By Bianca Lakoseljac: OB Writer in Residence
Since I was a child, reading has been an escape for me. A leap into the world of imagination. As a writer, when I guest as a reader or a presenter, it’s a special gift. And even a higher leap—into the world of my characters and their audacious fictional lives. My recent reading at the Toronto Heliconian Club—the first and oldest women’s arts and letters club of its kind in Canada—was one of the highlights of my writing journey.
After all, now I can have a heart-to-heart with my character Gladys from the story, “The Legend of the Cherry Blossom Fairy” published in my collection, Bridge in the Rain. The story is inspired by a version of a well-known photograph of the Group of Seven artists gathered around the table at the Arts and Letters Club.
The story begins at the Runnymede library in Toronto where my protagonist Michelle—a writer in search of inspiration—meets Gladys, an enigmatic librarian who leads her on a voyage that begins in High Park and descends into the labyrinthine underground river beds, eventually leading through the passages of Taddle Creek, in Gladys’ words, once a lively brook and now buried underground. The leap into the world of imagination is both temporal and spatial, as my protagonist finds herself surfacing from her subterranean course into the 1920s Arts and Letters Club, where the Group of Seven—Harris, Lismer, Varley, Johnston, Jackson, Carmichael, and MacDonald—are having their usual luncheon meeting.
While hiding behind a bookshelf, Michelle steps into a deeper level of make-believe when she spots Tom Thomson’s ghost, lounging in a dusty alcove:
“Next to one of the bookshelves, though, leaned a shadow like a cut-out shape of a cowboy ornamenting the many lawns I passed along Highway 27 on my way to Georgian Bay. He tipped his hat to me and I recognized him. He was not a cowboy. He was Tom Thomson.
This was a good chance to ask him about his paintings, The Jack Pine and The West Wind. I’ve had prints hanging on my wall for many years and had wondered if the mountains in the background were in fact Blue Mountain near Collingwood that I saw from my dining room at my cottage, and not of Algonquin Park. I could even see Osler Bluffs in the landscape next to the string of hills and valleys I called the Sleeping Maiden – just as I could see them across the bay.
I hesitated. Was there a certain protocol one should follow when talking to a dead man? Then I realized that this was the chance of a lifetime.
‘Ask him how he died!’ a voice beckoned in my head. ‘Did someone kill him? Who?’
Ask a dead man if he’d been murdered? I thought about it for a moment and realized that I couldn’t possibly do so. A sense of confusion overwhelmed me, a feeling of eerie discomfort.” (Bridge in the Rain, 45-56)
In this surreal world, Michelle’s sense of discontent is further magnified by the sight of a room full of men dressed in a rather formal attire of another era—and not a single woman. Puzzled, she naively asks, “Where are all the woman,” only to discover that women were not allowed! Those were the rules of the Arts and Letters Club.
If Michelle only knew that Gladys had led her to the wrong club. That mysterious, clever Gladys! She chose to travel downstream along the buried Taddle Creek and lead her to Elm Street. A northerly course upstream could have led close to Hazelton Avenue. Did she want to remind Michelle how at that time women were unwelcomed not only in many clubs but also at many polling stations in various parts of Canada? And even within the class of women who had just been given the right to vote, many were hesitant to exercise it, and risk being seen as “unmannered,” or “unfeminine,” and be ostracized by the community. All-the-while Nellie McClung’s battle for women’s suffrage continued.
Back at the Arts and Letters Club, my character Michelle knew that it was best to stay hidden—as she was not welcome here. But then, if my protagonist had ended up at the right club, the story would have been a different one. It would have been set where women “living in the arts” have been gathering since 1909 and still happily do so—The Toronto Heliconian Club—and that’s another story waiting to be told.
Photo: The Heliconian Club banner.
Photo: The Heliconian Club facade featuring a Victorian rose window.
Back in the spring, when Angie Littlefield and Ellen Michelson offered to sponsor me as a Lit-group member, I was excited to join this historic association that has been championing women in the arts for more than a century. The Club is housed in a former church—its architecture is Carpenter’s Gothic, a Victorian rose window ornamenting its façade on Hazelton Avenue. The building is a designated Toronto historic site as well as a National historic site. The Club was founded by Mary Hewitt Smart, a music teacher at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. The members chose the name “Heliconian” after Mount Helicon, in Greek mythology the dwelling place of the muses. True to its name, the club features six sections: Art, Dance, Drama, Music, Literature, and Humanities.
I was delighted that the Literature section of the Club was planning a new series of readings for its group. The group is led by Christine Arthurs, and guided by Ellen Michelson, the previous long-time Lit-section mentor and the voice of experience. Supported by the Literary Committee—Marcia Walker, the Jessie London Writer in Residence, Angie Littlefield—who keeps us on track with tasks-at-hand and timelines—and other dedicated authors, the group held its first reading on November 8. It was entitled Sisters of Calliope: The Literature Section Salon—inspired by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry in Greek myth—and featured eight authors.
Poster: Courtesy of Angie Littlefield, the post used for the event features the readers and the works from which they read.
I was happy to be one of the readers. My guest, David Depoe, shared some of his memories of Yorkville with the guests at our table: “Yorkville in the 60s was a special place for artists, poets, draft dodgers, and of course hippies. Everyone respected and took care of each other, in the middle of the creation of Canadian music.”
During the 60s and 70s, David was the leader of the community activist group known as The Diggers. The group helped provide food and shelter for the youth living on the streets of Yorkville, as well as the Village residents. His activities during that period have inspired parts of my novel, Stone Woman—which relives the 1967 Summer of Love—and has a number of scenes set in the Yorkville of the 60s.
Angie Littlefield was pleased with the evening: “’Sisters of Calliope’ provided a great night out in historic Yorkville Village. My friends and I enjoyed the diverse readings, ambience and socializing over supper. It was a great introduction for them to the Heliconian Club—where I've been a member for a year and a half.”
Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews commented, “…Sisters of Calliope reading and dinner was a huge success! Beautifully organized by Christine Arthurs and hosted by Marcia Walker, it was well attended by members of the various arts sections. … Writing can be a very lonely, difficult endeavour. It was heartening for me to be included in such a great group of women artists.”
Our Lit-group leader Christine Arthurs reflected on the Club’s events: “Even though I am a fairly new member of the Toronto Heliconian Club, I waded in unabashedly and quickly acclimatized myself to its fluid atmosphere. It didn’t take long for me to feel at home, perhaps because the other members were so welcoming. I recently became head of the Literature Section which also hastened my immersion. As someone who has tended to work on my writing in isolation, it has been a welcome shift for me to find a community. At our recent salon we were able to share our work with one another and other members of the club in a congenial environment that bodes well for future endeavours together. The Heliconian Club is a good fit for me personally because I enjoy exploring all of the arts; I appreciate the concerts, art shows, and dance performances, all of which are presented in an intimate and historic setting. Everyone gives of themselves at the club, contributing their time and talents as they are able. This can be a bit of a struggle, since most people are busy with a number of personal projects simultaneously, but it also stimulates a positive mutuality that is quite satisfying.”
We were pleased and honoured that Club president, Mary Perdue attended the event, and offered: "I cannot believe that there are such talented writers in the Heliconian Club. The readings were so tempting that I must obtain the books to complete the stories on my own time."
Photo: Courtesy of Angie Littlefield.
Readers, November 8, with Ann Elizabeth Carson, Mary Willan Mason, Sharon Crawford, Josie Di Sciascio Andrews, Bianca Lakoseljac, , Marcia Walker, Amanda K. Hale, and Christine Arthurs at The Toronto Heliconian Club.
The Heliconian Club continues to be a place of inspiration, and I very much look forward to being part of this multidisciplinary creative milieu of artists and art enthusiasts from various fields, interests, and backgrounds.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Bianca Lakoseljac second novel, Stone Woman, which relives Toronto’s 1967 “summer of love”, has just been released by Guernica Editions. Bianca is the author of a novel, Summer of the Dancing Bear; a collection of stories, Bridge in the Rain (Guernica, 2012, 2010); and a book of poetry, Memoirs of a Praying Mantis (Turtle Moons Press, 2009). She is TWUC liaison for the National Reading Campaign, past president of the Canadian Authors Association, Toronto, has judged various national literary competitions, and has served on a number of literary contest panels. Bianca taught at Ryerson University and Humber College.
You can write to Bianca throughout the month of November at email@example.com.