While most of us abhor the seasonal struggle with boots, coats and gloves that have a habit of getting lost, while we stumble through snowbanks longing for spring, Arto Yuzbasiyan revels in the Toronto winter. Winter keeps him warm.
“Bad weather is good weather for me,” says the 55-year-old artist who emigrated here from Istanbul in 1973.
He is Toronto’s Maurice Utrillo, a person who looks affectionately at the textures and surfaces of our urban environment, particularly in January and February, when he likes to drive around the city with sketchbook and camera at hand. The city his paintings revel in is unlovely and unloved, with its puddles and slush and piles of dirty snow, yet he believes that this is when Toronto is most like itself.
“Winter has a different atmosphere — it’s more Toronto. It has more character. It challenges people,” says Yuzbasiyan. We are talking in his spacious Lowther Ave. house that also serves as his studio. The magnificent carpets on the floor are reminders of his Armenian heritage.
He has painted Broadview Ave., Gerrard, College, King and Queen Sts. with their streetcars and snow-topped cars, Kensington Market under snow and dozens of other downtown streets. As is common with successful artists, almost none of his oils or watercolours hang in his house. His pictures are sold by his dealers, the Roberts Gallery in Toronto and Gallery Vincent in Ottawa, as soon as they are completed.
His work is displayed in the Canadian embassy in Washington, in the Sunnybrook Hospital, in the Toronto public libraries, at the University of Toronto, and is found in the corporate collections of Air Canada, Gulf Canada Ltd., Allstate Insurance, IBM, Bell Canada, Imperial Oil, Cadillac Fairview, Canada Packers, Dupont and Dofasco as well as in numerous private collections (Ken Thomson recently made a purchase).
His paintings, which range in price from $2,800 to $5,000, have made their way to England, Australia, France, Holland, Israel, Italy and Germany, purchased by visitors to our city. “I’m not painting only for myself. I like an audience,” he admits.
Yuzbasiyan was born in Turkey, the only son of a prosperous Armenian clothing manufacturer father, and part-Armenian mother. His teacher and mentor was an artist with a refined classical technique named Ojeni Telyan, who lived in the same building.
“She was a religious painter, but she taught me the basics. When I went into her apartment, the scent of oil paints was just magical to me,” he recalls. “I’d go twice a week as a child and she’d say after a while, `Go outside and play instead of sitting here for hours,’ and I’d say, `No, I like it here.’
“She was then in her 60s and encouraged me to go to Europe.”
He spent time in Paris and worked at a studio in Holland, where he did some commercial design work, but he says, “Europe was not for me.”
It was love that brought him to Toronto in 1973, where he arrived in pursuit of a young woman he had met in Istanbul.
“I came because I had a sister here,” says Annie Yuzbasiyan, now his wife, as she serves tea and home-baked cookies. They have a son, 23, and a daughter, 28.
He has never returned to Istanbul, though he keeps two charming watercolours he painted of the city on view in his living room.
“When I first came here I spent a lot of time in the Kensington Market. It was the only place I felt at home because of the very casual approach of the merchants.”
His shelves abound with books on Canadian art, a subject he knew nothing about before he arrived here. “Canadian art was new to me. I had heard of Harold Town in Europe, but that was it. When I got here, I was somewhat surprised there was so much emphasis on the wilderness because to me the cities were more fascinating.”
He has painted Montreal, Thunder Bay, Hamilton, Quebec city, New York and Chicago, though Toronto streets remain his primary subject.
Paintings of Toronto have a long and honourable tradition, going back to the vivid streetscapes of Lawren Harris in the years after World War I. Harris often painted the gracious brick homes on Wellington and Jarvis Sts., as well as the raw edge of town and the crumbling houses in the Ward (the downtown slum torn down in the early 1960s to build the City Hall).
In the ’50s and ’60s, Albert Franck painted the lanes, back views and antique facades of what remains of an older Toronto, a project in which he was followed by John Kasyn.
What is different in Yuzbasiyan’s work is the absence of nostalgia and the emphasis on the city’s dynamism, its hum and buzz and ornery traffic.
“I felt that what I saw of existing city paintings (by Franck and Kasyn) didn’t cover the entire spectrum,” he says. “They looked at the backyards and lanes and residential streets. I try to cover more human activity, the hustle and bustle.”
“Arto a very talented artist — his work is well executed,” says Pamela Wachna, curator of the city’s Market Gallery, which owns a Yuzbasiyan painting of row houses.
Among other notable contemporary painters of the city, she singles out watercolourist Les Tait, Peter Adams, whose work impressed her at the annual outdoor art show in Nathan Phillips Square, and a couple who paint in a loose, impressionist manner: Vernon and Dorothy Mould. The Moulds have been painting for five decades and their work was featured at the gallery last summer.
When Yuzbasiyan first started to paint the city, he couldn’t sell his paintings. “I was not interested in polishing them up, in making them pretty, so I had a difficult time marketing them. People didn’t want to see snow and slush.
“We go through that every day. We struggle with that and struggle is what I like.”