Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A History of Gathering

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Arts and Letters Club

All it takes is a single photograph to engender an idea.

For artist Pat Shea, it was a 1920s black and white snapshot of a few members of the Group of Seven. Intrigued by what the painters were discussing, how unvarnished their dialogue must have been, Shea started to consider the value of a society where artists of every vein unite for a dose of discourse.

He wanted to bring to Kingston what journalist Augustus Bridle (and subsequently the Group of Seven) brought to Toronto in 1908 — an arts and letters club.

About 40 people came to the inaugural meeting Shea held in November, 2007. In the last five years, the Kingston Arts and Letters Club has grown to more than 100 members, drawing in artists from all disciplines.

When compared to its Toronto counterpart, the Kingston club operates differently. For starters, it doesn’t have a physical space. The club meets monthly at the Kingston Yacht Club. The commonalities between the clubs can be found in the root of Bridle’s idea. There needs to be room for discussion about the state of the arts.

Times have certainly changed since Bridle’s day. The Internet has given new meaning to words such as "community" and "sharing." Technological trends have influenced the way people listen to music and discover authors.

“Musicians have gone down the road of losing CD sales and record sales because of downloads, so now the writers are in the same kind of boat,” Shea said. “People are downloading stories and writers aren’t getting paid, so that’s the kind of discussion that comes up in the club. That was something I had to consider when considering the future of the club, is how will technology affect clubs in the long run.”

When it comes to investing in a physical space, Shea is keeping technology in mind. It really is a gamble when trying to predict how the next wave of artists will choose to interact.

“Keeping a building up and running nowadays is pretty tough,” said Shea. “I, personally, am not sure if the next generation is going to be club joiners in the sense of what we know clubs to be. It might not be their thing.”

Since its inception, the Toronto Arts and Letters Club has changed considerably. Membership Chair, Carol Anderson, pointed out that up until 1985 club members were men. Today, among its 570 members, it’s pretty much a balanced mix with members ranging from 22 years old to a centenarian.

“There has been a slow decline over the last five years, but I’d say this year we’re back up again,” said Anderson.

The club is still vibrant with a handful of events happening each week. It ranges from film nights, to string quartets, to the richness of literary discussions. There isn’t a moment when the club doesn’t have something going on.

It’s also exclusive. Those wanting to join must apply. Fees range from $110 for students to $1,107 for those aged 50 to 64. It’s these fees that help the club function in every aspect of the arts, offering diverse programing for its patrons.

“As a private club it is hard to promote yourself because members have the right to privacy and you can’t be splashing their names all over everywhere,” she said. “You can’t really advertise either. But the Internet is a way to let people know that you’re there, what you’re doing.”

The Kingston Arts and Letters Club is in a very unique place in its development. It doesn’t have 100 years of history like the Toronto club, but every road starts somewhere. And since artists have a history of gathering, it will be interesting to see where Shea decides to take the club. Kingston is the perfect city to pilot the feasibility of a brick and mortar club.

“I’m willing to go down this road for a couple of years and see how this whole thing pans out with new technology,” said Shea. “It’s changing the world.”

As of yet, there isn’t an online equivalent to the well-roundedness these clubs offer, but there are a lot of online communities focusing on a single fine art.

Take Wattpad, for example. Based out of Toronto, this writing community has managed to bring writers together on an international scale. It has over 13 million actively engaged users and welcomes a new user every 1.5 seconds.

“Our focus is on connecting readers and writers,” said Wattpad co-founder, Allen Lau. “Traditionally, publishing a novel had always been a tightly controlled one-way street, but Wattpad is re-imagining the publishing ecosystem from a net-native perspective. Think: “The YouTube of books”. On Wattpad, reading and writing become a social activity where readers can participate as stories are being created by commenting, voting and sharing.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea of the salon. Diana Fitzgerald Bryden started the Toronto Women’s Writing Salon nearly 12 years ago.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for women at different stages in their careers or development as writers to exchange ideas and practical advice. It's hard sometimes at literary events for people to communicate easily and openly,” she said. “Lots of things get in the way — there's a hierarchy, either real or perceived, and sometimes just too much noise. The men I knew seemed to find it easier to band together, and I wanted to talk to my female peers specifically. I thought it would be stimulating and fun, getting different women together to eat and drink and talk about writing, and I was right.”

In 2007, when a few original members of the club started to have less interest in meeting, the salon was revived by Jessica Westhead, Laure Baudot and Sarah Selecky.

Today, the group has about 80 members. To keep the dialogue going, the salon created a Google group to manage online discussions.

“Some members have only participated online, but many others have attended and hosted in-person meetings (which seem to be happening less frequently these days than a few years ago),” said Westhead. “Unfortunately, there are so many people involved at this point that it would be far too unwieldy to have everyone attend a regular discussion-focused meeting — though it would make for an awesome party.”

Be it a purely online platform or an in-house event with wine and food, the way artists choose to gather is evolving. And with the web, it’s breaking the regional confines it was once subjected to.

Ashliegh Gehl is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist.

She has written for the Women's Post, Montreal Gazette, Quill & Quire,, Northumberland Today and The Intelligencer newspapers.

Between countless cups of oolong tea, Ashliegh has been busy working on two books. Visit her website for more information.

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