Photography by Brooke Schaal

Todmorden Mills’ ghosts teach teens marketable skills

Youth develop their creative side, business savvy and sixth sense in a unique arts mentorship program

“Did they have smoke alarms back in the day?” asks a young man holding a clipboard.

“No—but they would have come in handy,” says Elizabeth Novak, a guide at Toronto’s historic Todmorden Mills. “In the 1900s, women wore corsets laced up so tight they caused shortness of breath. Sometimes they would faint if they stood too long by the hot stove. Then if their skirts caught fire, the whole place would go up in flames.”

Eyes widen, then pens start flying across paper as if possessed.

Photo of a building with people standing in front of it

Ten emerging artists, aged 15 to 22, are touring Todmorden Mills Heritage Site, which comprises two cottages, a brewery-building-turned-museum and a theatre said to be haunted by a friendly old lady ghost and some inconsiderately noisy poltergeists. The site is just a short, dark walk through the woods from the twisty main road that plummets down into the Don Valley. On a fact-finding mission here for an arts mentorship program called The Ghosts of Todmorden Mills, the youth take notes on everything from the coffin-shaped metal bathtub in one cottage to the framed photo of a deceased toddler in his crib in the other. Underneath the bed in the picture lies a pet bulldog, as if it’s family nap time.

Photo of a photograph of a bed in black and white

“Wait. The boy is dead?” a participant asks Novak, peering closer.

“Yes. Victorians and Edwardians were fascinated by death. They’d hang up wreaths made from the hair of dead family members and have seances at home, too,” she responds.

Photo of a man with a hat and glasses smiling

Exploring artistic genres and belief systems
Helliwell House, a former miller’s home, was abandoned in the 1960s then later restored back to its 1890s incarnation. It’s said to be haunted by the former lady of the house, who died in childbirth. Legend has it her son, whose life was cut short in a limb-mangling mishap at the mill, haunts the premises as well. As the group gathers in one of the cottage kitchens, Julian Carvajal, the special projects manager of Art Starts—the United Way–funded organization behind this initiative—confesses that he sees things. “This is where I saw the ghost last time I came,” he says. “It was a female. I was standing right here, and she went whoosh right past me.”

The mentorship program that Carvajal created was advertised with one caveat: “Must not be afraid of ghosts.” Believing is optional. (Respect for one another’s opinions is not.) “I heard a lot of stories about ghosts back home in Bangladesh,” says Subha Rahman, now a Scarborough resident with an untapped passion for photography. Candace Kumar, who hopes one day to use art as a tool for social justice, says, “I believe there’s a connection between our world and past worlds.” Other participants are skeptical: “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do like the concept of horror,” says 17-year-old Mya Mitchell, who has dabbled in many artistic genres but is especially keen to develop her spoken word writing and performance skills over the next 12 weeks.

Photo of a window with a person standing inside looking out

A current connection with Toronto’s past
One of the main goals of this macabre project is—ironically—to breathe new life into the old buildings. This year, the Toronto Arts Council offered several community art groups grants to animate historic sites. With a view to creating opportunities for youth from underserved neighbourhoods, Art Starts used their funding to hire established artists who have experience teaching young people from equity-seeking communities so they can help participants develop marketable skills while forging a deeper connection with their city.

Photo of two girls standing with a camera taking pictures

“People of all cultural backgrounds in Toronto need to be able to develop a relationship with these spaces and feel welcome,” says photography instructor Ebti Nabag, who got her start as a teen in a mentorship program just like this. She went on to make documentaries about her Sudanese heritage and to exhibit photographic works at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Kumar, a participant who had been to the East York neighbourhood but never actually visited this historic site, agrees. “I knew nothing about Todmorden Mills before today. And the most prominent thing for me on the tour was the amount of colonial history embedded in the houses—you felt the conquest of space. I’m looking forward to acknowledging the Indigenous presence in this area through art,” says Kumar.

How social class and conventions shape design
Mentees will cycle through biweekly workshops in three artistic forms. They’ll start by creating historically inspired costumes under the mentorship of Ayodele Holas, a designer with her own sustainable fashion line. Today, as they familiarize themselves with the history of the site’s lingering ghosts and former residents, they discuss how the social hierarchy and conventions of different eras will influence their design and fabric choices.

Photo of a an old dress

In the parlour, a young woman stops to stroke a horsehair cushion. And in the bedroom, someone holds a child’s white linen smock to the window, observing its ethereal qualities as sunlight streams in.

“I’m interested in how femininity was portrayed in different eras back then, through delicate fabrics and corsets shaping the form,” says Kumar. “It’s different from how we promote femininity today, and I’d like to explore that working with lace, velvet and satin.”

Photo of a set of hands holding a camera looking at a photo

Developing images and marketable skills
Next, participants will photograph themselves in costume to construct stories. They’ll use items and settings they discover in the cottages, like spooky closets, threadbare teddy bears and single-blade razors. And they’ll learn how to use effects such as blurred motion and double exposure to create a certain atmosphere.

After the tour and a free lunch, Nabag passes out cameras in the brewery classroom. She then goes over the manual settings.

“My pictures are turning out too bright,” says one participant, staring at the dials on her camera in between snaps.

“What are you going to do?” asks Nabag.

“Fix my f-stop?” she replies.

“Yes!” says the instructor. “And once you’ve mastered regular exposure, you can play around with underexposure and overexposure, since we’re making pictures of ghosts.”

Later, workshops in photo editing will equip the youth with foundational skills some will go on to use professionally, as they establish themselves in the visual arts. “I last used a camera and Photoshop a few years ago in Grade 9, so I’m glad we have the opportunity to learn these skills here,” says Rahman.

Photo of an old room with an empty bed in it

Healing words
For the spoken word element of the program, Carvajal has chosen a bedroom with a large red carpet. “Did anybody see The Craft, a film about four girls who do witchcraft?” he asks. “This reminds me of the bedroom in the movie—it’s cozy but the carpet makes me think of blood.”

This component is not just about replicating horror flicks—participants will have a space to develop their creativity through writing. They’ll get to hone their performance and collaborative skills, as well as explore how to manage the stresses of life.

Mentor Patrick Walters is a seasoned writer and youth educator. He uses poetry, particularly in communities where the stresses of daily life can mount up, to help people access their inner world and focus on mental wellness and general well-being.

Mitchell connects deeply with this genre. “I love spoken word and I’ve done some at a Toronto Public Library workshop called Poetry Saved Our Lives,” she says. “That’s how I check in with my feelings and emotional state.”

The business of art
While the Ghosts of Todmorden Mills Project will give young people the chance to experiment creatively, it will also school them in the business side of being an artist, because it’s not just free training, it’s paid training.

“We provide a small income to teach participants that getting paid for your work as an artist is crucial,” says Carvajal. Having a career in the arts can mean working from gig to gig, having no employment insurance to fall back on, stretching out grants and living on a precarious income, so knowing one’s self-worth is crucial.

Many of the young participants would not have been able to participate without the small salary, free transit and meals the program offers. “Some told us on their application that one of the benefits of participating in this was being able to help out their family with some extra money,” says Carvajal.

Kumar, who’s in her fourth year of a university program in international development, says that funding her education and covering living expenses take precedence over everything for her right now. “If this training wasn’t compensated, doing a part-time job to pay for school would have been a bigger priority for me,” she says.

Photo of two girls standing with cameras smiling

A show and a legacy
The project will culminate in a show at the Papermill Gallery, running from late December until January 26, 2020. In one room, participants will document their artistic process; in the other they’ll display their finished work—a phantasmagoric legacy that engages with Canada’s colonial and patriarchal past in ways that are meaningful to a more multicultural and equality-seeking generation.

“Once you make your mark on something, it’s like saying, ‘I’ve been here. I’ve done this,’” says Mitchell. “It’s leaving a little message for the next people who come.”

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