Re-visiting St. James Town with Artist Poonam Sharma

A St. James Town update

In 2013, Transforming Communities Through the Arts: A Study of Three Toronto Neighbourhoods was launched by Toronto Arts Foundation. A study of arts impact, the report identified over 90 distinct examples of creative activities occurring in three neighbourhoods; highlighting the critical role the arts play in connecting individuals to each other and empowering them to enrich their community.

The report identified key organizations supporting community development through the arts in the research neighbourhoods. In St. James Town, Community Matters has been a guidepost for the neighbourhood for ten years. They advocate for the neighbourhood, welcome newcomers, and provide settlement services.  Their strength lies in their “neighbours helping neighbours” approach. 

Artist Poonam Sharma with the folklore mural

Community Matters sees arts and cultural activities as an important link in the overall health of the community. They sponsor Bell Box Mural Project and St. James Town Arts; these initiatives support artists living in the community and encourage residents to participate in art projects.  

In the summer of 2015, we re-visited St. James Town Arts and spoke with resident and artist Poonam Sharma. Poonam recently moved to St. James Town from India where she studied architecture, and Indian folk and tribal art.   When asked about what newcomer artists can bring to Toronto, she notes “they can offer all that they have.  They are able to express themselves freely here in a way that they were not at home.” In St. James Town, she was excited to see the variety of art styles being displayed together; she believes this brings a lot of vibrancy and connection to the community. Walking with her through the community she points out a painted mandala, murals on multiple surfaces, and banners highlighting the work of local artists. “Art is a conversation starter” says Poonam.

One of Community Matters’ latest developments is the establishment of Mosaic, a community garden.  The design is a result of feedback from the community about what they wanted in this space.  The garden will lead to “healthy living and community involvement,” says Poonam.

A banner in St. James Town created by Poonam Sharma

In 2015, Poonam received a BMO Seeds Fund Award from the Neighbourhood Arts Network. The $1000 award is designed to help artists make a positive impact in a Toronto neighbourhood through a unique arts project. Poonam’s project was the creation of a folklore mural for the Mosaic garden. Launched in July, the mural created on a stairwell leading to a parking garage, depicts eight folk art styles from India, Pakistan, Sudan, Latin America and Persia.

Poonam explained that her inspiration for the mural was to bring together many types of South Asian folk art, but to keep them each distinct at the same time.  “I think of this place (St. James Town) as a river – Everybody just comes from somewhere and we are a part of one community all the time, and still we are all so different from each other,” she says. 

There are close to 70 different cultures in this tower community.  St. James Town Arts is helping build a sense of community in Canada’s most densely populated neighbourhood.  Poonan noted that many of the residents feel isolated not only from the rest of the city, but within the community as well.  People are nervous about the language barrier and find it difficult to connect with others.  She believes the arts are a lifeline, drawing out residents, encouraging participation, and helping build a sense of belonging.

Community Matters’ next art project is the Neighbourhood of Nations collaboration between three artists, representing the original aboriginal inhabitants of the neighbourhood, the first wave of European settlers and refugees of the early 19th century, and the current wave of immigrants from southwest Asia. They received a Toronto Arts Council Community Arts Project Grant and Poonam is one of the lead artists.

The Transforming Communities Through the Arts report ends with a set of recommended directions to improve arts accessibility at a neighbourhood level.

  • Improved communications within communities
  • Strengthened connections between artists
  • Support, mentoring and connection for newcomer professional artists
  • Skill-building and mentoring for emerging artists
  • More spaces for cultural activities in neighbourhood settings

Margaret Coshan of Community Matters and Michael Cavanagh of St. James Town Arts and Bell Box Murals point out that their work with St. James Town residents is addressing these directions and local arts initiatives help develop the quality of life in the community. 

Poonam is making a difference in her community; creating art and encouraging others to be creative. She knows firsthand the challenges of being a newcomer and creating a new home. Standing in St. James Town, she looks around her and exclaims, “Art makes me feel lively and positive. I like the Mosaic project, this garden is about people coming outside, downstairs (from their tower apartments) to gather and talk to each other.”

Article by Christine J Pellerin and Margo Charlton, Research Manager of Toronto Arts Foundation 


Watch this video of our visit