Lifelong Renter: When life, home and work converge by david hayes, photos by vince talotta (via Toronto Star)
Welcome to artist John Webster’s apartment on the second floor of a house in Parkdale. It’s like entering a museum of vintage objects and modern-day kitsch, a funhouse whose contents are lovingly arranged to surprise, delight and amuse. It’s so overwhelming walking from room to room that I nearly forgot to talk to Webster about renting, the purpose of my visit.
So first come on a tour with Webster. You won’t lose sight of him, given the unit is 800 square feet of densely-packed eye candy and our tour guide is six-foot-five with short-cropped hair and a Van Dyck, wearing a pale blue hoodie, khakis and a flash of red-striped socks above his Keds. A nice mix of flamboyance and austerity, the 17th century sharing genes with the 21st.
In the living room, a dozen or so framed paintings and prints — many that a discerning dealer would classify as “cute” — hang on a wall above a pink sofa covered in cushions, all found at flea markets or Value Village. “I love handmade things that people discard,” says Webster. “And pillows with animals and flowers are always a good thing.”
Against a chair rests a visible human body toy that once taught a child about anatomy. On the mantle above a fireplace — in which faux logs cast an electric glow — a huge arrangement of vintage plastic flowers sits beneath a framed photo of early Hollywood cowboy and stuntman Ken Maynard, as though Maynard had died yesterday.
“Apparently he was a bastard to work with,” remarks Webster. “But his neck scarf is a nice light pink and I loved the image.”
In the tiny office adjacent to the living room, three ceramic lambs, once intended as flower vases marking the birth of a baby, now contain Webster’s paint brushes, pens and screwdrivers. In the bedroom, above a bed on which lie fluffy dog and cat pillows, is one of Webster’s striking pieces: a collage using fabric and other materials depicting a “groom-bride,” typical of his love of playing with ideas of the masculine and feminine. “At the time I’d been doing a lot of digital collage so I wanted to see what I could do with real stuff,” he explains.
Walk down the hallway, past the rabbit lamp on a bookshelf and consider the reading material: The Boys of the Puffin, Tom and Jerry at the Circus, Patty Duke and the Mystery Mansion, Farm Friends, The Runaway Pancake . . . In the kitchen, every surface is covered: plaster fruit; floral needlepoint in round wooden frames; a mid-century red tin barbecue tray; a plastic Colonel Sanders piggybank; retro knickknacks like porcelain cookie jars, egg cups, a gravy boat . . .
Here, I sit with Webster and his friend and landlady, Stephanie Power. A decade ago, Power, a graphic designer, illustrator and photographer who teaches at OCADU, decided to buy this cute house on a leafy residential street. “I’m from Newfoundland, where everyone buys a house,” she says. “So, I thought, I’ll either buy one there to have a place to visit in the summer or buy one here, wherever I find the best deal first. When this house came up, I thought, it’s perfect. I can buy it but only if I rent out half of it.”
Power, who lives downstairs, is a petite, pretty brunette wearing cat’s-eye glasses. She shares Webster’s aesthetic, although her home downstairs is lovely but a model of interior-design restraint compared to Webster’s. From the beginning her goal was to rent only to friends so when a tenant gave notice in 2009 she contacted Webster. He assumed the ceilings would be too low but they’re not so now they enjoy the privacy of their own units but often interact like roommates. Power’s cats, Beans and Yoshimi, and Webster’s, Kiki and Joe, roam the house freely.
Webster grew up in Brandon, Winnipeg and Vancouver before coming to Toronto to study experimental art at what was then called the Ontario College of Art (OCA). His parents always rented although he admits he never asked them why. “We were pretty middle class,” he says. “It’s not like we were broke or anything. When they retired they moved to Belmont, Man., to look after my dad’s ill mother and finally bought a bungalow for $20,000. Now my two sisters own homes but I can’t see how I, as an artist who wants to live in downtown Toronto, ever will.”
Webster pays $1,100 a month, inclusive, and says he likes that instead of going into a corporate landlord’s pocket, his money is helping his friend pay off her mortgage.
Power furrows her brows. “I sometimes feel bad because he’s my friend and he’s paying me rent every month.”
“Shhhh,” says Webster in a stage-whisper. “Don’t tell her but she could probably get more for it.”
There’s something wonderful about a home that so profoundly reveals its occupant’s personality, a feeling that everything about Webster’s sensibility is on display. When I tell him this, he says, “This is the first place I’ve ever lived in where it feels like my life, my home and my work have converged into one.”
David Hayes is an author and award-winning feature writer who has been a renter most of his life. If you have stories or information to share about renting, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.