VSVSVS is a collective studio and gallery project located in the Port Lands of Toronto. The current members (left to right) are Wallis Cheung, Laura Simon, Ryan Clayton, James Gardner, Miles Stemp, Stephen McLeod, Jemma Egan and Anthony Cooper. Their converted warehouse hosts 8 art studios, 7 rooms, a kitchen, living room and an art gallery. It’s a windowless maze of miniatures, half-finished projects and artists who genuinely get along. It’s one part Swiss Family Robinson, one part Warhol’s Factory and one part Boxcar Children. Check out the video we shot of VSVSVS here.
LAURA: VSVSVS is a three-part project. We’re an artist-run centre who curates other artists, we’re a collection of artists with studios together and we’re a group of artists who work collaboratively together.
JEMMA: Three-headed beast.
STEVE: At the same time, I don’t think we’re specifically anything. We started out with this gallery, but then we wanted studios together. I think, for me, that’s one of the most important things–that we can change. Our definition is never fixed.
ANTHONY: There’s eight studios in here. VSVSVS has been here since May of 2010. It katamari-balled, I guess.
RYAN: At first, there were five people living here and I was renting studio space–then I moved in and Anthony moved in. I actually found this place on Craigslist.
ANTHONY: We spend the most amount of time in the collaborative studio by the front door. In my studio, I mostly work with sculpture and painting. Accumulation potential is essential for my studio space. I get stuff from all over. The Port Lands, the side of the road out there, has been pretty fruitful. Actually, Ryan’s dad is my best source.
RYAN: He brings bags of stuff for Anthony. My parents come every Sunday and bring pastries.
ANTHONY: All of us, except for Jemma (who’s from Liverpool), went to the University of Guelph in different years so we know each other from that. I was roommates with Ryan throughout university.
We’re confident and comfortable with each other. It’s not like we sit in our own spots, necessarily. It’s different from a lot of group studios where people feel entitled to their own pod but not really the greater space.
RYAN: I’ll be right up on your stuff. If I need something, I’ll just take it. I’m joking. We obviously have boundaries. That’s one of the nice things about being surrounded by likeminded people. If someone’s busy working, you’ll leave them alone.
I’ll come home exhausted and I don’t want to do anything but Wallis will be painting or James will be screwing things together or Steve’s working on something exciting and then it’s like, “No. I’m going to do stuff.” It helps you bridge that gap between not wanting to do anything and working. You see other people working and you’re more excited about your own work.
WALLIS: I work at a catering company but I don’t get a lot of shifts. I get to spend time in my studio a lot. One of my obsessions is collecting little things. I really like little things. I get distracted really easily. I’ll do this and that, then go play with the cats.
JAMES: Wallis is selling herself short. She pulls marathon all-nighters.
WALLIS: I usually work at night when other people are here. I work better with other people around. It gives me motivation to work in my studio. I like living here because there’s constant motivation in the house. You know that someone is working so you work harder. It’s almost like a competition, but it’s not. It’s a healthy competition. This sounds awkward and creepy, but when I hear James playing music, I’m like, “Ok, James is home and working in his studio so I should get back into my studio.”
JAMES: Sometimes I get home and Wallis is in her studio, or someone else has the music cranked, and I’ll be like, “You know what? Maybe I can put on some painting clothes and get some work done too.” Sometimes, that’s how you have those great nights.
RYAN: But sometimes you put on those painting clothes and you think you’re going to have a great night because nothing’s planned but then you’re hitting your head against the wall. That’s when you can go into the kitchen and everyone’s sitting around writing something and you can do that instead.
WALLIS: Or just get drunk and talk shit.
LAURA: I’m the newest person to move in here. I’ve only been here for 8 months. My old studio was just me, with no one else around. It was really productive, but coming somewhere with a lot of people working in totally different ways and working together was a big game changer for me and how I approach things.
I used to be a lot more: idea, execute idea, new idea, execute idea–but I’m learning to play around with things before trying to have it solidified. I’m playing with animation right now. I don’t know what’s happening with it yet.
My first impression when I came here was, “Oh my god, 12-year-old kids built a treehouse and now they’re living in it.” I think that environment makes it a lot more fun to work in.
JAMES: For our woodshop, we all pulled some resources together to get new saws. A lot of these tools were donated by old friends. Professors were pretty helpful when they found out we were putting this space together. People were like, “I have a bandsaw in my basement. Do you want it?” We got a bunch of free barn wood from one of Steve’s family members. In my previous studios, I had to do woodworking in my studio so it’s nice to have the sawdust contained to one spot and have the right tools.
LAURA: Roughly contained in one spot [laughs]. It comes in my room all the time.
JAMES: My studio gets really messy but I have some sort of system. I generate a lot of scrap and cut-offs when I start constructing these paintings. This new work is very fresh and I’m still trying to figure out how it comes together. I’m using the architecture of the space to get these bends and a spatial experience of a painting rather than a painting being a flat surface.
I’ve been in a lot of weird studio spaces and I like how the space comes into the work. As long as there’s enough floor and wall space, you can make anything work.
Living with eight people has helped me see other people’s viewpoints and not be such a control freak. I can’t believe how well we get along. We’re all really good friends. You have your room and you have your own studio. You have doors you can close when you need them. It’s not just another apartment. I’ve got a lot invested in this place. I’m willing to work to make these relationships and this situation work.
MILES: My favourite part about living here? The company [laughs]. In all seriousness, it’s nice to have feedback from everyone. I think that’s a common theme amongst all of us. You put a banana on a rod and immediately get feedback. You get a shit-eating grin on your face going to your neighbour like, “Check it out!”
STEVE: My studio is right by the front door. To a certain extent, I’m uncomfortable being at the front, but it’s important for me to have this space because I have my recording studio behind it. I’ve got my piano and it’s sound isolated. I can practice any time of the day and be loud.
The other part of my room is a little cube you have to climb through a trap door to get to. It’s one of the few places with windows so it feels like it’s six in the morning constantly. It can be difficult that there’s no windows. I appreciate having light, but I can get by without it. I’ve always been a nocturnal person.
JEMMA: I live in the west end and keep a studio here. I’ve had other studios that were closer to home but I didn’t feel like I connected to the people who were there. They were just artists who could be any artists. I have common ground with the artists at VSVSVS.
I was the first artist-in-residence here, last summer. I moved from Liverpool, England because I wanted a change of scene. I watched VSVSVS and their activities but didn’t go to the space because I was a little bit scared. As soon as I visited, I was really glad that I met them and found something that I could be a part of.
ANTHONY: VSVSVS is not waiting for anyone. We’re not applying for anything. We just want to do these things and in order to do that, we need to work a job and pay our rent and that’s it. That’s the pay to play–and that’s easy. That’s affordable. We get to live in this dreamworld and do whatever we want. It’s fantastic.
–VSVSVS, as told to Studio Beat
Photos & Video by D.A. Cooper
Check out the VSVSVS website here.