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culture

The Artists’ Soup Kitchen Feeds the Body and Soul

The Starving Artists Collective provides free hot meals and art performances for the creative public.

Artist Tobaron Waxman sings to the lunch-time audience.

For Toronto’s Starving Artists Collective, Monday was truly a red-letter day. The rainy afternoon marked the third installment of their weekly free lunch series, The Artists’ Soup Kitchen, which includes a themed meal and performance. This week’s theme, chosen by artist Tobaron Waxman, was “red,” resulting in an array of crimson culinary delights at the The Raging Spoon, on Queen West.

The place was appropriately tarted up. Everything from the tablecloths to the centrepieces was red. Amongst a group of tables, people of all ages lined up for bowls of steaming beet-red borscht, topped with sour cream, herbs, and edible gold flakes. Dark rye and butter accompanied the soup, and the tables were piled high with plates of fresh red fruits: strawberries, raspberries, cherries, apples, and grapes. Cheerful volunteers served coffee and tea, along with dyed-red water. It was easy to forget that all of this—along with the performance—were open to the public and totally free.

“This is about understanding artists as an under-served community in this city,” said organizer and artist Jess Dobkin, who runs the Starving Artists Collective along with Raging Spoon manager Catherine Clarke and OCAD instructor Stephanie Springgay. “When we talk about arts funding sometimes it feels kind of abstract. A lot of artists really are struggling with basic life issues.”

The Collective’s intentions, however, extend beyond just filling bellies. “We want to bring artists together, to eat and break bread,” Dobkin said. “It’s about giving an opportunity for artists to meet each other and create a community.”

With this in mind, The Collective selected a range of different Toronto artists to perform at the lunches. This week, Waxman began his performance by shaving all of the hair on his head before launching into a series of Jewish songs that he said focused on death and transformation. For the next hour Waxman made his way through the room, approaching diners and serenading their tables. “It’s been 10 years since I’ve performed in Toronto,” he said. “This is a chance to take these ideas for a test drive.”

As part of his performance, Waxman shaves his head before beginning to sing.

Waxman’s mournful voice and solemn songs filled the café, touching upon a sombre layer beneath cheeriness of the event. Back in September, The Raging Spoon’s location, a former church at 761 Queen West—which had belonged to the Toronto United Church Council for the past 100 years and is home to a number of non-profits—was sold to private developers, and the entire building will soon be closed. It may be demolished to make room for condos. “This is the last event that’s going to be happening in this space,” said Dobkin. “It’s a real loss for the strip. I feel like there aren’t enough public spaces like this where people can come together and socialize, and it’s free and open. To me, real estate is a real issue in this city, where spaces are being pushed out for corporate use.”

The Raging Spoon, a café and catering service staffed by survivors of mental illness, will continue on as a catering company, although their next location is still unknown. In the meantime, Clarke is happy to cook up the weekly Artists’ Soup Kitchen lunches, and works with each artist to develop the menu. Waxman had requested the day’s all-red menu (he said the colour relates most directly to the physical body). Two weeks before, the artists had planned a Dr. Seuss theme, so Clarke prepared green eggs (with spinach) and ham.

The bulk of the funding for the food comes from a Toronto Arts Council grant designed specifically for the project. Springgay, who is currently doing research on contemporary artists and public projects, added some SSHRC funding. Thanks to the grants and the hard work of the organizers, visitors can stop by The Raging Spoon from 12 to 3 p.m. and catch a free performance and meal for the next three Mondays.

As Dobkin observed the 25 or so attendees mingling in the café, she praised the arts community that is already present in the city. “There’s always greener grass, but I actually feel that Toronto has a lot going for it for artists,” she said. “There’s a pretty dynamic community. I feel really lucky to live here.”

The next Artists’ Soup Kitchen is on Monday, January 30, and features artist Naty Tremblay.

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