Art Starts makes the arts accessible to everyone

Art projects bring out the artist in participants and bring down barriers to understanding

Lawrence Heights is a tough area. Gun crime. Drug dealing. Gang violence. And heartbreak: the 2014 murder of a popular teacher – Abshir Hassan – gunned down while out moving his car.

But that’s not the whole story. Here’s the other part.

As CBC Morning said in a recent broadcast “Lawrence Heights is also a vibrant community, made up of a diverse group of people who moved here from all around the world: from the Maritimes and the Caribbean; from South America and, most recently, from Somalia, Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.

“There have been tensions and culture clashes. There have also been partnerships and lasting friendships, and a strong sense of community pride.”

Art Starts is part of that other story.

Creating understanding

“The idea of Art Starts is to use art as a medium to engage the residents and create a shared sense of identity so that they can overcome cultural or systemic barriers in their neighbourhood,” explains Bayley Nargang Art Starts communications coordinator.

“That’s because we believe the arts start the sense of community. By offering free programs in a safe space. We let members come together in healthy self-expression.”

The not-for-profit organization has been offering a variety of arts programs – from singing and dancing to acting – to residents of Lawrence Heights since 2008 when the-then city councillor Howard Moscoe persuaded the organization that his neighbourhood deserved the programs Art Starts offers.

Programs built with the community in mind

All programs are barrier-free, meaning open to anyone.

“We accept anyone. There are no restrictions at all,” Nargang insists.

If you are single mom who wants to learn to dance, there’s no problem. Bring the kids. There’s free babysitting available.

Professional artists run all the programs.

Sculpting with Lego

Most unusual is the Lego Mask program, run by sculptor Ekow Nimako.

Nimako, whose work has been on display at the AGO, among other venues, encourages his students – ages seven to 13 – to first talk about their cultural heritage then sculpt that heritage into a Lego mask.

All courses cap off with a show where the students get to show off what they’ve achieved.

“Together we sing, dance, paint, collaborate and have a lot of fun. It’s healthy self-expression,” says Nargang. But he stresses that residents have input when it comes to creating programs.

‘We ask residents what they need and together we create art projects that reflect the identity of each community. That provides opportunities for creative self-expression.”

“We ask. We listen. We create together.”

Art Starts got its start in 1992 when four artists, including Robin Pacific, opened a storefront community arts centre in the underserved Oakwood/Eglinton area of Toronto.

Local artists from all ethnic groups offered music workshops and art classes for all residents.

The goal was to encourage locals to create art together and, in so doing, learn to understand and respect each other and relieve community tensions.

Since then, the areas of Glendower (2006), Villaways (2007) and Neptune (2010) as well as Lawrence Heights have joined.

Art Starts is proud of its achievements.

“We have made art in laundromats and grocery stores. We have helped youth to produce six original music CD’s, facilitated workshops in photo-lit, textile arts, hip hop, mural arts, drumming, break and step dancing.

“We have produced multilingual theatre productions, brought youth and seniors together for collaborative storytelling and transformed a creepy old house into a kingdom of awesome.”

A cultural map of Toronto to celebrate Canada’s 150th

Canada’s 150th birthday offers another opportunity for Art Starts to strut its stuff and celebrate its 25th birthday.

Its working with artists and residents of Toronto to craft a 10-foot by 20-foot map of Toronto.

The map will celebrate Toronto’s many neighbourhoods and the cultures that thrive there.

Called Cartography 17 and created by map animator, Daniel Rotsztain, the Urban Geographer, the map will tour communities with an Indigenous storyteller to tell the stories of Indigenous peoples in the city.

The map will be exhibited in spaces such as Toronto City Hall, libraries and galleries across the GTA.

Art Starts has its offices and art rooms at Yorkdale Plaza and Lawrence Square Mall.

For more information, call 416-656-9994 or email or visit and to donate visit