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Illustrator Jenn Kitagawa’s cultural guide to Toronto’s diverse arts scene

Take a unique tour of Toronto through the eyes of illustrator Jenn Kitagawa, who has made the city her home and source of inspiration

Illustrator Jenn Kitagawa
Illustrator Jenn Kitagawa

As the most populous city in Canada, Toronto is not only a financial hub but a diverse and prominent cultural one too – in part thanks to the galleries, music halls, universities, festivals and creatives that seek to reimagine and redefine their city each and every day.

The Toronto Film Festival has long attracted international visitors to the city, but smaller affairs like the documentary festival Hot Docs and the sci-fi, action cult cinema series Toronto After Dark have helped to challenge the zeitgeist and nurture the next wave of creative talent.

One of Kitagawa’s illustrations
One of Kitagawa’s illustrations

Similarly, the Royal Ontario Museum, with its angular exterior and edges that pierce the sky, and the giant glass-clad Art Gallery of Ontario have also played their part in promoting the city as a world-leading purveyor of acclaimed art. From a grassroots standpoint, independent outfits like Stephen Bulger and Daniel Faria galleries provide a platform for new artists to showcase their work.

It’s this mix of experimentation, coupled with a booming food and music scene that makes Toronto so attractive for artists to live in and for people to visit. Illustrator Jenn Kitagawa says it was the “unique creative spirit” of the city that drew her to become part of its changing fabric.

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Kitagawa’s work speaks of Toronto’s vibrancy and colour. With publishers and companies like Etsy vying to work with her, she, much like the city she calls home, is energetic and rarely caught pondering for long. “There are galleries all over”, she says. “Areas like Dundas and Ossington have traditionally played home to a lot of galleries, but now things are happening in areas like my home of Dupont as it develops.”

Here Kitagawa offers her recommendations for discovering Toronto’s artistic centres. From art galleries, local coffee spots and a place to grab a bite, to music halls and pop-up spaces, consider this your insider’s guide.

Kitagawa at work
Kitagawa at work

Patel Gallery

With a distinct love for showcasing Canadian talent, Patel Gallery offers contemporary group and solo shows from its roster of artists. Particular standouts include Kim Dorland, Dominique Fung and Ness Lee. “I love that they heavily feature Toronto-based artists,” states Kitagawa. “If I know they are having an opening, I’ll always be there.” patel.gallery.

Cooper Cole

This independent gallery shines a light on North American artists and sits in Kitagawa’s back yard of Dupont. “They have a great list of local and international artists in a wide range of mediums,” she remarks, pointing to the gallery’s diverse programming. “They often have painters, photographers and illustrators.” coopercolegallery.com.

Cooper Cole gallery
Cooper Cole gallery

Contra Coffee

Sleek and beautifully designed, with the focus being placed simply on perfectly brewed cups of coffee and delicious fresh pastries, this is no generic coffee chain. “This is my local coffee shop, a stunning space,” Kitagawa says excitedly. “The service is great and it’s the perfect place to do some work or meet with friends. It’s a local spot owned by architects, so the space is astonishing to look at.” contracafe.ca.

Taco El Asador

“No frills. Just great Salvadoran and Mexican eats.” That’s the mantra of this Central American street-food joint. Serving up tasty burritos, tostadas and tamales in an uncomplicated manner, it’s a favourite with both locals and tourists in the know. Kitagawa recommends grabbing a taco and savouring it cross-legged in Christie Pits Park across the road. tacoselasador.ca.

With/Out Pretend publishing company’s show Tender Hearts: A Space for Men’s Feelings
With/Out Pretend publishing company’s show Tender Hearts: A Space for Men’s Feelings | Image: Wade Muir

With/Out Pretend

This publishing company focuses on producing, promoting and distributing works by writers and artists, with a focus on women and those who ascribe as non-binary. With a robust event and curated talk programme, Kitagawa says the community always throws up interesting questions, thanks to timely events such as the recent show titled Tender Hearts: A Space for Men’s Feelingswithoutpretend.com.

The Garrison

This gritty local club is a regular stop off for visiting indie bands and it dishes up a curated list of beers alongside Latin tapas in the bar’s front lounge. A more traditional music venue, The Garrison is the artist’s go-to for a straight-up, no-frills music gig. Conveniently, it also sits nestled among a cluster of streets brimming with bars and restaurants that Kitagawa loves. garrisontoronto.com.

The Garrison club
The Garrison club

The Greater Good

This local tap house touts a never-ending conveyor belt of local craft beers and a bank of nostalgic arcade games with which to while away an hour or two. As one of Kitagawa’s go-to places to meet friends, the in-house New York-style pizzeria might just be one of the best places to grab a slice north of Brooklyn. thegreatergoodbar.com.

Sakai Bar

Forget what you know about sushi until you try the wares of the culinary geniuses behind Toronto’s Sakai Bar. With not even a website to its name, it’s a gem that the locals try hard to keep to themselves. Serving a slate of sake options alongside pork sandos, steamed veggies, eggplant agedashi and Kombu cured tuna “…it’s not sushi, it’s a modern take on home-cooked Japanese food,” explains Kitagawa. “It is beautiful and delicious.” instagram.com/sakaibarto.

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The Music Gallery

Experimental, innovative and wholly concerned with cross-pollinating between genres, The Music Gallery offers more than just a place to catch a music gig. “They approach music in a different way,” fusing visual artists with soundscapes, poets with DJs or classically trained musicians with contemporary dancers. musicgallery.org.

Music and Events

“Toronto loves to push the envelope, and there are always shows outside the traditional setting,” says Kitagawa. Often these are impromptu or occur on short notice in unconventional spaces like car parks, homes or independent stores. “It creates a different sense of community,” she says, but admits they are hard to find. Which is perhaps part of the fun. “You really need to speak to people and seek them out.”

One of Toronto’s best attributes is its spontaneity. Alongside long-standing establishments exists a buoyant transient cultural community offering fantastic temporary food, music and art events all year round, ensuring Toronto has something new to offer on every visit.

Explore the heartbeat of Canada’s largest city with Canadian Affair.

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