Alison Garwood Jones

Performance Art

July 18, 2015

I’ve been doing chalkboard art on the windows at The Merchant Tavern for two weeks now, armed with my ruler, Sharpie paint markers, Q-tips and a bottle of nail polish remover.

The Merchant Tavern, Toronto: Window Chalk Art.

One hundred thousand commuters flood Toronto’s Financial District on weekdays, and during the morning rush hour about ten thousand of them walk past the spot where I’m working (the owner filled me in on the math).

Because I stand right on the sidewalk to do my work, I get a lot of comments. I’ve gone from being a solitary writer to a performance artist and have quickly learned that shout outs, and even a bit of heckling, come with the territory. It’s like having a live Twitter stream marching behind me.

Here are some of the remarks they’ve lobbed at me:

“You spelt it wrong.”

“Taco TOOOSDAY!” (see this post)


“Is that tape coming out of your marker?”

“My kids could do that.”

For my last three windows I wrote “beer” in Spanish, French and Portuguese in an effort to pull in visiting Pan Am athletes and spectators. Last I heard, competitors in judo and track came in with their coaches for heaping plates of protein and carbs.

Chalkboard art on the windows of the Merchant Tavern, Toronto. This says "Cerveza" or beer in Spanish.

While I’m working, I hold my breath to keep my lines straight. Luckily I’ve discovered that if I extend my pinkie across the glass as I’m drawing, it acts as a ballast so I can go back to inhaling and exhaling without veering off course.

On Thursday, a young woman walked up to me and stood at my side as I was outlining the word “CERVEZA.” I didn’t acknowledge her at first because I didn’t want to break my momentum. I planned to talk to her — but just not immediately. Apparently, she couldn’t wait:

“How do you get paid to that?”

“I know the owner,” I said, colouring in the last “A.” But that was too simplistic. She wanted the big picture, the key to survival on this planet. I put down my marker on the granite ledge and wiped my fingers on my smock.

“Do you have a website?” I asked.

“No, not yet. I know I need one  … but I just opened a store on Etsy?”

“That’s a good start. What kind of stuff do you do?”

She pointed to the painted baseball cap on her head, then leaned in and lifted up the costume jewelry around her neck to show off a colourfully painted clay pendant.


“Parents just don’t understand,” she said.  The comment made my heart jump only because my parents did understand. They totally got it. I felt this instinctive rush to share them with her.

“Keep drawing,” I said, “and start building your website this weekend.”

She smiled and shook my grubby hand. “I will.”

I turned back to the wall, drew in a breath and kept outlining.

As I push “publish” on this, I hope she’s uploading her final product shots on  Squarespace or WordPress and showing us what she can do.

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Switching gears

July 4, 2015

I like drawing because it uses a different patch of my brain than writing and makes me tackle math and spatial questions.

For me, drawing is an act of joy — not some predatory career move — although I joked with friends on Facebook this week that monetizing the hell out of ALL my skills seemed like a prudent thing to do in this Age of Uncertainty. I cut hair too if anyone needs a trim. I don’t do highlights.

I’m convinced that the time I spend drawing helps me level up as a writer for the simple reason that it takes me away from my desk, then sends me back with a glow of achievement and a renewed confidence in my problem-solving skills.

This week, I designed and executed a series of event windows for Toronto’s Merchant Tavern (see below, and come down if you love craft beer … and #TacoTuesdays). This assignment reminded me that concentrated effort is the only thing that will take you over a finish line — a lesson for any writer stalling midway through a project.

When you want to advance something you’re constantly focused on (in my case, writing), go out and achieve in another area. This is not about multitasking or procrastination, it’s about giving your all to activities you care about. For someone else it could be gardening or cake decorating or playing in a band. Concentrating on pure pleasure is healthy and life affirming.


Restaurant Window Art for The Merchant in Toronto

Photos: AGJ at work by Ana Cunha. The rest were taken by the author.

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She loves me

June 21, 2015

There’s a reason why guitar strummers always get the girl. Even base players have been taken aback over how easily the hugs and propositions flow after a show.

We’ve been saying it since the 1970s: some guys are just more “sensitive.”

Women notice men who can emote — or who, at least, convince us they can emote. These guys seem more clever than the rest. Less brutal. More courageous. Heroic, even, by female standards.

The majority of guys know this, but only a few scramble to deliver. And when they do, they make sure their hair blows behind them on stage like superhero capes.

Musicians are a special breed of men. More special than corporate lawyers, hedge funders or geeks. We used to believe in geeks until their skill set became worth so much that their fangs and knuckle hair grew. And it’s not that the musicians don’t have fangs. Theirs keep getting worn down by overthinking, free shots, rising rents and the knowing smiles of  that girl in the the front row. It’s addictive.

The musician will rise each day at 2:00 pm and think about that elusive, perfect melody or lyric just to feel a fortune of gold hair run through his fingers again. And it doesn’t have to be gold. Copper is nice too.

When you’re a guy whose income gets delivered in a bucket, the contents of which you have to divide amongst the bandmates, that’s another file to the fang of your masculinity. Poverty keeps you in check — sort of.  If you can’t win her with money, you’ll get her with words. Women subdivide along the same lines. There are those who crave trinkets and will stop at nothing to get them, and those who swoon to verse.

To achieve the swoon, the musician has to deliberately and consistently study a woman’s emotions, jot down her likes and dislikes, and ponder the meaning of it all. He can’t just stop at the visuals, like Roy Orbison did. Well, he can, but he knows he shouldn’t. The results will suffer. So he spends hours in a haze of botanical smoke turning over mots justes, coming up with new melodies, just so she’ll say Yes.

Sure, it’s self-interested. Completely self-interested. After all, the poetry is gone by morning, replaced by a surly silence and a shadow of new growth.

And, yet, the attempt to understand persists. It becomes a part of the man. That counts for a lot. An album’s worth of songs will force a guy to think about and occupy many different emotional realms and points of view: yours, theirs, and all the others.

To the men who can’t let themselves know a woman and who say that objectifying her is a way of avoiding being “annhilated”— I know, what a word! — pick up a guitar and work out your feelings and fears. (I realize my argument collapses with rappers, but I’m going to keep going).

If a guy can admit the following in writing, it’s a start, maybe even a first move to rethinking his survival strategies:

“I objectify women ’cause it’s safer. I receive an immediate gratification — a thrill if you will, albeit superficial. It keeps me safe, at least for a time, from annihilation, from a treacherous road of intimacy and vulnerability and the risk of being really seen and connected with. Or worse, rejected!! Yes, that’s it. It’s an avoidance of rejection. Intimacy takes a lot of work, courage and commitment. Objectifying is an ‘easy’ road out of the potential of rejections — at least for the moment. A slice of breathing room if you will, though illusory and ultimately unfulfilling and painful. It’s still or at least has been a strange sort of unconscious haven for me.”

A guy who identified himself as “R” wrote this admission on the Good Men Project website. Another guy named “RF” agreed with him and wrote:

“{I too objectify women} to avoid the terror of annihilation — being reabsorbed back into the feminine. {I do it to} avoid kicking up unhealed dependencies on my mother.”

Two guys does not a trend make, but …

Not too long ago on CBC Radio One, I heard an interview with a leader in the black community in Toronto who shared his observations about why so many fathers abandoned their families and lost touch with their children. I hope I’m getting this right, but he said something like, a black man who shows affection towards his children fears being labelled “homosexual” by other men in his circle. In other words, there is cultural pressure not to express genuine love and support towards your dependants, but to stuff your emotions and run as fast as you can in the other direction.

In a world that keeps reinventing racism and sexism and homophobia, we gotta rethink the ingredients it takes to build a man. I’ll write about women too, imperfect as we are, but in another post.

That brings me back to the musicians. When hockey is not an option, guys, pick up that guitar leaning against the wall. Pluck it and strum it and try to growl out a tune. Tell your story. Scribble down sentences and scratch them out. Try hard to tell the world about all the mistakes you’ve made, the relationships you’ve lost, the legacy of a father you’re trying to match, avoid, forgive or just move around. You’re still deciding. But just share.

And don’t just sing the results to us, to women. Sing to your brothers, other men who are running with no idea how to stop, connect and just be. Show them that men can and should emote. And teach them a chord or two so they can join you.

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What American Dream?

June 19, 2015

James Baldwin left the United States for a reason. From a distance, the writer gained even more clarity on the situation that was and is America.

In 1965, Baldwin was invited to England to debate conservative pundit, William F. Buckley, at the Cambridge Union. The issue: “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American negro?”

Baldwin starts speaking at 14:10. His analysis needs to be heard right now.

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Wednesday’s sketchbook

June 17, 2015

Watercolor cartoons by Alison Garwoodj-Jones

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Blue skying it

June 11, 2015

CloudsGone sailing in my mind.

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We Know What Jane Would Do

June 9, 2015

Drawing of Jane Jacobs

 #GardinerEast: “It’s an awful handicap.” ~ Jane Jacobs

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May 29, 2015

Being asked to participate in this year’s TEDxWomen 2015 was a testament to the power of LinkedIn’s algorithm, having a blog, doing what you love and showing your stuff! As a result I got to collaborate with a bunch of really smart, generous women. I always hoped this is what freelancing could be. Thank you, Helena Skrinjar and Vanessa Reid!

Graphic Visualizer at TEDx The Annex Women, Toronto May 28, 2015

Graphic Visualizer at TEDx The Annex Women, Toronto,  May 28, 2015. Photo: Shaghaygh Tajvidi

TEDxWomen 2015 was a one-day event showcasing women’s voices and perspectives from around the world. While TEDxTheAnnexWomen highlights local voices in Toronto, it is part of an intercontinental network of inspiring storytelling with the goal being to share ideas and insights on creating, sustaining and recovering momentum. Collectively, we discovered new perspectives on where — and why — change is happening today by exploring the innovations, ideas and individuals building momentum around the world.

In Toronto, we heard six speakers on range of topics from sustainability to building a bike culture to the importance of choice for a woman in marriage. Kristyn Wong-Tam, Carolyn Harris, Naz Gocek, Sonia Molodecky, Vanessa Reid & Yvonne Bambrick were the speakers. My job was to capture the essence of their talks in drawn form.

You talk, I'll draw.

You talk, I’ll draw.


TEDx Board 2

Drawing at TEDx Toronto

Photo by the talented Shaghayegh Tajvidi:


Alison Garwood-Jones talks to Vanessa Reid.

Getting to know TEDx presenter, Vanessa Reid.



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Using my voice

May 21, 2015

This week I unwittingly joined the ranks of Robert Redford and Pierce Brosnan when I lent my voice to a PSA on monarch butterflies for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The NRDC is an American environmental organization, but Canadian farmers, especially corn and soybean growers, have permission to use the same glyphosate-containing chemical mentioned in the video that is wiping out butterfly caterpillars in the US. It’s a North America-wide problem.

While dandelions are on the rise in Ontario due to a province-wide cosmetic pesticide ban, butterflies are on the decline.

You may shrug, but this “butterfly effect” is serious.

Here’s why:

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May 10, 2015

Melissa and Joan RiversPhoto from the Melissa Rivers Collection

Joan Rivers was by turns vicious, smart, snarky and deeply caring.

Back when when I watched more TV I occasionally landed on one of her fashion rants, but never stayed long. Most of the time, I don’t find that kind of aggression entertaining. But I felt her talent, so I paid attention to her comings and goings.

In more instances than I can recall, the social commentary I got from Joan Rivers and Robin Williams (about things other than fashion) was smarter and more to the point than any explanation laid out in the op-ed columns of the world’s best newspapers.

I especially paid attention to Joan after an interview she gave to a local radio station in Toronto seven or eight years ago. Rivers spent a lot of time in Mississauga, “Toronto’s Hoboken,” as she called it, pushing winking brooches from her Joan Rivers Classic Jewellery Collection to Shopping Channel viewers. She’d coax the phone lines to light up by placing two brooches on her pant suit jacket, right over her nipples. “This’ll draw attention.” Or else, she hammed it up by donning a mystical fortune teller’s puffy cap. “I know why you’re here, [to buy jewellery],” she intoned in her raspy Borscht Belt delivery. It was a direct rip off of Johnny Carson’s Carnac The Magnificent.

In that radio interview, Joan did as Joan did: alternating between jokes, acknowledging her husband’s suicide, the cancellation of her ’80s talk show, the temporary estrangement from her daughter, Melissa, and the countless patch-ups to her nose, eyes and lips. But here’s the kicker: I don’t remember exactly what it was that Joan said that made me go, Wow. I think it was something about perseverance. But I vividly remember how she made me feel. That’s when I added her to my list of beacons. From that chaotic mess of talent, ambition and missteps sprung this humility. It wasn’t plotted out ahead of time like the jokes she filed away on thousands of recipe cards. She didn’t even know it was coming. It was air-distilling, though.

Six months after her mother’s death, Melissa Rivers is struggling to adjust to life without Joan. This weekend, in an LA Times profile by Amy Kaufman, the younger Rivers noted that “when your first parent dies, it’s a comma; when your second is gone, it’s a period.” Stating that second part has been hard for Melissa, says Kaufman. “You can almost see her squaring her shoulders.”

If it helps, in my experience that sense of finality wanes. In a commencement speech she made in 1989, Joan told Melissa and her fellow graduates at the University of Pennsylvania that “as long as you’ve got a parent left, you can always be a child to someone. The light is in the window.” 

I think, given time, that period will have turned back into a comma and she’ll feel the light again.

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