The young creators who work in SKETCH’s west-end arts space can feel confident it will be there to return to when the pandemic allows, after a burst of municipal funding earlier this month put its $4-million financing goal within reach.

The City of Toronto’s recent allocation of a little over half a million dollars means the non-profit community arts enterprise is almost finished with the fundraising third of its plan to buy its current rental digs of 9,000 square feet of studio space at Artscape Youngplace.

The collective is three-quarters of the way to its goal of selling $1.4 million in community bonds (a five-year term, $5,000 minimum that offers a four per cent return) by the end of March, and is confident it is in the home stretch towards a permanent home.

(It plans to finance the remaining roughly one-third of the purchase price via traditional mortgage.)

“SKETCH is a home for an entire community,” said Joel Zola, who first encountered the project a decade ago, soon after arriving in Toronto from out West and entering the city's shelter system as a 17-year-old.

“I was amazed by the amount of free activities they had. They had a recording studio, they had a painting studio, it had all these different things happening, and it was all these different, interesting people and everything was free.”

“That was really mind-blowing for me,” he said.

Some 13,000 young people have accessed SKETCH’s programs — free workshops and residences related to ceramics, screen printing, visual arts, dance and movement, DJing, music and culinary arts — since its launch in 1996, including around 1,300 in 2018.

“While living on the streets, there's not really much you can do, but SKETCH is an option,” Zola added. “You can go to SKETCH, you can work on art, you can work on music. It keeps you busy, it keeps you out of trouble.”

“It is more than just a drop-in space, it is literally a community movement,” says Joel Zola of SKETCH.

And you can do much more than that, too, as Zola illustrates.

He mostly joined poetry workshops early on, but two or three years later, took part in its year-long community artist program, getting paid to turn his idea for Street Voices into a reality.

Joel Zola first encountered the project a decade ago, soon after arriving in Toronto from out West and entering the city's shelter system as a 17-year-old. Photo supplied by Joel Zola

The digital media outfit remains under SKETCH’s legal structure (as do more than a dozen other spin-off projects), but is self-sustaining and recently secured its own funding to allow it to expand its editorial team from seven to 20 people and develop a digital directory.

“We are working on a directory, which we are going to launch in the month of March to help people find free services,” said Zola, showing off a working version that at launch will point to at least 730 different shelters, food banks, legal aid and health centres, as well as community programs such as SKETCH.

“When we expand our directory across Canada, which is the vision, that's basically SKETCH’s impact,” he said. “It is more than just a drop-in space, it is literally a community movement.”

Nurturing queer performers

Tyler J. Sloane has also been busy delivering programming for SKETCH; last week wrapping up one part of a residency program teaching participants various aspects of queer performance — from getting started, to costuming and makeup, live performance and burlesque.

(A separate stream focuses on adapting that work for a pre-recorded or digital space, including career development in video production and marketing.)

Sloane is also working with a wider collective creating a healing space for trans-identified people, including a summer retreat, a program specifically for older folk, and the SKETCH bit for those aged 16 to 29.

“We centre a lot of mindfulness on manifesting and strategizing in artful ways what it means to heal ourselves as individuals, what it means to heal ourselves as the trans community,” which has collectively faced a disproportionate amount of loss, grief, mourning and struggle, they said of the program.

“This program would not exist without SKETCH and would not have existed without the studio space at SKETCH,” Sloane said, while acknowledging the loss that comes with being forced to go virtual for the past year.

“Now when it comes to showcasing artists’ work, we have to combat Zoom fatigue,” they said. “When we were able to gather in the space together, there was that lack of dissonance, when we get to be physical with each other, (and) there’s audience interaction, which I feel is so integral to performance of all kinds.”

Tyler Sloane leads two residency programs at SKETCH currently, one on drag performance and another helping trans artists design spaces that tell their stories. Photo supplied by Tyler Sloane via SKETCH

In the recent drag and spoken word performance, participants couldn’t hear applause, Sloane said, and would instead have to read chat messages for affirmation.

“So many of the SKETCH staff came last night to the show and none of my participants know that because they didn't get that interaction, they didn't get that ability to be with each other,” they said.

Sloane said SKETCH has also spent the past year migrating a project by Black artists called "Colour Palette" online, launching it now as part of Black Futures Month.

They are also involved in the latest extension of a series related to "making with place," working on one of three residency programs about "queering space" that will likely involve an installation at the Bentway public art space underneath the Gardiner Expressway.

Sloane’s radio play, Mx — pronounced "mix" and used as an alternative to gendered honorifics such as Mr. and Mrs. — a queer interracial love story that exists around 2016’s Pulse nightclub shooting, the Bruce McArthur trial and Black Lives Matter protests, is due to be released soon as part of the Alberta Queer Calendar Project.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer