Creative Family Loft

Toronto loft reveals vision of creativity and talent Matt Brooks, a design-build contractor, and his wife, painter and opera singer Paula Arciniega, transform an industrial space into a family home that nurtures art and imagination By ALEX NEWMANLiving Sat., March 25, 2017 gallery-kitchen-main-turn.jpg.size.custom.crop.850x556

Above a mattress store in Toronto’s west end, an unexpected oasis fuels a family’s creativity. Created from 2,400 square feet of raw industrial space by design-build contractor (and former trumpet player) Matt Brooks and his painter and opera-singer wife Paula Arciniega, the expansive home bursts with energy and colour. Jazz plays through Wi-Fi-enabled Sonos speakers, oversized artwork hangs everywhere, plants flourish in the huge windows. Outside, the neighbourhood has a gritty feel — cab drivers still ask Arciniega if she’s sure this is where she wants to be dropped off. Two years ago, when they first brought the kids, Noah, 10, Oliver, 7, and Salome, 3, to check it out, they gave it the thumbs down. But Brooks had a vision of the haven it could become. His business partner, Eric Adelman, owned the Dufferin and Dupont Sts.-area warehouse and initially Arciniega went to see it as a potential studio space to paint and rehearse opera roles — pursuits too physically large for the semi-detached home the couple owned in St. Clair Village. But she and Brooks were drawn to the idea of making the space their home. “Matt and I had always thought about converting warehouse space into a loft and here was a chance,” Arciniega says. “We knew we’d have to sell the house to swing it, but the market was good.” cover.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x763 Matt Brooks, wife Paula Arciniega and their children, from right, Noah, 10, Salome, 3 and Oliver, 7 enjoy their loft-style home envisioned and transformed by the couple. The concrete floor’s mesmerizing design is a result of white metallic paint being applied in big, abstract gestures.  (J.P. MOCZULSKI / FOR THE TORONTO STAR)

The renovation cost approximately $150,000, and Brooks took advantage of recycled doors, windows and lumber to help keep costs down. They also managed the project themselves, through South Park Design Build. The space was divided into three zones: Paula’s studio at one end; the main area with a galley kitchen, long dining table and chairs, and living room in the middle; and bedrooms with bathrooms at the other end. “We designed the studio to be away from the bedrooms because Paula often listens to music while she’s painting and working late into the night,” Brooks says. “I must have reminded him at least a dozen times about soundproofing,” Arciniega adds. “I practise opera and that’s loud, and I like to practise piano late at night.” gallery-paula-piano.jpg.size.custom.crop.850x567 Oliver, 7, and Salome, 3, peek around the corner as their mom practises on the grand piano she inherited from her grandmother. The studio’s large doors allow Paula Arciniega, an opera singer, and her husband to roll the piano out into the living area for home concerts.  (J.P. MOCZULSKI)

The studio needed to be big enough for a grand piano, and for Arciniega’s large painting canvases. As well, the studio doors had to be large to allow moving the piano in and out, since the couple also envisioned hosting chamber concerts. So far they have held one Pocket Concert, a series of classical-music concerts that people host in their own homes. “Matt and I are so social, we thought how fun would it be to roll the piano out and do that.” The main living area with kitchen, dining and large family room is open — it’s been the scene of countless dinner parties around a long oak table with mismatched chairs. The floors are magical. “Originally, Paula envisioned white floors but when we met with the epoxy guys, they suggested using a white metallic paint additive because clear epoxy actually makes the raw concrete look darker,” says Brooks. gallery-living-room.jpg.size.custom.crop.850x567 Cosy, separate spaces for computer time, a father-daughter chat and even a cat nap, are created with furniture, plants and artwork in the open-concept living area.  (J.P. MOCZULSKI)

“We decided to add the white metallic paint and told them to swirl it around randomly to make big abstract gestures. When the paint/epoxy settled, the metal paint fell into the subtle waves in the concrete, creating the striped look,” he says, adding: “We loved it. Another unexpected outcome.” Tucked between the kitchen and the front entry is a small TV room. They call it the fishbowl, since a corner created from leftover windows allows a full view of the area. The original design of the bedrooms, Brooks explains, “had a two-section closet for the boys and directly beside a separate closet for Salome . . . One evening, over a glass of wine, we thought why not have her closet be part of a cool sneak-through, kinda like in E.T. In the end I think it actually gave us more storage.” Many of their furnishings have been inherited or salvaged. Arciniega is originally from California — she and Brooks met there while both completed master’s studies in music. Arciniega inherited her grand piano, as well as a sideboard, a secretary and several dressers from her grandmother and had them shipped from San Francisco. Some of the pieces are handmade, such as the dollhouse Arciniega constructed for Salome. Sometimes, Arciniega says, creating your special oasis requires being able to see beyond what is unusual, maybe even ugly: The couple took an offbeat space in an unconventional neighbourhood and made it theirs: an oasis retreat for themselves, their family and their friends. “This home has allowed us all to be more free,” Arciniega says. “At heart, that’s what most of us want, to be free to be creative, and nothing to confine you. This home has given us a sense of space and freedom, there is nothing hindering our ideas, nothing confining us, and is the ideal place for creativity to bloom.” gallery-family-area-wrestle.jpg.size.custom.crop.850x591

Why We Give, How We Receive


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Shortly before Christmas one year, when Sue Mosteller was living at Toronto’s L’Arche Daybreak, she agreed to take two of the residents shopping to buy gifts.

“Understand, shopping is not my gift,” says Mosteller, now a retired sister in the St Joseph community. She was impatient to get the outing over with.

But the two residents — Frank with his detailed list, and Bill with his insistence on carefully examining everything at the mall – had other ideas. Both wanted to get just the right gift for the people they loved — blue slippers for one to match her blue robe, a particular shaving cream for another who used that brand.

Mosteller remembers being “a wreck” – overwhelmed by the madly dancing elves, blaring music, swarming mall crowds, and all the while trying to move the process along to get the shopping done.

But she also remembers the care with which the two men made their selections. It changed the way she has viewed gift-giving ever since. It was a sense of “giftedness in ourselves and others” that comes from the relationship of knowing someone, Mosteller says. “Then taking the time to reflect on and be considerate of who they are, what they would want, and what would be good for them.”

The story, it seems, illustrates how God gives to us, as outlined by theologian and author Miroslav Volf in his book Free of Charge, Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Zondervan, 2006).

Since God’s nature is love, and giving is an intrinsic part of love, God gives what is good – out of knowing us intimately and caring. God gives so that we might flourish.

While God expects nothing in return, the intention of gifts is to transform us. We then become those who give what is good for others to help them flourish too. In fact, God’s circle of giving “will end if not continued on to others,” Volf writes.

How does that look concretely?

Anyone with children, and access to the siren call of advertising, knows how difficult it is to rein in the Christmas spending. According to a 2013 CIBC Harris-Decima survey, that could be anywhere from $600 and $1500 per shopper, depending on where you live in Canada (

But according to Volf, you have to be just as careful of being miserly as overspending. “Giving without measure … can bring ruin to ourselves and those close to us … [but] measly gifts are a sign of selfishness, fashioned out of fear of diminishing our resources.”

When children are very young, they don’t have a “broad spectrum of wishes and desires,” Volf says, so it’s possible to give what delights, in addition to what is good and appropriate. It gets more difficult with school-aged children because of how they compare gifts with their friends.

Flavia Zucchi says modeling that generous behaviour yourself is most important: “Time, hospitality, effort, all those things children pick up without even noticing. Those parents who always have other kids over, always have food around, who are always there, they’re the ones all the kids gravitate to. My parents were like that, always feeding people, spending time, giving.”

She remembers growing up with not much in the way of material things, but one Christmas she and her siblings received “beautiful toys from a distant relative, the kind we never got.” Because her father knew of a family with nothing, he “sat us down and asked if we could give those best gifts for him to take to the children of that family. You can imagine our faces, but we did it anyway,” she remembers. “Maybe because our parents were always so generous, it didn’t feel mean. It’s a Christmas I will always remember, not with rancour, maybe with a tug of sadness, but mostly fondness for a father who was courageous enough to face his own children and ask that they give to others who had even less.”

It’s the Culture, baby

In our culture, says Volf, generosity comes with both obligation and price tag. There is nothing given or received free of charge. Although there are enough examples of amazing generosity – the young unmarried woman who gives up her baby to a childless couple – Volf believes that generally “society that has slid so far from generosity,” it’s on a fast track to failure. As he points out, a life without giving is a life unfulfilled.

What’s more, he believes giving to be “an art … and not something for which I should expect praise. Proud giving spoils the gift, leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the receiver.”

This bad taste hasn’t escaped secular culture either – witness the constant laments of Christmas’s meaninglessness even by those who don’t celebrate the “real” meaning of Christmas in the first place. As Anna Robbins, Academic Dean of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, and culture critic, says “that’s because it is meaningless. Our desires are never fulfilled and we are always wanting the next thing and the next thing, so gifts then have no meaning.”

There’s also the nagging sense of obligation that can be attached to giving and receiving: “I have to buy for her because she bought for me, I have to invite them over for dinner because they invited us.”

Robbins believes one reason for that uncomfortable feeling of obligation is our desire for control – if you feel you are paying for an exchange, it allows you to control the exchange. With God, however, “Jesus already paid the price, and we simply have to receive,” Robbins says. “That’s hard because receiving does not let us control, and we want to decide which of our desires get fulfilled.”

Receiving Well

Each person must give as they are able – a friendly smile from the homeless man on the corner, the card your child spent hours making – but receiving well is a skill to develop. “Gifts are meant to be reciprocal, otherwise we’d a world of lonely altruists, and a society of takers,” Volf writes.

We teach our children to give (and help them therefore not become a taker). But learning how to receive is equally important: “Without recognizing our need to receive, we become arrogant and humiliate those to whom we give.” Think of the person who is always offering help, but loathe to admit they may need help themselves and reluctant to receive it when it is offered. What can look like selflessness one moment can appear to be arrogance the next.

This is more challenging where the relationship is financially unequal – between someone with more than enough and someone else in need. Mosteller recommends asking first if the person with much less is comfortable accepting a gift.

For example, some of the congregation at local church knew one of their member families was experiencing financial difficulty due to illness and unemployment. They asked the pastor to ask for a Christmas list that they could fill. Although the mother reported she found it humbling, she was also grateful for the love and support of the congregation which provided gifts for the children, cash for the parents, and a disposable camera to record the memories.

Giving to those in need should of course be encouraged, Volf says. Celebrating God’s greatest gift at Christmas should not be limited to family and friends but extended beyond to the larger community. “A feast of giving … flowing out to the needy, and without distinction of whether they deserve it or not. Need is the only justification a gift requires.”

He does advise exercising caution, however. While helping out at a food bank, or serving Christmas dinner to homeless people is nice, it also runs the risk of teaching children to give in a situation where they possess the “wealth, power and privilege. It’s important that they learn how to give to their peers, and to those above them in the social hierarchy, too.” It’s obvious and perhaps easy to give to those in need. Not so obvious or easy to give to those whose need is not so clear. If we are giving because giving is right to do, we should not be evaluating the condition of the receiver to determine if they deserve a gift or not. In fact, Mosteller says that once a gift is given, you need to let it go, and trust that it will be used well.


Sometimes our efforts to fight back the materialism of the day ends up being an unintended killjoy. Several years ago my extended family decided to abolish the gift exchange altogether and instead collect money for goats and chickens. Later, in private, my then seven-year old daughter announced in tears that she would withdraw all the money in her bank account to pay for “those goats and chickens” so long as there would still be gifts under the tree.

It wasn’t about being materialistic — gifts are her “love language,” a term coined by Gary Chapman in his book, The Five Love Languages (Moody, 2009). People whose love language is gifts, he explains, thrive on the love and effort behind the gift, which is an expression that you are “known, cared for and prized.”

Chapman also notes that giving is at the heart of all love. He recommends keeping a gift notebook so that every time you hear that person say they like something, write it down. Then shop ahead to make sure you get just the right thing — just like Frank and Bill did.


Ideas to launch your own gift giving inventiveness:

1)      In the community: Organize carolling as a gift to your neighbours
2)      Write out your family’s story, write a song for someone and record it, or draw a beautiful picture. Make something that fulfils a person’s need or desire such as babysitting services for new parents.
3)      My daughter makes cookies for all her friends’ birthdays but she is usually scrambling to find boxes to put them in – so I made her a kit that includes fold-up boxes, ribbon and card stock for the greetings.
4)      With your community: It’s easier to take action contrary to culture from within a church community than on your own, says Robbins. So ask leadership to consider putting out a Christmas gift giving challenge of daring to pare back as well as thoughtful gift giving.
5)      Acts of Service: In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, author Donald Miller tells about his friend Jason whose 13-year-old daughter was “caught up in a bad story.” To create a better story for his family, Jason took out a $25000 second mortgage on the house – to cover the cost of building an orphanage in Mexico — and they all went off to build the orphanage. That gift got his daughter’s life back on track.
6)      A twist on charity Giving: Every Christmas, a Toronto area interior designer and his grown siblings each make one gift that costs no more than $10. These are auctioned off Christmas day with the family, money raised is given to a charity, everyone gets a gift, and everyone has fun.
7)      Together families should discuss their Christmas giving, Robbins says. These teachable moments are practical too: examine the lists, set clear budget guidelines, and help children brainstorm about what they can make that is meaningful. Include a discussion of what to give those in need.
8)      This is a great idea from, where one reader fills a box with locally made inexpensive things, one for each friend, plus a personal note. The gift box makes the rounds of the friends, where each one takes out a gift, then puts in three of her own, adds to the note and ships it off to the next.








My Backyard Kings


My daughter hoodwinked me into getting two kittens last fall with promises of diligent feeding, watering and cleaning. While she’s been pretty good at holding up her end of the bargain, I wish I could say the same about the cats.

Left to their own devices, Charlie and George race up and down the curtains, ripping fabric and tearing the rods out of the wall. They once pushed a 100-kilogram bronze statue off the counter, taking a framed picture with it onto the floor. In spite of the Furminator (which drastically reduces their undercoat), there is still hair everywhere — most notably on the stove. They drink my coffee when I’m not looking, steal the dog’s food and walk across the laptop.

In desperation, I let them go outside. While there’s less hair, litter and general destruction to deal with, there are resident foxes and coyotes to worry about. And we now regularly walk the streets at 11 p.m. calling their names (which they don’t answer to). As well, the boys have been catching birds — not to eat, but to toy with. Twice we’ve driven birds with missing feathers up to the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s rescue facility in Downsview.

Now that they’ve had a taste of the outdoors, trying to keep them in is impossible. When anyone comes over, I shriek like a mad woman about shutting the door. And exiting the house can only be accomplished by tossing something distracting into the middle of the next room to divert their attention.

That’s precisely the scenario that led Kris Kischer to start Home of Habitat Haven ( nine years ago. She had adopted two shelter cats who always lay in wait at the door, ready to break free when she came home.

She started looking for an outdoor enclosure to keep her cats happy and herself sane, but research yielded nothing ready-made, so she started playing around with wire in different gauges and finishes. As a National Ballet props person at the time, Kischer knew how to fashion something out of basic materials — and make it attractive.

What she came up with was a huge outdoor play area in black powder-coated galvanized steel, which was a hit with her cats. Even the neighbours were happy. Soon friends and strangers were calling, asking if they could get something similar. With ballet work being seasonal — it gave her summers off — she figured this would be a good way to make some extra income.

The business did so well, Kischer only went back to the ballet one more season before working fulltime on her cat runs. That was nine years ago, and she hasn’t looked back. She has a manufacturing facility in the east end of Toronto and her website shows several pre-fab cat dens in designs chosen for their popularity.

Clients can also customize an enclosure to fit their specific backyard and their cats. For those who aren’t sure what they want, Kischer suggests sending photos of the yard so she can make recommendations based on budget. If you live in Toronto, she will come out to do an estimate. If you’re outside of the city, but still driveable, she’ll charge a fee to come out, which is then waived if you order an enclosure.

The cat dens are essentially a combination of components; large mesh boxes (with or without floors) connected by stairs and tunnels. As budget or need dictates, they can be added on to, much like the cages you might have had for gerbils.

Cats like the boxes, especially if there are perches up the sides, but they love tunnels, which allow them to lounge while looking out over their territory, much like sitting on a tree branch observing life below. The trick is to create an enclosure with a lot of variety so the cat(s) are occupied for long periods of time. An outdoor cat may take a couple of weeks to adapt, but an indoor cat will be in heaven immediately.

“It’s like a jolly jumper or playpen for cats,” Kischer says. “They get to play, patrol and lounge around, while they stay safe from predators — and protecting birds from them.”

The neighbours will also appreciate the enclosure. In some municipalities, there’s a $2,000 fine if your cat is in the neighbours’ yard.

Made from 10-gauge galvanized steel mesh 1/8th of an inch thick, and powder coated with in a variety of colours, the enclosures resist rust. The powder coating ensures double protection and comes in black, unless you specify another colour. But since black recedes, it offers a streamlined unobtrusive look.

The enclosure attaches to the house usually through a window that has a plexi sleeve and cat door fitted over it — in place of the screen — with a magnet to hold it shut. Because the enclosure is so sturdy and comes in component pieces, it’s easy to take the den if you move and redesign it to fit the new home. Kischer says that clients have often sold the enclosure with the new home.

It’s easy to install, too, although it helps to have two people putting it together. “Most of my clientele are women,” Kischer says. “It’s designed for women, by a woman, so you don’t need a guy to put it together or to figure it out.”

The Cat’s Den is popular with pet stores, who say it help them to adopt cats, especially older cats, because when cats are free to roam, their personalities become more apparent.

Tunnels range from 6-inches to 8-feet long and can be connected to make runs of up to 30 or 40 feet; stairs are more expensive because there’s more work involved in making them. Enclosures come in different sizes (prices are all available in the online catalogue).

Alex Newman writes a weekly column for on design and decor. You can contact her through her website

Little Italy Oasis

Love of Italy inspires designer’s sanctuary

Living la dolce vita played a central role in Lynn Raitt’s kitchen-garden creation.

Lynn Raitt, with an Italian vocabulary book at her desk at home, says she has an affinity for Italy and its people, “although you would not know it from the hundreds of lessons I’ve taken and still can't speak the language.”

Lynn Raitt, with an Italian vocabulary book at her desk at home, says she has an affinity for Italy and its people, “although you would not know it from the hundreds of lessons I’ve taken and still can’t speak the language.”  (NICK KOZAK / FOR THE TORONTO STAR)  
Lynn Raitt arranges her table on the  terrace, the bridge between her kitchen and garden.<br /><br />

Lynn Raitt arranges her table on the terrace, the bridge between her kitchen and garden.   (NICK KOZAK / FOR THE TORONTO STAR)  
Terazzo countertops, faux stone walls, cooking oils and utensils at the ready, as well as small statuary and large candles create a Romanesque kitchen esthetic.<br /><br />

Terazzo countertops, faux stone walls, cooking oils and utensils at the ready, as well as small statuary and large candles create a Romanesque kitchen esthetic.   (NICK KOZAK / FOR THE TORONTO STAR)  
Lynn Raitt holds sit-down dinners for up to 14 guests on her garden terrace.

Lynn Raitt holds sit-down dinners for up to 14 guests on her garden terrace.  (NICK KOZAK / FOR THE TORONTO STAR)  

Lynn Raitt arranges her table on the terrace, the bridge between her kitchen and garden.   (NICK KOZAK / FOR THE TORONTO STAR)  

On the hunt for a home in 2002, Lynn Raitt took a step inside her Casa Loma-area house, saw straight through to the back garden and fell in love.

“I definitely bought this house for the garden and knew when I bought it would be my forever house,” says Raitt, who runs her own company, Lynn Raitt Home and Garden Design ( ). “When you have that determination, everything you do makes it your oasis. You aren’t saying you love something but want to save it for the next house. You do it now.”

Although Raitt’s previous home didn’t have the same pull on her, it did bite her with the gardening bug. “I spent most of my adult life living in apartments,” she explains. “And when I bought that first house there was a neglected patch of earth about five-by-20 feet, and being a designer I wanted it to look beautiful. I started reading about different plants and what goes where … what will it look like in three years or 10 years. It was a real challenge but sparked my passion.”

Walking into this house, she knew exactly what she wanted to do in the garden. “I even saw the finished product in my head,” Raitt says.

She didn’t have the money to do it all right away, so put down some paving stones to create the garden’s outline and started building structure in the flower beds — with woody shrubs and evergreens — and filled in with perennials. “This garden even looks fantastic in the winter; if a garden doesn’t look beautiful in winter, it’s not much of a garden.”

Visually, it borrows heavily from Italy, a country Raitt is passionate about. Her first visit as a student at Croydon College of Art in London in the earl ’70s. “The Italians are so animated, they walk everywhere, they take their meals slowly and together. They love to cook, the food is fabulous and fresh, they buy local and they buy every day.”

“I must have been Italian in a past life although you wouldn’t know it from the hundreds of lessons I’ve taken and still can’t speak the language but I do have an affinity for the country, the food … the people and how attached they are to the land. In the countryside, everyone is still a farmer, because even if you have a small patch of land, they’re using it, planting lemon or olive trees.”

Inside her home, Raitt aims to recreate the Italian aesthetic of life revolving around food, family and friends. Her kitchen is a “cook’s kitchen. I love to cook, and I love to see the look on friends’ faces when something tastes amazing. And there’s a little theatre there, too — stone walls behind the stove that lend some European antiquity, beams on the ceiling like what you’d see in a Tuscan farmhouse. Concrete terrazzo countertops.”

On the patio, a big wooden dining table seats 10 and a small round table seats another four. It’s not unusual for her to host dinner parties out there for 14 — as late as November if the weather holds up. An amiable melange of mismatched wooden chairs, large terracotta or metal planters, rusted iron containers spilling out ferns, lattice screens hung with clay sculptures contribute to the European al fresco feel.

For sure, the minute Raitt comes in the front door, she feels like she’s in a “different place, not in Toronto. I’ve created my own little world here (with) the romance of Europe.”

That other place where you can get away — the creation of a world of your own — is what Raitt believes each of us craves. But how it’s manifested changes with each person. “Mostly, though, there is a cosiness and warmth that you get with an oasis, whether it is texture or colour. It’s a place for you to pursue your passions, where you can be yourself, a place that allows you to be you.”

For Raitt, an oasis isn’t just for looking at, it’s for being in. And her garden is no exception: “After digging in the dirt every day, and interacting with all creatures great and small — including two feral cats who loved my garden and came to love me, too, because of it — I have learned about the extraordinary planet we are blessed to inhabit.

“I have loved every minute of the 14 years it’s taken to get to this place, my shelter, my oasis, my sense of self.”

tattoo artist sanctuary

Life / Homes

For tattoo artist, new shop is his sanctuary

Under My Thumb storefront gives owner a place to ‘hang my hat and draw.’
For tattoo artist, new shop is his sanctuary


“Tattooing is my life, and walking in here feels good,” explains Chris MacDonald, owner/operator of Under My Thumb tattoos. “It’s everything I ever wanted as a kid, a quiet place to hang my hat and draw.”

It’s a weekday afternoon at Chris MacDonald’s newly opened tattoo shop and the sun is shining through huge plate-glass windows, scattering colours from a pelican image and the shop’s letters across the walls and floor.

Under My Thumb is MacDonald’s business, but you can see why it’s also his oasis: vintage leather chairs, mid-century coffee table, a playlist of alternative Canadian country rock, and a whimsical coat rack designed and made by his wife, woodworker Megan Tilston (

“Tattooing is my life, and walking in here feels good,” explains the lanky 39-year-old, his voice soft and laconic. “It’s everything I ever wanted as a kid, a quiet place to hang my hat and draw.”

Throughout the shop, a main floor storefront on College St., gallery white walls backdrop dozens of pieces of art, either collected over the years or self-produced. Taped to the wall above MacDonald’s desk are dozens of drawings on onion skin papers that lift slightly every time the front door opens.

Sometimes, MacDonald says, clients choose to replicate what they see, but his work is a jumping-off point for collaboration, and the first visit is usually a consultation “to talk through what it is they’re looking for, in order to personalize it.”

MacDonald owns the shop, but has three tattoo artist co-workers. The shop is divided in two, with two artists in the front and two in the back. Separating the two spaces is a short narrow hall with stencilled floors — tattooed, actually — in lacy snowflake designs.

With magazines on coffee tables, tall tropical plants, Art Nouveau floor lamps — and even a “mini bar” set up on top of the white radiator — the shop is worlds away from the stereotypical tattoo “parlour” frequented by bikers, inmates, or other underworld denizens.

MacDonald chuckles at that thought: “Yeah, well, tattooing has changed a lot. It’s gone from taboo to mainstream, and it keeps gaining momentum. No matter who gets tattoos, the same passion for artistic expression drives it, as always.”

Most of his own body art is under wraps, although there are hints below a plaid cuff — blue and purple roses, a red star. The rest are either coloured, or softer blacks and greys: a portrait of his mother, a poppy flower for a favourite cat, a symbol to represent MacDonald and his two brothers, Joe and Rob.

For him, tattoos are “charms. It’s a way of never forgetting the things that have impacted you, a way of carrying them with you forever.”

Everyone has a story, he explains. “You can look at somebody on the street, and they’ve been through a lifetime of experiences you’ll never know about. And everyone’s trying to express themselves. For those who aren’t able to create their own art, tattoos communicate their story.”

MacDonald’s own story begins in Alliston, Ont., in a small house surrounded by fields and few neighbours. His parents were artistic types who loved to sketch and draw, and so did he as a kid. Hitting the rebellious teen years just when counter culture revolved around skateboarding, punk rock and tattoos, MacDonald left home at 17 and moved to downtown Toronto.

He got a job in a warehouse to support himself, but he never stopped drawing, building a portfolio he intended to take around to tattoo shops when he was ready. Then one day while getting a tattoo himself, the artist remembered meeting him through Rob, his older tattoo-artist brother, and asked to see the portfolio. Within the week, MacDonald had been signed on as an apprentice. It was a busy shop, open to the public and hopping with people constantly coming and going.

In 2010 when he opened his own place, it was by appointment only and he missed the buzz. So when he decided to expand this year — after discovering that he was about to become a dad — he wanted a place that would encourage people to drop in whenever they liked and yet keep out undesirable elements.

A tattoo artist can do his art anywhere because the tools are mobile, but MacDonald can’t emphasize the importance of a home base enough. “It’s your sanctuary. And the better the environment, the more your mind is free to create something beautiful and good.”

As a reminder of how far he’s come, he’s kept his first portfolio and occasionally thumbs through it. “I used to walk along the streets where my shop is now, daydreaming and smoking. If you’d told me that one day this little shop back would be mine, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Artist’s Oasis


Artist Jacquie Green’s oasis is the place where she thinks and dreams and works — her studio.

It’s a former warehouse that’s been converted to offices and studio spaces at 401 Richmond St. W. Inside, there is a palpable buzz. And the hum comes not only from behind the studio doors, but from artists in the hallways, coming and going, juggling portfolios and cups of coffee. They’re always creatively dressed, and most know each other if not by name, then at least by face.

The building and its community of creative tenants is what prompted Green to lease her 800-square-foot studio 12 years ago. Access to that kind of energy helps inspire her, and it’s something she says she can’t get from a quiet studio at home.

As well, it gives her freedom from domestic distractions. “Every woman artist I know is challenged with protecting her work and time from all the things that vie for attention. Being able to have a place of your own away from those distractions really helps your work when you work for yourself, especially as an artist,” she says.

Her studio — with wide plank hardwood floors and a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows — is an oasis of calm, in the middle of the building’s creative storm, that allows her to concentrate. And work.

Green’s work is something she thinks of when “waking up and going to sleep. It poses a set of questions that are continually fascinating, problems to deal with and to solve.”

It’s also worlds away from her previous life as an elementary school teacher. She had never even picked up a paintbrush until enrolling in an evening printmaking course at OCAD University that she took to better understand the ways her gifted students learned.

But the course was life-changing; Green eased back to part-time teaching and then eventually moved to painting full-time.


The artwork

Green says she has always painted the world as she “encountered it and experienced it, rather than it being out of my dreams, or my imagination. The visual world is truly amazing, endlessly surprising and constantly fascinating.”

But these days, her work is taking on more of a social message. It started with imperfect cellphone photos — heads cut off, faces out of frame — that presented an intriguing tension.

For example, a picture she took in New York City of someone walking several dogs prompted a whole series on dog walkers. In the photo, she’d cut off the woman’s head, but what remained was “the tension of one mass — the person — against another mass, the dog and the connecting leash.”

Another photo, of a young man with his face out of the frame, started her thinking about men out of balance, and out of context, in a world when they have no work. She started asking men about this, even holding informal discussion groups with men in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. That launched a series which is “a metaphor for how men are in our society,” she says. “My concern is what happens to a world when men are in those circumstances, out of context, off balance and incomplete. Historically, work has provided men their completion, balance, and context. And so I would ask how can we broaden the definition of how to be a man so that it’s not based solely on the work they do?”

Once she has figured out the key elements of a photo, she removes everything else and manipulates the image.

“Sometimes, it’s changing the image from very dark to very light, or keeping the colours but not the pose. You start with that one thing, push it, then do a quick study to see if it works. When I think I know which way to go with it, I can start on the final surface — board, or linen or canvas.”


Green considers herself fortunate to be part of a household with two incomes, allowing her to paint full time and to rent a studio away from home.

But for those who work at home, she says setting up a studio is fairly straightforward.

  • The most important thing to an artist is material. “You use stuff to make stuff, so you have to have a way to organize it so that you’re not wasting time looking for this and that.” When she goes to the cottage, for example, she carries her “studio” into the woods — a rigid plastic box big enough to hold a circular saw and her paints and brushes. It’s the same for a digital artist — finding a way to organize material on your laptop.
  • You can set up a studio anywhere — in a closet, the corner of a bedroom, or a spare room. Size is less important than consistent light and the ability to close the door so you can leave things set up and so you can keep the world out when you’re working. For some that might be a door, for others it might be headphones.
  • Include something that energizes you when you enter the artist zone. For Green, it’s space, light and windows to look out. She also recommends a comfortable spot to sit — she has a sofa where she looks over her work, thinks about it, or browses art books when she is unable to nip over to the AGO. “If I run across an issue in one of my paintings, it’s helpful to see how another artist might have resolved that. I read a lot of art journals to see what’s current, and what other artists are doing.”
  • Lastly, and possibly most importantly, is to have access to a vibrant community — it keeps the creative juices flowing, Green says. “This building and its community are what really make this studio an oasis. You can feel isolated in a home studio. So if you are at home, make sure you have the ability to access people, especially other artists.”

DIY Wedding

Toronto Star, October 27 2012images

HOME: Do-it-yourself is all the rage in weddings.

Some couples are staging their nuptials at home. Here’s how.

By Alex Newman

When 23 year old Rebekah Venema and Dan Driegen, 30, got engaged last spring, they wanted a simple Thanksgiving wedding. The ideal solution, they felt, was to hold the nuptials at the Venema family home near Brantford, On. It was large enough to accommodate their 90 guests, and would ensure the personal touch they wanted.

With just six months to plan, Venema went into high gear: buying her dress off the rack, and ordering everything else online – from tents, chairs and decorations, to headpiece, flowers, and clutch purses for the bridal party.

Family members pitched in – her younger brothers and father built an arbour, cleaned out the garage fridge to use in the bar. Sisters and aunts prepared salads — ten in all — and a friend took care of picking up pre-ordered gourmet pizzas. The rest came from grocery stores – PC appetizers, chips and salsa, sour dough and pumpernickel loaves and dips, and Costco cupcakes and pre-sliced cheesecake.

Everything was held outside, with tents in case of rain – one for the tables and chairs, another for the bar. Firepots and propane heaters were rented to ward off evening’s chill. The band played under one tent until 9 p.m. when Venema’s playlist took over the dance music.

Their photographer Alyssa Alkema says, the wedding was beautiful. They didn’t need all glitz and glam you so often see, and it was truly their own.”

Alyssa Alkema Photographer

The biggest concern for an outdoor home wedding is probably weather, especially if you’re a weatherman. Ryan Snoddon, who reports the weather for CBC from Newfoundland, and his fiancée Annie Godbout did consider a ceremony by the sea, ultimately deciding the climate was too iffy. And tropical resorts were out because the couple felt them too impersonal and most of their family couldn’t attend.

The 300-acre Snoddon family farm in Pefferlaw, ON, however, would be perfect. Even if it was 3000 km away. Thanks to the internet, they managed to organize all from St John’s, making just two trips back to Ontario — to arrange licences, meet the minister, carefully check out what the venue needed, and to taste test the caterer’s menu.

Godbout purchased her wedding dress off the rack, and gave her bridesmaids carte blanche about their dresses, not even asking to check them over beforehand. Though perfectionism seems to be an accepted part of most wedding plans, Godbout kept telling herself she couldn’t “control it all. No matter where you have the wedding, on the day you have to pass the reins to someone else – caterer, photographer, decorator.”

As it turned out, the day was a perfect Ontario June day, warm and cloudless. The ceremony was held in an open meadow, and the reception under a marquee tent pitched on the farmhouse lawn. The caterers came up with country menu of steaks and grilled chicken. Desserts made by the mothers and grandmothers, “was kind of like what you expect when you go home for a visit,” Godbout says.

Being relaxed and unfussy, both weddings allowed the couples to enjoy the day, and to connect with each guest. It also kept costs down – Venema groans when she thinks of the $14,000 her cousin shelled out on the venue alone for her upcoming wedding.

Godbout likes that they won’t be “carrying any debt into our new life together.” But the one thing she considers worth all her budget is photography. “It’s important to have a photographer who captures the actual feel of the day,” Godbout says. “When I look at our wedding photos now, I relive the emotion of it.”


Call in the Troops: make a list of tasks according to the skills of willing family and friends. But keep in mind you want them to be able to enjoy the day as well.

Food: Consider having family members make at least one course of the menu to keep costs down and make it more homey.

Venue: Check power sources, municipal licences for liquor, whether your home insurance covers large groups of people, and whether the home kitchen is adequate for preparing so much food.

Dresses: You can get a beautiful wedding dress off the rack, or consider a cream dress that`s not specifically for a wedding. Involve bridesmaids in dress selection. Hair can be done at a local salon, but hairdressers also make house calls.

Music: if you want live music, make sure the band is protected from the elements. Alternately, prepare a few playlists that work for the ceremony, dinner and dancing.

Flowers: Consider loose flowers in addition to bouquets. Godbout picked up bunches the day before the wedding, and let her bridesmaids loose with vintage vases and a bottle of wine. The end result, she says, was “happy flower arrangements.”

Weather: Be prepared – Ryan Snoddon rented umbrellas to be safe, and they also readied other inside locations – a beautiful barn — in case of rain. If the guest list is small the house might work, otherwise rent tents and chairs for outdoors.

The Ebola Crisis

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The Ebola crisis: the battle and the aftermath

By Alex Newman

When news of the Ebola crisis in West Africa finally broke on the world stage last summer, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) had already been on the front lines for months battling the deadly disease.

While some news outlets, such as Al Jazeera and the BBC, picked up the story early on, it wasn’t until two health care workers – both with the Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse (SP) – contracted the virus and flew back to the U.S. for treatment in early August that the international community stepped in.

Although Ebola outbreaks occur every few years, this most recent is among the most severe. First diagnosis of the current outbreak occurred in March 2014 in Guinea by MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières – Doctors Without Borders), WHO (World Health Organization), and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). It spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone from there and by summer was a full-blown epidemic in all three countries. By fall a thousand new cases were being reported each week.

Dr. Azaria Marthyman, a BC-based medical internist volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse Canada, first went to Liberia in July. He reports feeling “overwhelmed. It was an enormous, daunting task, a huge mountain that I felt we could not accomplish on our own. We did what we could.”

He – and other SP medical volunteers – used protocols implemented by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the first NGO tackling the situation. It was a gruelling task, and “Human resources were pushed to the breaking point,” Marthyman says.

Thanks to being a presence already in Liberia for 13 years – since before the UN-imposed ceasefire in 2003 – Samaritan’s Purse was able to jump in immediately. They had 400–500 national Liberian staff workers in the country. And they had global volunteers – like Marthyman – who responded quickly.

Not every doctor can respond

This was Marthyman’s second time with SP. The first was in 2010 for the Haiti cholera outbreak. Not every doctor can respond, he says, because of work or family restraints. But he had the blessing of his wife, children and colleagues. Along with his specific skills in search and rescue, tropical medicine, orthopedics, emergency medicine, and trauma made him an ideal candidate for the Ebola crisis. His guiding scripture is Proverbs 3:27 – “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,” as long as it is in direct response to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Marthyman has never doubted God’s involvement in this, or any other crisis. “I can’t answer why someone survives and someone else doesn’t, because that’s within God’s sovereignty. What I can do though is respond, and since God has touched me personally in this situation I know He’s involved, and therefore also in the lives of the people who survive and those who don’t.”

Brittany Taylor, SP’s international medical volunteer co-ordinator, feels the same way. She remembers how frightening the Ebola situation was, “with the number of cases growing and no help on the way.” It wasn’t until two of SP’s own, Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly, contracted Ebola in the summer that the international community took notice and started sending help.

Although the SP team was devastated by the news of their colleagues, she says in retrospect they saw “that it was necessary to prompt the international community to get involved.”

Situations like Ebola are fertile Kingdom opportunities, Marthyman believes. “Christians are becoming relevant like never before. The world has such a spiritual void and each of us has something … that reflects back who God is.”

And because many Christian organizations are already at work in volatile or unstable locations, and have developed relationships and local networks, they’re in an ideal position for disaster relief. Thanks to its long presence in Liberia, Samaritan’s Purse, for example, had a network of pastors who could quickly mobilize as team leaders. The “ripple effect in education and public awareness was remarkable and so much more effective in areas where Samaritan’s Purse had been,” Marthyman says.

The doctor also said SP’s approach was the right one as the crisis worsened. Instead of “fighting fires,” they tackled it on several fronts – treating the sick, but also educating villages, providing kits and chlorine buckets for washing stations, and increasing local capacity by training nationals and creating community care centres.

One program was geared to training family members to nurse the sick at home, trying to contain the virus’ spread. “Each Ebola patient was infecting two to three others, and even reducing that to one would slow down the disease significantly,” Marthyman says.

A painful witness

Known for being calm under fire, Marthyman was nonetheless affected deeply by what he saw. “It was so painful to witness the dehumanization. It degrades people. A person in prime health can decline within days, lying in a fetal position, surrounded by excrement and vomit,” he says. “No family around to help and console because of the contagion. The natural response to that cry for help is to hold and console, but you can’t. I used my voice, but there’s a language barrier. I could hold their hand, but only through three layers of rubber gloves, which were bleached afterward to avoid germ transfer.”

The disease affects far more than its immediate victims. With schools closed for several months, education gains were interrupted. Over 16,000 children lost a primary caregiver and while most now live with extended family, UNICEF reports 3 per cent – or about 3,700 children – have been orphaned.


The health care system has been decimated and desperately needs money and resources to resurrect clinics. Of the 800 doctors and nurses who had served Liberia’s 3 million people, more than 350 died from the epidemic. Because all hospitals were turned into Ebola treatment centres, people with other conditions, such as malaria, typhoid or obstructed labour, were turned away and many died.

The economic impact as well can’t be underestimated, especially for a country that was already at a low point economically.

Recovery – and prevention of future outbreaks – can only happen, Marthyman says, if programs are put in place. “Under current conditions expect to see more of these outbreaks.”

What happens next

Samaritan’s Purse will remain in the country, and is currently discussing what recovery programs they will add to their regular programming.

One challenge in Africa is that the family cares for the body. “It’s their way to say goodbye. Kissing and touching the body is closure,” Marthyman says. “Most don’t understand germs or why you need to refrain from touching the body. And they’re mistrustful of any government information because of corruption.”

Taylor says SP’s main goal is to “provide training and personnel for sustainability programs, increase the capacity of the nationals so they can care for themselves. But it takes money.”

Governments are one source, but much more significant is the global Christian community. Marthyman knows firsthand how critical that is. “All that logistical support throughout the Ebola crisis – the masks, goggles, gloves, IV fluids, a helicopter – would not have been there without the support of Christians.”

Things seem to be changing, albeit glacially, thanks to the recent international assistance particularly in education. “The prevalence of Ebola has come down, especially in Liberia,” Marthyman says. “But we’re not at zero, and the worry is that as the international community pulls back and redirects its efforts to other situations, these countries will be on their own, and will give the situation less vigilance than necessary.”

Ebola vaccine trials currently underway will certainly help, but Marthyman says more critical is the ability to respond and act fast. “That’s one thing we learned from this – how to respond.”


Why does Ebola spread so quickly?

Ebola has flourished partly because of political unrest, especially in the three countries of the latest outbreak. Liberia’s two civil wars, 1989–1996 and 1999–2003, resulted in over 200,000 dead; Sierra Leone’s civil war from 1991–2002 left 50,000 dead. Both countries were in shambles with roads and communications networks destroyed, a health care system decimated and overcrowding in cities.

Although there were Ebola outbreaks in the 1960s, the virus was first identified in 1976 after an outbreak in Sudan and then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, when microbiologists were able to isolate the virus. Ebola used to be containable because travel between villages was so limited. With greater movement between countries, and much higher urban densities, the recent outbreak resulted in “24,666 reported cases and over 10,000 deaths according to the most recent CDC data,” Marthyman says. “The worst outbreak to date.” –Alex Newman


Sidebar: Many EFC affiliates were battling the Ebola crisis.

  • Since the Ebola crisis struck Sierra Leone, Intercede International’s partner ministry in that country has been starting to help many Ebola orphans by building a children’s home. This crisis has been a reminder to Intercede that it is children who are often the most impacted by the fallout from such situations.
  • SIM’s (Serving in Mission) ELWA (Eternal Love Winning Africa) Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia has been at the centre of the Ebola crisis. The hospital has been inundated with cases. An SIM missionary serving in the hospital – Nancy Writebol – contracted and survived the disease as have a number of other workers. Currently SIM Canada has two Canadians serving at ELWA.


  • World Relief Canada has worked to help stop Ebola from spreading. Where World Relief works in these regions, they have been distributing sanitation equipment and providing information sessions, and have seen no reported cases of Ebola during the entire life of the project. The main focus was in Zota District, Bong County, Liberia, where they worked with 16 communities and people from 30 churches, mosques, 6 health centres and 16 community centres.

Poverty in our Midst

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Faith Today, Nov/Dec 2015

by Alex Newman

Recently on the way to a dinner party, I stopped to pick up a hostess gift. Outside the store a man in his 60s sat on his haunches, upturned baseball cap in hand. Usually I breeze by, eyes averted. This time, however, there was the shock of recognition – he’d renovated my bathroom several years before.

Here was a middle-class guy, someone I once knew. Someone who had been in my home. Now he sat outside begging. I was ashamed that I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge him.

That night I’d already researched this article – in fact, it was pretty much written – but I’d developed an intellectual posture on poverty. This chance encounter was enough to jolt me from abstraction into something deeper.

He appeared to have a drinking problem. Some might say he was the author of his own destiny. Others might say he was a victim of easily available alcohol or the depression following the divorce he had gone through.

But the truth is more complex.


Poverty can’t be explained away by either weak character or an uncaring society. In fact, it is better understood within a biblical framework, says speaker and author Brian Fikkert. He views poverty as the sin of broken relationships – with God, self, others and with creation — citing author Bryant Myers, who says in Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Orbis Books, 2011) that these relationships can be broken for a variety of reasons – individual sin, oppressive systems and even demonic forces.

The solution is likewise biblical, says Fikkert, keynote speaker at the recent Food for the Hungry conference in Calgary and co-author of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself (Moody Publishing, 2009).

He sees poverty alleviation as a ministry of relational reconciliation, “so that people can fulfil their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.” Bad things happen when our relationships are broken, especially when that triggers a chain of events that can lead to greater poverty. We can all probably think of a friend or family member who has struggled with poverty because of relationships that have gone wrong. Perhaps it’s a single parent left on their own because of a broken relationship. Or hundreds of years of social oppression that puts people in poverty from the moment they’re born.

Or, maybe it’s an entire social system – because “in a connected global economy, actions in one part of the world ripple down to impact people in other parts of the world. Sometimes the effects are positive and sometimes they are negative,” Fikkert says.


Closer to home, Canada has its own growing poverty population. These are no longer primarily the generationally poor but educated new immigrants who spent their savings to come to Canada, then found no work once they got here, says Angela Draskovic, director of Toronto’s Yonge Street Mission. Today’s job landscape, she adds, is radically different from the one that met immigrants in the 1950s and ’60s, when trade and manufacturing jobs were plentiful.

The percentage of poor is also increasing as the gap between rich and poor widens. Currently, over half a million Torontonians (20 per cent of the city’s population) live under the poverty line – nationwide the number is 4 million (about 11.4 per cent).

Other major cities also have rates of poverty worse than the national average – in Vancouver 20 per cent, in Montreal 26.4 per cent.

Those numbers are set to grow, predicts the former CEO of Yonge Street Mission, Rick Tobias, who’s been working with low income people since the ’70s. With the working poor already living close to the edge, “there is no margin for them to fall lower. And when they do fall, which they will if nothing is done, we will have a poverty problem we cannot deal with.”

That reality led to the development of Christians Against Poverty (CAP), a debt relief organization which works through local churches, training Christian volunteers to help people get out of debt and be self-sustaining.

“These are not people who lived it up and went crazy with credit cards,” says Dave Knox, CAP’s communications manager in Hamilton, Ont. “They lost a job, were unemployed for six months, tried to make ends meet and feed the kids, often skipping meals themselves. Many are depressed or anxious, and a full 30 per cent are suicidal.”

The emotional side of poverty is something Fikkert has documented as well. “They typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness.… [There is] a mismatch between outsiders’ perceptions and poor people themselves. It can have devastating consequences for poverty alleviation efforts.”


Sinking into poverty can happen as a result of bad decisions, but it doesn’t have to end badly, as one Vancouver single mom discovered. It took 12 years, but she eventually got on her feet with the support of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church.

It wouldn’t have been possible on her own, says pastor Tim Dickau. “So many surrounded her, helping with child care, getting her into shared housing with Christians who picked up the financial slack until she was able to. Being poor is a fearful existence, but you feel more secure with others around.”

Because people in poverty tend to isolate themselves – and isolation keeps them in poverty – a caring community makes a difference. As good as professional social workers are, they can’t match what the church has – a steady supply of volunteers, willingness to be patient, commitment to relational living, and an understanding of each person as unique and made in the image of God.

That’s why CAP started in local churches in the U. K. 19 years ago – so many Christians willing to help others get out and stay out of debt, and thus away from poverty’s edge. In 2013, in response to Canadian church leaders who saw the need for debt counselling, CAP came to Canada.

Recognizing the church’s vast resources to fight poverty was also the spark for the Helping Without Hurting Conference that Fikkert spoke at in Calgary, one of a series hosted by Food for the Hungry Canada and the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.

The first step to fighting poverty, says Melissa Giles, training manager at Food for the Hungry Canada, is to educate Christians about “who the poor are, why and how poverty exists, and even the biblical recommendation for an effective response.”. The organization brings speakers with poverty expertise – like Fikkert – to the conference because they’re committed to educating “the Church in understanding how it can be effective in responding, both locally and globally, to the most vulnerable.”


Evangelicals historically played a major role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor, Fikkert says. But that changed around the turn of the 20th century when Evangelicals started to battle theological liberalism, often distancing themselves from “social gospel” humanitarian efforts – so much so that historians referred to the period 1900–1930 as the Great Reversal.

Many evangelical traditions ended up emphasizing salvation and the spiritual life at the expense of the physical. It’s the kind of thinking that fails to introduce the poor to precisely the One who can reconcile the brokenness underlying their poverty, says Fikkert.

That goes for everyone involved – helper and helped, he adds.

“We’re all profoundly broken, and Jesus comes in and changes us from brokenness to fulfilment.”

More recently, however, Evangelicals have begun to recapture what Tobias calls “the compassion mandate. There are hurting people out there we want to help, whether it’s food runs or clothing drives, or educating our congregations.”



The problem is we may not all know how to do it well.

When confronted with a begging person, alcoholic or not, we tend to look away and move on – at least I do – but not because we don’t care. We do care, deeply, but we wrongly believe the only response is a kind of all or nothing, 24/7 kind of commitment.

That’s where being part of a Christian community comes in – there’s safety in numbers, and when you’re burnt out someone else can step in. It’s a radical step, though, and one that functions best when a congregation embraces it together.

Some churches have taken that step. In Kelowna, B.C., the city with the highest homeless population for its size in Canada, Metro Community Church made a commitment to move into the downtown core and live and worship with the street community. Every Sunday the 300 members – 60 per cent street connected and 40 per cent middle class – sit down together for breakfast.

Laurence East, who became pastor nine years ago, says it’s the only way of doing church his kids know. Once when the family worshipped elsewhere, one of his children piped up, “Where’s the food? Where are the street people?” East’s wife replied that not everyone feels comfortable in a church, but he pressed on. “Can it be a church if everyone doesn’t feel comfortable?’”

In addition to Sunday breakfast the church becomes a drop-in for about 200 people every day (roughly a thousand meals a week). It also operates employment assistance programs including a coffee shop, laundry and moving company.

Local social agencies and non-governmental organizations have been so swept up with this ecclesiastical beehive of activity, that they’ve asked to move with the church when it relocates after their lease expires. East finds this “astonishing – that local practitioners including the city’s busiest health clinic want us playing a central role, even though we profess Jesus, baptize people and encourage a new life in Christ.”

East also says he’s “never worked so hard to present the gospel intellectually and truthfully as I do to the street. Feeding and clothing … these are vehicles that introduce Jesus.”

It’s true not all of us can be like Dorothy Day – the socialist journalist who became a Christian in the 1920s, and chose to live and work among the poor of New York’s Lower East Side until her death in 1980.

Not all of us are good on the front lines.

“I’m not,” Fikkert admits. “But I can write and I can speak. You can support existing ministries in other ways.”



THERE’S PROBABLY NOT a church that hasn’t fielded requests for financial help. The natural inclination is to give money. That’s fine once in an emergency, Fikkert says, but if someone is routinely showing up at the door asking for help, there needs to be some discernment.

Simply giving money usually does more harm than good. The better way, though more costly in terms of time, would be to develop a relationship with the person, and be willing to walk with them to help them use their own gifts to avoid this situation in future, Fikkert says.

If your church feels called to this ministry in a comprehensive way, he recommends doing a neighbourhood assessment to determine whether people need relief, rehabilitation or development. Then look at the existing services and ministries in your community to see if your congregation could support those or find ways to fill the gaps. ( for help with this research.)

Typically what you will find is that most poor people in your neighbourhood need development, Fikkert says, but most of the existing services focus on relief. If so, your church might want to strengthen the more development-focused ministries or start a new one. And then work with the poor in an asset-based manner, looking at what assets the person already has and supplementing those so they are able to be “stewards of their own gifts and resources … so the solutions can come from within.”

Grandview Calvary Baptist Church has put this approach into practice in Vancouver. They started a community housing program that pairs church members with more vulnerable people. Tim Dickau and his family have invited 44 people to live with them over the past 23 years. Recently they built housing over the church parking lot, with 20 units for vulnerable people and six other units for people in the church community.

As Dickau has personally discovered, “Living together is a great leveller – you start to see each other differently, and the lines become blurred between those who have and those who have not. The aim is not to make them over into middle-class citizens, but to help them to flourish, to share life in a deeper way.”

The church started some social enterprises – pottery, catering, construction and landscaping – which in the past year have made work for 30 people and generated wages of about $250,000.

However, the only way this amount of involvement can work, says Dickau, is having a community to share the load. “Individuals burn out – we all have times we need to step aside, and with a church community there’s usually someone else to fill your place.”


Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today.

Lake Effect — an artist’s muse



By Alex Newman

It’s a picture postcard summer day in southern Ontario. The string of GTA suburbs recede as farms take their place on either side of the road, interrupted by the occasional drumlin formation so common near Rice Lake. The terrain rolls a little, creating curves and jags in the tight grid of concession roads—that remnant of Ontario’s 19th-century colonial past.

There’s no sign at the fork of the road leading to Rebecca Last’s cottage, only a row of battered and weirdly painted mailboxes. The road turns to gravel and climbs the hill around the southeast shore of the lake, whose shimmer is intermittently visible between thickets of pine, spruce, and birch. The road is so narrow there’s barely room for two cars to pass, and parking is smack against the eroded hillside.

A steep curving path of stone steps leads down to the vast deck that connects Last’s cottage and her studio cabin. And that’s when you see it—the million dollar view that prompted Last and her husband, Ernest Cholakis, to put in an offer one freezing December night 14 years ago.

Now framed by two 60-foot tall jack pines, that view was so magnificent the couple overlooked the crumbling steps, overgrown gardens, listing floors, uneven decking, leaking windows and roof, ceiling tiles. Because, as Cholakis puts it, “a house you can change. A view you can’t.”

It was also a view that completely changed the direction of Last’s artistic life.




When the couple took possession in winter 2002, Last was exhausted from the demands of her interior design practice, art tours in Italy, and commissioned paintings. All she wanted to do was sit in the silence.  “Even in that derelict state,” she says, “the cottage was a place of peace.”

The painter had one commission to complete, however, of Tuscany—a piece so huge she and Cholakis had to clear the largest room in the cottage just to hang the canvas. And as she worked, her eye wandered from the lush Italian scene emerging on her canvas to the bleak winter scene unfolding outside her window.

“I suddenly realized what I really wanted to do was right under my nose here in Canada. My roots are here. This is my landscape and my home, and it was time to get into it.”

Once the Tuscany commission was done, she started working immediately in that view. It now shapes everything she paints. Even after 13 years, Last finds that the deeper she explores the effects of the lake’s changing weather on sky, land, and water, the deeper she understands Nature’s quixotic energy and her own artistic capabilities. It serves to remind her that, as she says, “nature is not benign, and we are not its master.” Her Through Silence painting was featured in the UN’s Report on Climate Change 2014, and she recently exhibited at The Painting Center in Chelsea, N.Y. at an exhibit on shifting climate, “Shifting Ecologies.”

“Being immersed in one thing like Rice Lake, rather than running around looking for new subjects, allows you to sink into the work and the landscape. All that doesn’t matter falls away, and the essence remains,” she says. “The cottage has given me the ability to work to depths of vision and metaphor that wouldn’t be possible with a variety of subjects and places.”

While at the cottage, Last paints continuously, leaving rarely, to pick up groceries. Away from the cottage—at her Toronto studio, or elsewhere as an artist-in-residence —she works in response to that view, painting from memory. Last isn’t the first painter to repeat a scene; Monet completed a 30-plus series of the Rouen Cathedral in 1892-93 in order to capture how changing light can significantly alter the experience of a subject.


Staying with one view has also matured Last’s work, according to freelance curator and friend Kelly McCray. “The painter’s evolution from earlier, more literal representations, to fierce turbulent chaotic swings of nature offer viewers a rare portrait of a land whose every shift in mood and temperament are captured with the deft handling of the brush,” he writes about her exhibit Edge of Chaos, The Paintings of Rebecca Last.

For Last, it’s all about a sense of place: “Each of us has one place that takes precedence in our unconscious and even shapes us and our life experience.”

She grew up in Point Edwardnear Lake Huron, a lake known for its moodiness and sudden storms, in a creative home environment. Both her mother and grandmother paint. After university—with degrees partially completed in Italy—Last lived entirely from her art, as a painter, home designer, and leading educational art tours.She’s lived in many places, as artist in residence at Banff and The Hambridge Center in Georgia, and as a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Arts.


In spite of being so rooted on Rice Lake, no two paintings are alike. In the summer of 2005, Last awoke in the middle of the night to see a red sky across the lake. The extreme flooding in Peterborough, 50 km away, had everyone up with the lights on. “It was curious,” Last says. “We normally see nothing from Peterborough but that night, for some reason, the city lights reflected off the lower edge of cloud over the lake, making the sky a blaze of red. It was very eerie—we’re not close enough to the city to see those lights.” What Last painted of that experience was a glowing red orb of sky over red reflection in water.

Triple Narratives, on the other hand, has a coolness that Last equates to being next to cold water when the warmth of summer has ended. “It is created out of a long series of layering, to create a surface that emulates the movement of the surface of the water, comprised of colours and paint strokes meant to move the viewer with feelings of this imaginary place.”

In Sound without Words, Last says, “with the familiar elements of land and water reflections playing off surrealist colours of cadmiums, purples, blues, and reds in patterns on the water’s surface that feel like the arresting bursts of colours one might experience at end of day.”

Last’s paintings are energetic, even muscular and wild, in contrast to her careful, almost deliberate personal appearance. In the many years I’ve known her, I’ve only seen her in sync with her environment. As a young woman living in an apartment overlooking the Don Valley, her living room walls were painted as a trompe l’oeil of Tuscany and she carried herself much like you’d imagine a Florentine art student. Once we met in a Toronto café and Last arrived looking chic and elegant—hair swept up, dangling statement earrings, wearing her grandmother’s cape-styled jacket that looked like a new Holt Renfrew creation. At the cottage, she wears a black skort with a Mondrian-esque sleeveless top, hair casually pulled back, yet the tray of drinks she has prepared is perfect—hand-squeezed lemonade in an exquisite cut-glass vintage pitcher and matching glasses.

Last has a knack for becoming one with her background, in what seems like a deliberate act of self-editing, creating a specific scene. But she also an observer, and then translator, of her surroundings. As we sit in front of the cottage, shaded by an umbrella and listening to the water, it occurs to me that Last is not unlike the pioneer women who settled near Rice Lake and whom Last admired; particularly Catharine Parr Trail and her sister, Susanna Moodie, English middle class women plunked in the middle of the Ontario bush, keen observers who wrote about their experiences.



While she never starts painting with an end result in mind, Last does have a specific process which takes months, or even years to complete. “As soon as you put a mark down on a canvas, you’ve created a challenge, and it needs another mark to resolve it. And that next mark creates yet another challenge, and so I put another mark down. If you look at a finished work, you are basically looking at a resolved line of mark making. It’s an abstract notion, but that’s how I develop the image.”

It’s an apt way to describe her process for renovating the cottage as well—pulling away all that was ugly, paring it down to a nearly blank canvas, then carefully layering up the elements by putting down one mark and resolving it with the next.

“Friends would ask me what part of the house we were working on,” Last recalls, “but that was really hard to answer because it wasn’t systematic. I had a picture in mind, but getting there was a combination of long-term planning, and spur-of-the-moment choices. There was so much ugliness that for a while all we did was take away what didn’t belong. A room would feel out of balance or a wall would seem crooked so we’d fix that and replace things we felt we needed to.”

There’s always something to learn in the process of creation, whether it’s from a painting or a renovation. “The point is you go somewhere new because you need to develop richer layers, and you take risks. A painting can be almost finished and I will throw something else at it, and all of a sudden the work is opened up again and there’s a new challenge. In the end, it’s about resolving challenges and letting yourself be challenged. If you allow yourself to go into those places, you get into richer territory, and it’s those richer layers that resonate most with people looking at your work.”

Last approaches interior design the same way and, though she does not currently take on design clients, it’s how she tackled the cottage’s interior. “I look at the design of the cottage in relation to the landscape and in terms of colour, texture, line, and perspective. Compositionally, I think in terms of multiple sight lines through each room that use the interior layout and colour to direct the eye towards exterior focal points.”


That same method was carried outside. Each year the couple has cut down a few more trees to provide unimpeded views of the lake from every space within the cottage. “We took our time in that editing process,” says Last. “It’s not something you can rush because trees take decades to grow back.”

All the work on the cottage—13 years of painstakingly replacing the ugly bits with beautiful functioning elements—can be intense. “It’s hard to know when to stop,” Last says. “This place is a source of rejuvenation as well so we have to be careful not to make it only associated with work.”

Last also knows when to set aside her role as documenter of the universe she observes in the microcosm of Rice Lake, and when to become immersed and at one with it. So when she’s not in her studio, she can be found on the dock with Cholakis, watching as storms approach from the west with their lashing rain and wind that whips the waves into action. Or in the kayak, observing the wildlife—muskrat, osprey, turtles, hawks, wild turkeys and, bald eagles, kingfishers, and loons—which come for the reedy waters of Rice Lake.

When I asked if she will ever grow tired of painting the same view, Last says, “Never. It never stops changing. I have never observed the same scene twice. If you combine all the elements—sky, water, land—the variables are endless. One can conjure an entire universe from that view.”


Alex Newman is a Toronto freelance writer and editor who fantasizes about living and working in Rebecca Last’s cottage setting.