Toronto rapper/blogger Just John takes leap of faith and opens gallery space
A lineup of young supporters gather outside the doors of a new establishment located on Bloor Street West in Toronto. One look inside at the floor-to-ceiling brick walls and minimalist decor and it’s clear what brought all these people together: the vibe.
The crowded gallery is full of personality — from the subtle Blank Canvas logo at the entrance to the unique furniture that doubles as seats for guests. Even in the bathroom, which is full of graffiti, artwork is on display. Guests are encouraged to sign their names on the walls to leave their mark on the space.
“It was always my goal to have my own gallery,” says John Samuels, 22, founder of Blank Canvas. “There is nothing more liberating than having your own space.”
“There is nothing more liberating than having your own space.”
The gallery is an extension of a blog about arts and culture in Toronto, Omit Limitation (OL), also founded by Samuels. He put together the OL team three years ago while studying at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto to build an online platform and create a conversation with the public. Eventually, the blog led to the team organizing its first event, The Alley, a showcase held inside a downtown loft featuring some of Toronto’s finest artistic souls, including Erik Flowchild, Savannah Ré, RMNGNT, Fucci and Soteeoh. With much success and backing from the community, the event grew into a series, which continued to gain supporters.
“We were just a bunch of street kids that were into street culture and expressing ourselves and finding ways to leave our mark in the city,” Samuels says. “Our legacy is obviously part of our story. Our story is our perspective and our perspective [was] our views.”
With a clear vision in mind, the next move, he explains, was to open up a space where the team could host its own events. During the hunt for the perfect location, Andrew Williamson of Black Cat Artspace introduced Samuels to a place that was once a barbershop. They renovated the space within two months using funds raised through crowdfunding site, Indiegogo, and opened in May 2016.
“If we want to see a change in society we have to find a way where we can start owning things.”
Blank Canvas creates opportunities for local artists through musical showcases, poetry slams, and photography and visual art exhibits. Samuels aims to not only add on to the city’s arts scene, but also to effect change, something he doesn’t shy away from as a young, Black artist and entrepreneur.
In fact, under his emcee moniker, Just John, he recently released rap/rock record, “Ignorant Youth”, which narrates his feelings about the injustices that many Black men face with police brutality. The track is “a rebel cry for marginalized youth to come together and take back their crowns,” Samuels states.
“To be a Black owner, man, [it] is just dope! If we want to see a change in society we have to find a way where we can start owning things and I think that itself is more liberating than anything,” he says.
“It’s the kind of vibe where you aren’t expected to act a certain way.”
As the night progresses, a flow of conversations amongst the guests sounds throughout the grungy, yet sophisticated studio. The noise offers a complimentary background to the unique art installments by Fucci, an artist best known for his bold and colourful, sexually-expressive paintings; Hatecopy known for her comics inspired by Desi culture; Dahae Song, a minimalistic painter who features hand symbols as a focal point of her pieces and Kare, a graffiti writer with a talent for capturing detail. Every piece demonstrates what the OL team stands for — artistic freedom.
“We were the underdogs and weren’t the cool kids,” says Brianna Roye, 23, head of photography for OL. “A lot of people come to us for different events and anyone and everyone is invited — it’s the kind of vibe where you aren’t expected to act a certain way.”
As the lights dim lower and the music grows louder, no one is ready to leave. It’s midnight and there’s still a lineup of people waiting to get in. It seems the city’s artistic underdogs have found a new place to call home.
Photos © Isa Ransome + Urbanology Magazine
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that it was OL’s head of multimedia, Andrew Davy, who introduced Samuels to the space Blank Canvas is currently housed. We regret this error.