returned, a charge of $500 will be applied). Any item may be borrowed, with two exceptions: Honest Ed Mirvish’s black patent-leather shoes and a fur coat—which was on loan until a borrower damaged it.
There is an incredible range of clothing and stories—some funny, some sad, some brief, some epic. Ilanit Shohat donated her New Kids on the Block T-shirt to the show. In the accompanying text she writes: “NKOTB; early nineties and to this day, still get to me.” Across the room is Miriam Schlanger’s party dress, which she wore when reuniting with her sister in 1977, three decades after they were separated by the tumult of WWII.
Rachel Ellison, a Koffler Centre intern, said that on the day of Torontoist’s visit three items were checked out, and she estimated that since Honest Threads opened thirty to forty items had been borrowed. The decision to extend the exhibit was based in part on its popularity, but Ellison said that Honest Ed’s manager Russell Lazar was eager to keep hosting the show, which opened on January 22, through March break.

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Photo by Meg Campbell/Torontoist.


Honest Threads is the work of Toronto artist Iris Häussler, whose projects over her long and prolific career have often used material objects to evoke hidden narratives—she creates immersive, out-of-gallery environments for imagined or “collaged” characters. Honest Threads is a departure, then, although Häussler continues to show her interest in narrative and interactivity with this piece.
A panel discussion titled “Truth or Dare: Three perspectives on two projects by Iris Häussler,” held at the store on the evening of March 5, featured David Moos, the AGO’s contemporary art curator; Shelley Hornstein, associate professor of art and architectural history at York U; and Toronto novelist Martha Baillie. The focus of the event was on Häussler’s works currently on display in the city: Honest Threads and a concurrent piece titled He Named Her Amber at the The Grange, the historic house situated on the south side of the Art Gallery of Ontario. We highly recommend you check that one out (but it’s too complex to explain here—you’ll just have to trust us).
In a room in the low-ceilinged basement of Ed’s, as seizure-inducing red, yellow, and green lights flashed overhead, a buzzing crowd gathered to hear the panellists give their own takes on Häussler’s practice and attempt to work out the difference between truth and truthiness that she so often explores. Moos discussed the complicated task of presenting her work at the Grange, noting that the hard-to-categorize piece, in typical Häussler style, is positioned “where art and reality intersect.” Hornstein focused on Honest Threads and especially on the significance of it being put on at Honest Ed’s, where “space is at a premium,” and she pointed out that the exhibit challenges visitors to break a “cardinal rule” of galleries and touch, even wear, the pieces on display. Fittingly, Baillie presented her thoughts on Häussler’s projects as a slow-burn narrative, adding that she was at first drawn more to the stories presented in Honest Threads than the actual clothing, but with time and effort she felt there was as much honesty in the cloth as in the words on the wall. Häussler, who observed the panel from the audience, gave her two cents on doubts about the texts’ veracity: “The moment I read them, they are true to me, emotionally.”

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Visitors may sign the exhibit’s guestbook, where, in addition to the blog, participants are encouraged to leave their own stories about lending or borrowing clothing items. Photo by Isaac Applebaum, courtesy of The Koffler Centre.


The Koffler Centre is intent on making the exhibit a big deal. There’s even a blog for it, where the organizers post media coverage and those who have participated in Honest Threads can leave their thoughts on the experience. A visitor named Vicki O’Donnell wrote:

Really though, the impression I take away with me in the end is a tangible sense of that delicate thread of tender affection that is continually passed on, down and around—ties of family and friendship. It does make the world that looks flat under our feet feel a little more like the circle we carry in our minds.

Who ever thought that such deep sentiments could spring from a place known mostly for its deep discounts?
Honest Threads runs to March 29 at Honest Ed’s (581 Bloor Street West) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesdays; 11 a.m.–3 p.m. on Fridays; and is closed on Mondays and Jewish holidays. Admission is FREE.

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