Reading the Tarot

What was supposed to be a fun evening involving tarot cards surprisingly leads to some interesting insights.

By Shannon Attard | Featured image courtesy of Alina Vilchenko via Pexels | Updated April 20, 2020

Last March, 22-year-old Adynn Montgomery skips to the mahogany table with a bottle of Girls’ Night Out Strawberry Sangria in her right hand and a worn-down pack of tarot cards in her left. It’s the 22nd birthday of our best friend Marena Phillips and I’m staying for the weekend at the place she and Adynn share in Peterboroug. As we sit at a mahogany table, Adynn says: “You know what we should do? I should give you guys a tarot reading to hone my skills.” Marena and I roll our eyes and smirk to each other while Adynn pours the pink fizzy substance into three red Solo cups. Adynn has always been intrigued with tarot cards and has played around with many different divination practices. Little did I know, this tarot reading would change my perspective on how I view life.

Adynn removes the tarot cards from their paper casing. They are slightly larger than normal playing cards.

Adynn, who has done this many times before, introduces Marena and I to this divination tool to kill some time before we go out for a night of pointless intoxicated fun. Surprisingly, along the way I learn a few things about these tempting pieces of thick paper, despite my Catholic family’s opposition to tarot cards.

Sitting at the table in Peterborough, I experience both excitement and an eerie forbidden desire. I was raised in a Catholic household and went to church at least once a month until high school. My dad made his opposition to tarot cards clear after I had told him, one time, that Adynn dabbles with them.

“Tarot cards aren’t a game. It’s spirits that are telling you which cards to choose so you’re basically summoning spirits,” my dad said, “and you don’t know if those spirits you’re summoning are evil or not.” This made me want to receive a tarot card reading even more. We can call it a forbidden desire.

In Peterborough, I take a sip of my sangria and we all laugh as I tell them what my dad had said. Our boots huddle by the front door, soaked in spring’s mud and rain. Adynn shuffles the cards and spans them out in front of me like a tantalizing outstretched fan. “Pick three cards that you feel are calling to you,” she says. “The first one you pick will represent your past, the second is your present, and the third one will be for your future.” I run my fingers along the fanned-out cards and pull out three. Adynn pushes the rest of the cards away from us.

Marena giggles. “This should be funny Adynn, because you don’t know anything about Shannon’s past. This is like the ultimate test on your reading skills.”

Adynn flips over the card I picked for my past. It says “DEATH” across the bottom. A skeleton in silver armor sits on a white horse while a bony arm holds a black flag with a white flower splattered on its center. The Death card usually signifies new beginnings, not an actual death. This card focuses on the transformation a traumatic experience can bring.

“Not necessarily a death, but similar to a death,” Adynn assures us, after seeing our furrowed brows at the word DEATH. “You suffered a great loss during your childhood that affected you deeply and experiences from that have mended you into the person you are and will become.” I look down at the table as she says this. I thought of my broken family unit. My parents got divorced when I was 12. It changed how I view people and handle relationships.

“You had one special person in your life who was always constant and there for you,” Adynn says. My eyes dart towards Marena’s ocean blue eyes. She and I were inseparable since meeting in the first grade.

“Tarot cards aren’t a game. It’s spirits that are telling you which cards to choose so you’re basically summoning spirits.”

Flashback to elementary school where days were filled with officials in courtrooms and strangers trying to tell me to pour my feelings out to them, leaving me hollow and quietly holding everything in. I would always be dropped off by either my dad or my mom, depending on which weekend it was, at Marena’s comforting home where we would play flashlight tag in her yard at night with her younger sister Melanie. This helped whisk my family drama away in the wind behind me.

At the table, Marena nods her head. “Actually, that was pretty weird and accurate about your parent’s divorce,” she says.

 “See I told you guys I’m psychic!” Adynn pouts her glossy lips making me and Marena tipsily throw our heads back as we laugh. We brush off her insight because Adynn is the type of friend who knows what is going on in your life without you having to tell her.

For example, in September 2018, Adynn and I were sitting on my mom’s burgundy couch catching up on each other’s lives as we had not seen each other for three months because of our busy schedules with school. Adynn fluffed her hands through her espresso-colored bangs and said, “What’s your mother’s real name?” 

I laughed out loud. My mother had recently had to legally change her name on her identification cards because they had not matched. “That’s very weird,” I said. “It’s Sofia, but she just went to legally change it to Sophie.” 

In Peterborough, Adynn smiles to herself before she takes a celebratory sip from her Solo cup. She used to tell me before: “One of the reasons I like giving tarot card readings is because I like seeing people’s reaction when I give them a reading. Whether it’s spot-on or completely off.”

Adynn’s mother and grandmother both went to psychics, and they performed tealeaf and palm readings during family gatherings. At one family dinner, her grandmother lifted Adynn’s teacup from the table when everybody finished eating. Gently twirling the ceramic mug, she squinted at the tealeaf remnants at the bottom. “A star is a sign of good luck,” she said.

Adynn smiles when she thinks back on this because she felt happy when her grandmother told her she would have good luck. Adynn started researching more about Wicca because of her family’s influence and stumbled upon the process called divination.

Divination is one of the primary practices used by shamans, seers, priests, sorcerers, wiccans, and witches. It refers to the practice of fortune telling or to gain insight into the unknown by supernatural forces.

Wicca is a modern pagan religion, developed in England during the first half of the 20th century. There are many different aspects to the religion’s core structure and it’s constantly evolving over time. It has a number of different lineages, known as traditions, each consisting of their own specific structure of religious beliefs, traditions, and practices. There are over 50 ways divination can be practiced, the earliest originating in the medieval period, including Norse runes, crystal balls, tealeaf readings, pendulums, numerology, and tarot cards. 

Back in Peterborough, Adynn flips over the second card I picked. The words “THE FOOL” are written on the bottom, under a man whose head is tilted back to gaze at the sky. A white dog does the same to his right. This card explains new beginnings, being inexperienced, and gives hope for what is to come.

“You are living a sheltered kind of life right now, but it will get more exciting. It’s not time yet, but soon, when you start to open up and let people past the walls you build up around yourself life will change,” Adynn says.

“That is also very true,” says Marena. She’s usually a skeptic about these sorts of things. A chill runs down my spine at how weirdly accurate these observations are, and how closely connected they are to each other: both talking about new beginnings.

Sarah believes there are forces that can be derived from the universe and doing spells and divination processes are like manipulating these forces for selfish desires. 

Adynn flips the third card: the future. It is the Seven of Wands, depicting a man awkwardly lifting one of the seven wooden sticks that surround him on the ground. This card symbolizes challenges, resistance, and obstacles up ahead, continuous fight, and never giving up.

“You may be thinking how your desired career is hard to reach, but through hard work and sacrifice you can achieve it. It won’t happen overnight. It will take some time,” Adynn says. 

“Not your best,” Marena giggles. “That sounded very cookie-cutter. Everyone says that about the future.” Adynn rolls her eyes in response.

Marena combs her hands through her silky blonde hair. “Okay girls, let’s get the Smirnoff bottle,” she says. Adynn and I smile in agreeance. Adynn collects the cards while Marena and I saunter towards the fridge with our empty cups in hand.

Later that night, after having been on the town for a few hours, I sit in the car with Adynn and Marena on our way back to their place. Looking out as the trees blur pass the windshield, I realize how general Adynn’s statements were. Tired from the night’s events, I sleepily find myself reflecting on Adynn’s reading from earlier in the evening. The cards are supposed to read me, when in reality I ended up reading the tarot cards. I started thinking about how I would get chills when Adynn would say something that was accurate and spot on. After reflecting on the accurate statements and hearing them over and over in my head, I realized there is nothing creepy about it. In fact, Adynn’s words were simplistic in meaning but I inferred them to mean so much more.

Since I’ve gained more knowledge about divination tools, I see that people use variations of divination without even realizing it: flipping a coin to decide a course of action or having a lucky number, to name two.

The practice of divination, I’ve learned,  has existed in every historical period. In Mesopotamian times, astrology – a divination practice – was one of the first sophisticated forms of divination. The Greeks had oracles who told the future. In 1000 BC the Chinese also had an oracle, “I CHING,” consisting of yarrow sticks. 

An interesting aspect about tarot cards is they weren’t originally used as magical tools until the late 18th century. In northern Italy during the late 14th century, the cards were used in a game called tarocchi. A man named Antoine Court de Gebelin argued the symbols on the tarot cards contained the hidden wisdom of a god called Thoth. According to author-illustrator Robert Michael Place’s 2009 book, The Vampire Tarot, in 1785 Jean-Baptiste, a French occultist, was the first professional in history to be known to use tarot cards as divination tools.

Sarah (not her real name; she didn’t want to be identified), a 48-year-old licensed consulting hypnotist in Toronto, has explored many of the different Wicca practices. This includes many versions of tarot cards. She stopped practicing Wicca because she started feeling emotionally drained after conducting tarot card readings. “Whether you work with nature [or] Egyptian gods, there’s still magic and manipulating energy to get a result,” she says. Sarah believes there are forces that can be derived from the universe and doing spells and divination processes are like manipulating these forces for selfish desires. 

Bruce Lipton, an American development biologist, was born in New York in 1944. Lipton is best known for supporting the theory that gene influence can be altered, via epigenetics, by environmental factors. Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by the gene’s expression rather than a change in the genetic code. In his research, he explains how the mind is powerful and how belief is power. Lipton, a renowned cell biologist, in his book The Biology of Belief, published in 2005, discovers: “The biochemical effects of the brain’s functioning show that all the cells of your body are affected by your thoughts.”

The different divination tools, in actuality, are very arbitrary. For example, the reading part is the most important aspect in tarot cards. The person who is getting the tarot card reading will interpret the cards, without the help of spiritual guidance. The same card will have different meanings to each individual.

As I reflect back on the evening with the cards, I realize I disagree with Sarah and with my dad. I don’t think there were any spirits guiding my cards during Adynn’s reading. If anything, I was the one guiding my cards.

Who knew a girl’s night would turn into philosophical thoughts on life and religion that made me change my thoughts on the Catholic view that tarot cards are so evil and forbidden? I guess I read the cards correctly in one sense: new beginnings indeed.

Shannon Attard, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at shannonattard7@gmail.com

Tough Love, Jamaican Style

Many Jamaican parents believe that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. Are they right?

By Bria Barrows | Featured image courtesy of David Peterson via Pixabay | Updated April 20, 2020

My dad, Charles Barrows, leans his back against the ledge of our kitchen sink in Toronto as he recalls growing up in Jamaica as a young boy. At age 56, he’s tall and sturdy and has a youthful grin. His thick, black hair is speckled with gray. The creases of his smile go upwards as he laughs and the sound of his voice echoes throughout the room. He’s been in Canada exactly 46 years, but his Jamaican patois accent is still thick as he speaks about his childhood in the lush Caribbean nation. 

“I’m about six years old and I come home after walking about ten kilometers from Font Hill Primary School [in Saint Thomas Parish]. I’m panting and sweating. My heart beats fast from running. I haven’t even got into the house when my mom comes out and tells me to get firewood,” he says.

“I am hot and tired and I don’t want to get firewood after travelling all that way from school. So, I mumble something under my breath loud enough for my mom to hear. She realizes I’m backtalking her instead of doing as I’m told.

“My mom begins to chase me with a piece of stick to beat me. In Jamaica, you do as you’re told and backtalking my mother is not acceptable. I run away and I think I’ve gotten away until a young man who lives in the district sees that my mom is chasing me. He hops off his donkey and grabs me, [which allows] my mom to beat me repeatedly.”

I’m stunned that at only six years old my dad was asked to do things like get firewood and water. 

“If your parents send you to get water five miles away, you have to get it,” he says. “Sometimes our parents even sent us to get water for the house at night when it’s pitch black.  If it isn’t done we get beaten.”

When it comes to discipline in Jamaica, corporal punishment has been practiced in households for a very long time. An article published in 2017 by the Western Mirror, a local Jamaican newspaper, noted that: “Corporal punishment, as practiced in Jamaica, has been with us from time immemorial. Older folks, in retrospect, still believe that the spankings they received back in the day have made them the  law-abiding citizens that they are now.”

Many Jamaican children, whether they live on the island or in other countries such as Canada, experience physical punishment for misbehaviour. While some, who are now adults, believe this focus on discipline and structure is beneficial, others say there are negative consequences to being raised this way.

I ask my dad if he thinks that doing chores in the house and getting beatings at a young age old benefited him at all.

 “It instills fear in you,” he says. “Nowadays, with kids, there’s no consequence for anything  they do. The fear teaches kids not to do wrong and to be on the straight and narrow. It’s beneficial because it makes you respect your parents. If you don’t beat the kids they will run you out of your house. You need tough love because the world is not soft.

Looking back as an adult now, I’m who I am because of how I was raised. I wasn’t allowed to sleep in. My dad would come in the room to wake me and if I didn’t wake up I would get beaten. My upbringing gave me my work ethic.” 

“Sometimes our parents even sent us to get water for the house at night when it’s pitch black.  If it isn’t done we get beaten.”

I next talk to Paula Taylor, a neighborhood friend, in early December 2019. She’s big in stature and her face is round. She wears a colourful hair wrap, the bright yellows and oranges a contrast to her plain, black winter jacket.  For Taylor, 42, structure was a big part of her childhood.

“Coming from a Jamaican background, especially as a female, I was required to take care of the home. Being a young child, I thought, ‘This is so hard, I’m not having fun like my friends.’ But going into the workforce today, I appreciate the structure that my mom taught me,” she says.

Taylor agrees that having to do chores and being forced to attend church regularly are the types of responsibilities today’s young generation need.

“My upbringing taught me to be realistic and hold onto things that are valuable and eliminate the things that aren’t,” she says. “If we, as parents, don’t teach our children a certain foundation such as chores, we should not be surprised that as they get older, they may struggle to get certain things and retain information at work, etc.,” she says.

As I explore this topic, I speak with 29-year-old Crystal Hackett, who was born in Toronto and still lives there. She has a small frame, belied by her strong, assertive voice. Her skin is a dark, chocolate complexion and her long black hair drapes over her shoulders.  Her warm smile brightens her face.

 Crystal recalls her mom, Karen Hackett, telling her about being punished as a child in Jamaica.

“My mom would get beat in public,” Karen told her. One consequence, Crystal believes, is that when Karen became a parent, she was not as nurturing towards Crystal as Crystal would have liked.  Although she used physical punishment on Crystal, she didn’t apply it in public. “I felt my parents were crazy for beating me in public,” Karen says today. “It’s negative because it’s something I’ll never forget. But that was the norm back then.”

Crystal doesn’t want to continue the cycle of punishments, and the possible alienation it could cause now that she’s a parent. “In raising my daughter, I want to up the communication,” she says. “I don’t want my daughter to feel like she can’t talk to me about certain things. In my childhood, the nurturing aspect was restrained.”

I also talk to Maxine (she didn’t want to give her real name), a physically strong 56-year-old despite having a small frame. Her brown skin glows and her high cheekbones stand out on her face. The curls from her black, twisted hair fall to her shoulders. Living in Saint Thomas, Jamaica, she’s witnessed children getting hit for even the littlest things.

“I saw people beat their kids with what we call the ‘coconut broom,’” she says. “They would take it off the tree and hit them until their skin had welts. I’ve seen kids publicly beaten and shamed. Kids would get cursed at and were beaten until their lips bust open.”

“Being a young child, I thought, ‘This is so hard, I’m not having fun like my friends.’ But going into the workforce today, I appreciate the structure that my mom taught me.”

She suggests that at the heart of the punishment issue is the belief, held by some adults, that children aren’t seen as people.

“Some kids back home are treated like nothing because the parents think they are their property and they can do what they like,” she says. “I’ve heard parents say, ‘I brought you into this world and I can take you out!’ The parents think that beating their kids will put them on the straight and narrow, but this isn’t necessarily true. The beatings for some kids have the opposite effect, which causes them to resent their parents for what they did. It is a form of trauma I believe.”

Maxine sees both good and bad resulting from her tough upbringing, noting that her mother provided for the house but did not express love or affection. “I’m not really sure my mom knew how to be affectionate, but I did feel like I was treated like an outsider. She spent most of her time with her church family as opposed to her blood family. There was no love, affection, bonding, I would have liked that. I always felt like my mom had a hands-off approach and kept me at arm’s length. She didn’t want me to get too close to her.”

When Maxine was still a youngster, her mother abandoned her, which caused her to withdraw from others. “When I was young, I had a hard time expressing my feelings to people,” she says. “I never asked people for favours because I thought I was capable of taking care of myself. However, my upbringing did give me structure, work ethics and discipline. It also kept me realistic and grounded.

The times might be changing in Jamaica, however. In 2018, Education, Youth and Information Minister, Senator Ruel Reid, called for it to be banned. “Corporal punishment is so entrenched in our culture and interwoven in our society that it has been accepted as a norm for many families and at a point in time in our schools. We have been able to repel that in large measure,” the Jamaica Information Service reported him saying. “Laws are being strengthened to protect children from corporal punishment and other acts of violence.”

“Some kids back home are treated like nothing because the parents think they are their property and they can do what they like.”

Two years later, corporal punishment is no longer permitted in Jamaican schools. According to the Global Initiative to End Corporal Punishment, “Corporal punishment is prohibited in early childhood institutions [daycares and daycares for older children]. This law also goes for public and private schools.”

After all these conversations, it seems to me that a strict upbringing can have benefits. As a millennial, I definitely think the rules and responsibilities and structure that some Jamaican parents instill in their children is needed. It allows kids to progress when they get older because they carry these values into their jobs. This type of focus is lacking for some kids and a certain level of structure is needed to be an active contributor to society. Some children also aren’t taught the importance of respect for their elders or the value of working hard.

In an age where it’s so easy to get distracted by technology and social media, knowing how to be focused on your goals and dreams and have a direction for your life is needed. I know I would have been so distracted growing up if my parents hadn’t taught me the importance of having an education. They raised me this way because in Jamaica they were taught discipline.

I also think being well-mannered, an attribute many Jamaican parents teach their kids, is noticed by people when they meet you for the first time; this, to me, is a positive.

On the other hand, beating a child until they have welts, with objects such as belts and tree sticks, can have a lasting psychological effect. I think some Jamaican parents today should understand that while beatings might have been viewed as helpful when they were young, talking to your kids and having open conversations are also effective, perhaps more so.

Although I can see the need to instill discipline, I have no intention of punishing my children, when I have them, in any harsh ways. To me, the negative effects far outweigh the benefits.

Bria Barrows, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at briasbarrows@gmail.com

Women Reinventing Ink

AN ALL-FEMALE TORONTO TATTOO SHOP IS HELPING TO COUNTERBALANCE AN INDUSTRY THAT HAS TRADITIONALLY BEEN MALE DOMINATED.

By Alexa Gregoris | Featured image courtesy of Adrian Boustead via Pexels | Updated April 20, 2020

Behind the Tinkerbell-green door of the HeartStrong tattoo shop, a small team of female artists are making a name for themselves in Toronto. The owner, Tiff Lee, created this safe space for her fellow artists and clients in the third-floor tattooing sanctuary located above the clamour of Bloor Street West.

White walls contrast the warmth of the greens and pinks of the tropical wallpaper that greet clients at the reception area. The cozy studio is embellished with a variety of art, unique to each artist’s tattooing style. One station exhibits everything pink, floral and bunny-related, framed in gold. Lee’s station is covered in skeleton portraits, a cross-stitched cartoon of death, and the art her wife does not want in their brightly decorated home. HeartStrong fuses diverse aesthetics and artists to create a collaboration of female-artistry in a seemingly unlikely profession.

HeartStrong challenges the expectations of what, to many, can be an intimidating environment, especially for women. I experienced this in early August 2017 when I walked into the Ink & Water Tattoo studio in Toronto’s west end. The modern shop was filled with bright lights that reflected off white walls, and there were plants scattered throughout room.

At first, I felt welcomed by the space; it helped to soothe my nerves, which had been building up at the anticipation of getting my first tattoo. The consultation I had with the co-owner, Michael Percherle, had gone quite well five months earlier. When I met him, he seemed kind and excited to create my tattoo. The day of my appointment, however, he was not so friendly; rather, I felt as if he saw the exercise as nothing more than a paycheque. He was rude, impatient, and patronizing about my pain.

The buzzing of the tattoo machine rang in my ears as he worked on my tattoo. I was getting an all-black pair of bloomed roses, with their stems intertwined. Although not in colour, it involved many fine details and covered the length of my rib cage on my right side. 

I experienced a bit of pain, but I was more hurt by the fact that he was ruining this long-awaited experience. Years later, I am still wary of having another male artist tattoo me, in fear of facing another bully.

The tattoo industry is still male-dominated, due to studios continuing to operate under the traditional ideals and hyper-masculine stereotypes of tattoo artists. However, with the example set by female artists and shop owners like Lee, space is being created for women to enter into a profession that has traditionally excluded them. 

“I can either get angry or laugh and move on and continue being glamourous.”

“I think I’ve always wanted to tattoo since I was very young,” says Lee, “I would [literally] draw on my peers as a child, so I think it was a pretty natural progression.” Lee initially started working towards a degree in advertising at Humber College, before she found her way back to the idea of tattooing professionally. She did quite well. “I figured out it was really corporate and somewhat soul sucking and figured I should try something that I actually really care about, rather than focusing on what my family and others would think.”

Lee has been tattooing for the last seven years, having started her career at age 21. She opened HeartStrong in October 2018, and in the short time since, Lee’s team has already found success. For example, HeartStrong won Toronto Star Readers’ Choice award for best tattoo studio in Toronto in early 2019.     

Lee chose HeartStrong as her studio’s name because she hoped it reflected her values without being too over-the-top or aggressive. She didn’t set out to become an all-female and all-queer shop. “It just so happens that the people that I get along with really well, and [who] needed a job at the time and were invested in this project, happen to be women, happen to be queer,” she says.

Lee feels that being a queer and female tattoo artist has made her experience in the industry easier in some ways. In the early years, she was the only female artist working among only male co-workers. She found that as a queer woman, the men were somewhat protective of her, due to the lack of any romantic potential. “A lot of the males that I’ve worked with were like, ‘You’re gay, you’re just one of the guys,’” she says, although she acknowledges this sense of ease is not true for all queer or all female artists in the industry.

For example, tattoo artist Lorena Lorenzo De Carvajal has been told to her face that women are ruining the industry. The 32-year-old, who was born in Cuba, is the president of Indigo Art Incorporated. She’s been working in Toronto for the last 12 years, creating pieces as colourful and bright as her own character. “Are you scared boo-boo?” she likes to say when confronted with misogyny. “I can either get angry or laugh and move on and continue being glamourous.” She presents herself as a confident woman. “A lot of the men can be feisty. If you’re a woman, you have to have a personality, be outgoing [and] strong, have a backbone, or you won’t survive. I kick ass!”

Despite the resistance from some male artist, females continue to change the way the tattoo industry operates and looks at women. However, the climb to the top can still be difficult and, sometimes, dangerous.

“I’m trying to say this in the most diplomatic way,” says Lee. “It wasn’t good, a lot of the experiences I had.” As a young woman who looked younger than her age, she often encountered a patronizing attitude. She recalls some male artists saying things such as: “‘Aw, look at you. You wanna be a tattoo artist honey?’”  

It’s not only women who find themselves treated badly within the industry. Tattoo artist Adam Spivak, a close friend of Lee’s, shed light on his own experience in unprofessional shops during his apprenticeship. Spivak, 27, has been tattooing for three years and is currently working at Wolves Throne Tattoo in Etobicoke. Spivak has a background in fine art and traditional oil painting and earned a BA in graphic design and creative advertising from Humber College. He says his skill set and education were taken advantage of during his first apprenticeship at a small street shop in downtown Toronto. “After being hired I was quickly tasked with designing and drawing all of my mentor’s tattoos and meeting with all of his consultations, being led to believe this responsibility was a great achievement. My mentor was piling all of his work on me,” he says. “I was scared to leave, fearing that I wouldn’t be given a chance at any other shop because of the competition.”

Spivak was shocked by the lack of education his mentor provided to his many apprentices. “I felt unprepared to handle the tattoo equipment, especially when pressured to prematurely tattoo walk-in clients,” he says. At one point, Spivak’s own tattoo got infected, and rather than receiving advice from his mentor, he was pressured into ignoring it even after requesting to leave for the hospital. A doctor later confirmed that Spivak’s infection had elevated to a staph infection, and if he had stayed at work for a day longer he would have had blood poisoning.

“The final straw before parting ways with this shop came from witnessing my mentor’s judgments and racist comments being directed at clients,” says Spivak. “I realized I was the only one taking my apprenticeship seriously and was being held back in the toxic environment.”

He says he wouldn’t be a tattoo artist if “it wasn’t for the female artists around me. Female artists were the ones predominantly encouraging me to enter the industry and not feel discouraged for not fitting in with the traditional tattoo personas.”

Unsafe and unprofessional client experiences are evident in the industry, including verbal, physical and sexual misconduct. As a result, many female tattoo clients have a preference for female artists. Lorenzo De Carvajal says that many women have come to her for tattoos and a sense of comfort, due to poor past experiences with male tattoo artists. “[Women] have had to leave studios with a half-done piece. It’s not right!”

“The final straw before parting ways with this shop came from witnessing my mentor’s judgments and racist comments being directed at clients.”

Having undergone an unprofessional tattooing experience, I too intend to have any future tattoos done by a female artist, or a male artist, like Spivak, who works alongside women in a respectful environment. Percherle, who did my first and only tattoo left me with a reminder of my uncomfortable experience permanently on my skin. The two roses I got tattooed on my ribs as a symbol of my sister and myself are now something I try not to look at in the mirror as they remind me of how he treated me. His fellow male co-owner, Prairie Koo, truly solidified the shop’s lack of professionalism towards female clientele through his flirtatious advances over social media prior to my tattoo appointment. Due to their behaviour, I am looking into redoing and editing my tattoo at HeartStrong to reclaim the experience I had hoped for, in the absence of sexualizing or patronizing attitudes.

Interestingly, Taylor Schmid, a tattoo artist at Golden Iron Tattoo Studio in Toronto, says that most of her difficulties with sexism in the industry have come from her male clientele, not other artists. “Things like men who’ve sexualized my job or who walked in the shop and assumed I work the front desk,” Schmid says. “That shit pisses me off.”  

Schmid has been tattooing for three years, having started her apprenticeship at age 22, and now specializes in black-ink florals. She is unsure if the tattoo industry is still male dominated. Schmid thinks the industry has made great strides in making safer spaces for vulnerable clientele. She says her love of tattooing stems in part from how safe she feels in a tattoo shop. Schmid gives thanks to her two male mentors in the industry, who have never showed her anything other than support. “They looked at me as an artist first and I’ve appreciated that.”

But Thomarya Fergus, also known as Tee Fergus, is certain the tattoo industry in Toronto is still male dominated although she thinks it’s becoming a bit more open thanks to the push for diverse representation. She feels that a greater range of diversity is being represented as a new generation of artists and clientele are taking over the industry. At age 33, Fergus is a tattoo artist in a private studio in Kensington Market. One of her favourite tattoos of her own has the words boy and girl crossed out, with the word experience above them both. She feels it defines her.

Fergus, who is black and queer, says, “At the time, there wasn’t someone that looked like me in that position and I thought it would be cool to be that figure.” Tattooing wasn’t a path that Fergus chose, but rather a plan she believes the universe had for her. Fergus knew of a small group of black men in the tattoo industry, but there seemed to be a lack of tattoo artists who were black, female and queer like her. Being one of very few, she had to work hard at the beginning to gain clients and the respect she deserved as an artist.

“I always felt that if you didn’t fit in anywhere else you could walk into a tattoo shop and no one there would judge you. It’s a beautiful thing,” Schmid says. “I just want that feeling to be protected.  If you’re a judgemental asshole there is no place for you to do this work. I want everyone to feel happy and comfortable getting tattooed.”

“Things like men who’ve sexualized my job or who walked in the shop and assumed I work the front desk.”

Greater diverse representation is a major change Fergus thinks needs to be made in Toronto’s tattoo industry at large. With more representation, Fergus says, “more people will have access, people will hopefully want to learn, and those people who have always thought about it can see that they can do it and create those spaces.” However, Fergus says it is going to take time.

Lorenzo De Carvajal believes that the future of Toronto’s tattoo industry needs to be approached with “less ego, more work, more love for the artwork, and way less pride.” She thinks that, at times, especially during Toronto tattoo conventions, male artists can get very cocky. She plays the role of a “mama goose,” reminding others to be humble and collaborate, rather than try and live a rock-star lifestyle. Lorenzo De Carvajal is adamant that artists cannot be in the tattoo business for the money. She feels that tattoo artists need to have the passion and creativity to be the person who makes their clients’ dreams a reality.

Tiff Lee’s shop and career are dreams come true for her. She’s proud to have shaped her business in a style that treats customers the way she would want for herself.  Women may still be a minority in the tattoo industry but HeartStrong is one large step towards changing that imbalance, one tattoo at a time.

Alexa Gregoris, a Toronto freelance writer, can be contacted at alexa98@my.yorku.ca

Inspiring Actors

Jonathan Higgins offers Toronto actors unique ways to improve their craft.

By Anastasiya Ivanova | Featured image courtesy of Pexels | April 24, 2019

Jonathan Higgins presses his forearms into his chair’s armrests, supporting his body forward.  His face is inches away from a 20-inch TV, unflinching, studying. Inside the classroom of his Actor’s Imagination Studio (AIS), located in the heart of Little Italy in Toronto, he and his students study Amanda Cordner’s performance, displayed on camera. Cordner is a local, successful theatre actress and producer, known for her hit one-woman stage show, Body So Fluorescent. Tonight, she has stepped into the movie role of prosecutor Kate Whitney from the 1997 political thriller Absolute Power.

It is 9:20 p.m., on Sunday, in late May 2018. Forty minutes remain in the four-hour studio class, called Creating Full Life on Camera. Four more students still have to perform their assigned pieces, and 54-year-old Higgins will coach each for 20 to 45 minutes. It is not unusual for Higgins’s classes to run late, but all nine students, even the ones who have already performed, remain there to observe.

After Cordner has delivered her final line, Higgins keeps the camera rolling as if willing the reality created by the 29-year-old actress’s performance to linger a little longer. With a sharp “Cut,” he commands the end of the scene. The whole room takes a loud breath, making the hot air in the room shift. Higgins leaps off the chair and lunges towards Cordner, who is still in front of the camera. He stops at arm’s distance from her, his six-foot frame looming over her.

“How is this one feeling?” he asks.

“Strong. Connected. Clear,” she says.

“What will you take away from this?”

“My takeaway…” she says, pausing. Her brown eyes burn into Higgins and her face is still like a portrait: full lips, pinched nose, mocha-coloured skin, accented by her halo-like black afro. It is a moment longer before she relieves, “It’s just so easy when I am with you, Jonathan. I feel very free. This is the freest I’ve felt. I need to take this into an audition.”

Higgins is a unique coach. It is hard to articulate how he differs from other acting coaches. But the actors who have undergone his training begin by describing the freedom they experience when acting at AIS. For some, Higgins’s guidance is the reason they continue on their career path.

“In my classes, I offer my students situations where their talent emerges and where they recognize the barriers to their full expression and are able to push them off to the side,” says Higgins.

But how he does this and what makes him a unique coach is rooted in the way he was raised, the path he took to founding AIS and his life-long devotion to the art of acting in an industry that often dissects actors’ same devotion.

“Higgins announces the end of Belkin’s scene and bolts out of his chair with excitement.”

Higgins’s aquamarine eyes trace every gesture of Zoë Belkin’s face that’s shown on the TV in the studio. The 25-year-old film actress has the typical Hollywood look: classically feminine and eye-catching. She has pulled her dark chocolate hair into a high ponytail, revealing her almond-shaped eyes that give her face an eagle look. Her ivory skin accents a dark oval freckle on her right cheekbone. She sways with eagerness in the small mock audition space.

Belkin plays the role of a bookseller, Annie Black, in a scene from the 2000 comedy, State and Main. It is Belkin’s first stab at the part. In the scene, Black has run into screenwriter Joseph Turner White, whom she has been helping battle his writer’s block. They enter a long and intimate discussion about life, centered around the film’s script that White has been re-working, before they are interrupted by Doug Mackenzie, Black’s fiancé.

Minutes later, Higgins announces the end of Belkin’s scene and bolts out of his chair with excitement. He paces long steps between Belkin and the rest of the nine students who sit behind the TV. He begins discussing the scene with Belkin. His typical gestures during such moments—his hands pulling and tugging his wristwatch, then his palms tracing his salt-and-pepper hair, or his arms positioned in a thinker’s pose, pinching his nose—become more emotive.

“I think the scene is about the escape from the small town and her engagement, which she’s not happy with,” says Belkin.

“I don’t think it’s an escape. There’s this poem that goes like this: ‘For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been,’” says Higgins, quoting John Greenleaf Whittier, the 19th century American Quaker poet. “I’d like you to play with this idea: it is about that possibility for a different life.”

A smile begins to lift the corners of Belkin’s lips. A moment of silent understanding passes between them before Higgins marches back to his chair for the second take.

“Have fun with it, Zoë,” he says. “And…action!”

“When I was in elementary school, my two brothers and my sister created our own repertory theatre.”

Poetry and classical literature have always been a major part of Higgins’s life, shaping his acting experiences and teaching practices. The actor, who was born and raised in Boston, identifies his mother and siblings as the reason he loves literature and acting. He remembers his mother reading on the front porch in the summer afternoons and often taking him and his siblings to theatre productions.

“I had a very imaginative and lively upbringing,” he says. “When I was in elementary school, my two brothers and my sister created our own repertory theatre that we ran first out of the dining room and then from the stage we built in our large old garage (built 1912). We adapted musicals and books and would eventually have over 100 people from the neighbourhood spilling down the whole driveway out to the street to watch our summer shows.”

Higgins completed a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Vermont’s Middlebury College in 1988. In 1992, he received his MFA in acting from Temple University in Philadelphia where he first began teaching acting. In 1996, at age 31, Higgins relocated to Toronto with his wife, where he continued to act on stage and screen and coach privately.

In the summer of 2007, Higgins interested Daniel Kash, a Canadian actor and director, in directing John Kolvenbach’s comedy play, Fabuloso, which officially premiered in 2008, for the Toronto’s Summerworks Theatre Festival. In this four-person play, Higgins played the role of Teddy, a man trapped in a dull eight-year-long marriage, alongside Gemini Award-winning actors Angela Asher, Linda Kash and Nicholas Campbell. This play was the first one Higgins did after five years of him focusing solely on his film and television work.

“I remember summer, because of scheduling, our rehearsals were split by a hiatus that lasted for more than a couple of weeks. But Nick offered to me that we continue with rehearsals. We had the set already set up in Downtown Toronto. So for the next couple of weeks, Nick and I did just that. We would go to the set every morning and we would just rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. We had time off, but we didn’t take that time off.”

Higgins defines that rehearsal period as a reawakening one. He says the regiment he and Campbell established during the hiatus reawakened in him creative freedom that carried into his film auditions, making them better than ever.

“You can only get this kind of creative freedom through similar regimen and discipline, which is missing in the on-camera acting industry. The fast-paced and high-turnout nature of that industry deprives actors of the chance to train continuously. So it is hard for them to find the time and structure to fully and creatively explore a role in their film and TV work. I realized, we need a space where actors can have that regimen, repetition and artistic exploration, so they can get their work to be as full as it can be,” Higgins says.

After that summer, Higgins became passionate about creating a class where actors could experience the kind of work he did that summer. He believed that such classes could help actors produce better work and learn more. So in 2008, he discussed the idea with his Chicago-born colleague Michael Hanrahan, one of the founding members of Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit professional theatre company. At the time, Hanrahan coached at Big Voice Studios in Toronto, a voice-training studio run by celebrity vocal coach Elaine Overholt.

In January 2009, Higgins and Hanrahan opened Actor’s Imagination Studio with Overholt’s support, who marketed the classes and provided them with her studio’s space to begin the first sessions. Similar to other acting studios, the studio began running several six-week-long sessions a year with a class size of up to 10 students. Higgins or Hanrahan recorded all the students’ on-camera performances. After a session was completed, the coach helped students select their best scenes to add to their professional portfolios.

At AIS, Higgins could once again combine literature and acting. During classes, Higgins often refers his students to literature to help them envision the specificity of the circumstances in a scene, whether that is emotional, physical or psychological. He believes when acting, there has to be an ongoing imaginative narrative unfolding underneath the spoken lines.

“Acting is not a literary experience by any means,” says John Bourgeois, program director of the Film and Television program at Humber College. “It is very visceral, very emotional, and very instinctual impulsive experience. But novelists delve into the internal life of the character, which is what actors do, as well.”

He says Higgins uses literature as a tool to help AIS actors improve their work.

“Higgins is a very nurturing and supportive teacher who recognizes and understands the challenges actors face. He can put his finger on the problem and identify pathways to overcome them. Literature is one pathway that he uses to stimulate his students’ imagination.”

Samuel Volkov, one of Higgins’s newest students at AIS, presses his elbows against his thighs, leaning forward in the baby-blue metal chair that looks like it belongs at a garden party. It is noontime at a storage-sized café that is located just a couple of blocks away from AIS. But the reality of the café escapes the 29-year-old New-Jersey-born actor. He has concentrated his gaze on the ground, thinking, revisiting and reflecting on his training as an actor.

In 2011, when Volkov lived in Edmonton with his family, he was accepted into one of the most prestigious acting programs in North America: SUNY’s four-year BFA Acting Conservatory in New York. After graduating in 2015, he got an agent in California, where he relocated. But after nine trying months, he returned to Canada.

Volkov’s California agent connected the actor with Paul Hemrend, senior on-camera agent at Edna Talent Management in Toronto. At the beginning of 2018, Hemrend recommended three acting schools to Volkov where he could work on his craft, including AIS. The actor picked AIS.

“I knew Jon was a working actor. I’d done my research,” says Volkov. “As soon as I knew he was combining his professional side with his own humanity—to actually be fully present in the room with his students no matter who they are, no matter their background, to actually listen to them, appreciate them and give them all the time they needed no matter how lost they might be—I knew it was going to be great. It is really easy to see that quickly.”

“Jonathan’s approach is different because it gives me freedom.”

When in California, Volkov says he felt out of place and anxious because he got lost in the business side of the acting industry and the struggles that came with it. Even with an agent, he wasn’t getting enough auditions (only two for the nine months he was there). Volkov began doubting everything, including himself. That changed when he met Higgins. 

“Since I moved from California I have been feeling like I’ve been floating,” he says. “Acting for me in an exercise in compassion and empathy. It opens up both the actor and the audience to the shared experience of their humanity. When I started going to Jonathan’s class, I felt at last I was on my feet again and actually doing [precisely that]. He reminded me why I got into [acting] because he got me back into a place where I was working again.”

Since joining AIS, Volkov is not the only actor who has found strength to overcome the acting industry’s challenges and to continue to believe in his work and path. Higgins says that many of his AIS students are graduates from university and college acting programs. Many return to his studio year after year, like Belkin and Cordner.

Belkin has been acting professionally and studying acting since she was 13 years old.

“Acting is my passion, but it is also my therapy,” she says.

In August 2015, Belkin sought a school that would introduce her to different approaches to acting and help her expand her professional skills. A colleague referred her to AIS.

“I have studied at many acting studios and with different coaches. But Jonathan’s approach is different because it gives me freedom,” Belkin says. “That’s when I do my best work.”

After completing two movie projects in 2016—the American horror film, The Wanting, and the Canadian sci-fi, Darken—Belkin once again returned to the studio. In March 2018, she signed up for Higgins’s classes for the third time. After that, she also took several private coaching classes with Higgins to help her prepare for the lead roles she landed in the upcoming US feature films, Hotwired in Suburbia and Undying, as well as her role in the 2017 internationally co-produced drama television series, Ransom. She believes that when not working, professional actors always have to continue improving their craft. She does this under Higgins’s guidance.

Students at AIS say it is also their coach’s devotion to each of his students that evokes this shared feeling of freedom when acting and helps them produce their best work.  

“There is no pressure. I feel I can play,” says Cordner, who attended her first session with Higgins in 2014, while enrolled at another acting studio.

In 2015, she did her first web series, The Village Green, and, in 2016, she co-created Body So Fluorescent, a solo stage performance, which she has been touring across Canada ever since. But in March 2018, she returned once again to AIS.

“I really wanted to get back into training. During auditions, you have seconds to make scenes happen. I remembered the great time I had with Jonathan in 2014,” she says. “Whatever I prepare or bring to class, he helps me bring it out even further. He really pays attention to you as a person. He has a way of looking at me when I am not looking at me, and his love for [acting] inspires me.”

Higgins says that when working with his students, his priority is to get to know them as performers: their unique abilities, qualities (mannerism, voice, accent, etc.) and fears. He then helps them overcome these fears and bring their abilities and qualities into their work, making their acting stand out and noticeable.  

For example, Cordner says he tends to assign her highly emotional scenes. She finds such scenes challenging, but they often become examples of her best work and remind her why she has chosen this career path.

“I had this amazing class last week,” she says. Higgins had assigned her to play the role of a young woman who sees her father for the first time in three years. But her father is in a coma. “It’s a challenge to sit in these heavy emotions and tell a story clearly and authentically. But at the end of my performance, one of the students was crying. I knew this is it. Jonathan helps me continue to believe in myself because I want to quit every day. He finds how you shine and rubs you the right way.”

“Just make it your story. I know it sounds like a trope. But it’s the thing I’ve seen activating over and over again.”

Inside the studio, silence stretches between Cordner and Higgins. She awaits his advice to the challenge she faces: how does she mirror her experiences in studio, where she produces such strong work, during her auditions?

“What I would say is…” says Higgins and pauses again without breaking his posture. After a beat, he finds movement in his body that compels to whole room to begin shifting. “What I would say is just tell your story. Tell your body’s story. Don’t think about the strangers watching you or casting you. Not anybody in the world is equally capable of getting inside us and affecting us the way you individually can do. Just make it your story. I know it sounds like a trope. But it’s the thing I’ve seen activating over and over again.”

His words drown the room. Cordner beams at him. Higgins nods, as if they have just finally reached an agreement, and heads back to his chair.

“Nicely done. On we go,” he says.

He relaxes his body into his chair, looking around the studio and at the remaining students. They know it is going to be a late class. But they are in sync with Higgins, because he is there, inside the small classroom, with and for them. He believes that inside the Actor’s Imagination Studio, everyone is an actor, and that what matters the most is the devotion to acting. But AIS students believe Higgins is more than that: he is the actor who inspires their dreams.

Anastasiya Ivanova is a Toronto-based freelance writer. For inquiries, please contact her at anastasiya.ivanova@hotmail.com.

The Real Witches of Toronto

As a professor at OCAD, the founder of Toronto’s first pagan festival, and a witch, Monica Bodirsky is anything but the average Torontonian.

By Shahroze Rauf | Featured photo courtesy of Shahroze Rauf | April 22, 2019

Crystal pendants of black quartz and a clear white gem hang around Monica Bodirsky’s neck, framed by brightly coloured locks of red hair.  A 57-year-old professor at OCAD University, she teaches sustainability, design, and drawing. And she’s just what you’d expect of an art teacher. Her quintessential dyed, edgy hair and a laid back and surprisingly cheerful attitude contrast her dark wardrobe. She is also a witch.

Her Toronto house is adorned in almost every corner with symbols and objects emblematic of her pagan beliefs. One of the most distinctive, and seemingly typical objects in her house, is a collection of short broomsticks. One in particular hangs to the left of the entrance: a simple wooden handle not longer than two feet, with another two feet of yellow straw bristles held together by two thin black strings.

“A broom is used to literally cleanse with sweeping,” Bodirsky says. “You’re focusing your intent on getting rid of the negativity and sweeping it out the door. There’s a great deal of integration between physical movement and activity with your spirits.”

From sweeping magic with brooms to tarot readings and herbal poultices, Bodirsky is one of the many real witches of Toronto who practice magic every day. She attends rituals and even has her own coven. But, most importantly, she is the founder of Toronto’s first pagan month-long convention, WITCHfest North, and one of the few forces in Toronto leading the pagan community out of the shadows. 

Many witches and warlocks follow a tradition dating back to the early 1900s – the revolution of modern witchcraft known as Wicca. According to American religious history professor, J. Gordon Melton, who teaches at Baylor University, the history of Wicca leads back to a man named Gerald Brosseau Gardner.

Born in 1884 in the small town of Great Cosby in Blundellsands, Lancashire, Gardner would come to be dubbed internationally as the “Father of Wicca.”

“Gardner spent most of his career in Asia, where he became familiar with a variety of occult beliefs and magical practices,” says Melton. “He also read widely in Western esoteric literature, including the writings of the British occultist Aleister Crowley.”

After World War II, Gardner is said to have been involved with an occult community somewhere in England, which led him to become the founder of Wicca. The practice is nature-based, surrounding the phenomena of magic and the worship of the goddess, alongside other deities. A decade later in the 1960s, Wicca flourished throughout the U.S., Melton says.

Another decade later, Bodirsky and her family moved from the Scandinavian region of Northern Europe, into Canada in the 1970s. At the time, she remembers how her parents simply wanted her to fit in. This was around the time Bodirsky began to realize they weren’t necessarily like other families.

“I come from a line of seers. They are clairvoyant, clairaudient, clairsentient — go through all the ‘clairs,” she says. “They would have a precognition and they would see certain things coming and tell people about that.”


“These traditions – what the mainstream would perceive as magic or witchcraft – were simply a way of life for Bodirsky’s predecessors.”

Her family’s ‘magical’ practice was abstract. From relying on the phases of the moon to herbal mixtures and poultices and seasonal timing, Bodirsky defines the practice in general as beyond physical and rather spiritual.  

But during the lives of her ancient ancestors, Christianity flourished throughout Europe. And, as a result, her family’s teachings and traditions were persecuted and driven away. But these traditions – what the mainstream would perceive as magic or witchcraft – were simply a way of life for Bodirsky’s predecessors.

“They didn’t define themselves as witches because that was just not a term anyone used. Folk magic, practical magic, yes. There’s still this stigma about using certain terms because my family has had to move from place to place to avoid persecution. So, they weren’t very upfront about it,” she says. “It was so inextricable from my family’s life that it’s strange in a way for me to have it seen as such a separate thing.”

Growing up as a child in Scarborough in the 70s, and feeling she had these sensitive abilities, Bodirsky was encouraged not to attract attention to herself. Her parents told her to simply fit in to the best of her ability.

“My parents were hypersensitized to having to leave after post-war Europe and be bounced around as refugees and displaced persons. They told us to do what you can to fit in. And if those people are eating horrific white bread, just eat it. We’ll eat our own food at home.”

However, things are now different for witches. Especially now that it’s been almost three years since Canada repealed an outdated witchcraft ban in Section 365 of Canada’s Criminal Code. Trying to tone down and fit in is no longer a concern for Bodirsky and many other witches who gathered on Halloween night this past October for WITCHfest North.

It was a gathering of around 80 witches and warlocks on the night of a Gaelic pagan festival called Samhain, which comes right after Halloween. They all stood in a circle in the Trinity Square labyrinth on Elm St. in the heart of downtown Toronto and participated in a sort of ritual: three women in the middle brewed a concoction while speaking incantations that hailed the elements and various deities, after which the circle sang a song, welcoming the night of Samhain.

“We have come to the labyrinth tonight,” they sang, walking in a line tracing the circle that frames the Trinity Square Labyrinth. “Walking one by one, in the dark of Samhain, a riddle burning bright, and the candles waving down.” They repeated these verses over and over, as each member of the moving circle crossed in front of Bodirsky, who held a jar of mixed dried herbs to be taken and dropped in the cauldron at the centre of the circle.

“We’re here to build a community,” Bodirsky told the circle. “Put aside our egos and all our differences in practices and just share the common spirit and one common time and be here – with one another. If not for all of you participating, we wouldn’t have had the month of successes that we’ve had. This is only the second year and so many beautiful people have come out and introduced themselves, so thank you very much for that!”

The WITCHfest North closing march to Trinity Square | Courtesy of Lisa East.

Bodirsky tells the story about how the Canadian Criminal code is what led her to be inspired and start WITCHfest North.

“I heard about all of the sections from a Bill C 51 being rigid and one of them, 365, was about witchcraft. It was being reworked and it has been stricken. I thought since it’s being stricken from the record, I’m going to put an event on Facebook.”

Bodirsky decided to take the month of October and have witches who were already holding events of their own join WITCHfest North. According to her, it was simply an easy and informal way for individual workshops and witches to be a part of a larger organization.

“It’ll just give us more of a presence and visibility if we become a consolidated community and certainly one that reflects the diversity of Toronto, which I don’t find some organizations do,” says Bodirsky.

She adds that she expected no more than 20 people to join in. But when her Facebook event page hit 1,200, she was shocked. Bodirsky banded together several organizers to facilitate events all throughout October. And it worked.

Within the month, there were a variety of events, such as an art display at the Beaver Hall Gallery, a panel discussion at U of T on decolonizing witchcraft, and guest speaker, Aysen Farag, a witch from Egypt, who talked about her brand of indigenous African witchcraft.

“It’s been a success. People are coming together and they’re sharing,” Bodirsky says.

But aside from uniting people of diverse backgrounds to practice witchcraft together, she had another goal – to show the people of Toronto, and those witches who practice in private, who witches really are as a community.

“I would just like [WITCHfest North] to be large enough and diverse enough that people can see beyond stereotypes. It’s an arts and cultural festival. These are artisans who happen to be witches because when you look at it that way, you’re understanding diversity,” Bodirsky says.

As the WITCHfest North closing walk and Samhain ritual on Halloween night came to an end, the circle of witches and warlocks erupted in howls and cheers. Practitioners of all kinds, alongside non-pagan participants, broke off into conversation. The intimacy of the night seemed to have demystified what magic happens between a circle of witches in the dead of night. 

“The more familiar people are, the less afraid they’ll be because they’ll just see a such a diversity. They’ll take you as an individual instead of just as that word, witch, which can be said for anybody in any community. You have to have community support,” Bodirsky says.

She is dedicated to making her vision of establishing her community as a visible and integral part of Toronto a reality, according to her WITCHfest North manifesto. Her plans going forward are to attract more people to the event, and hold it on a larger scale.

But if people do come with prejudice, they won’t need to worry about attracting hexes or curses. The only thing anyone is in danger of is losing an opportunity to learn about a world where magic and witches are not a fairy tale, but rather a vital part of faith and life.

Shahroze Rauf is a freelance writer and Creative Director for The Scribbler. For inquiries, please contact him at shahroze78@hotmail.com.

Looking Beyond

The perplexities of the spiritual world are explored through John Pothiah, a well-known Peterborough psychic.

By Bianca Mazziotti | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | April 18, 2019

We hear his footsteps coming down the stairs. Andrea Hester and I stop our conversation and look up to see her husband, John Pothiah, standing in the doorway. The 67-year-old psychic comes to about 5’ 4,” with dark skin and brown eyes that are always moving and never seem to focus on anything in particular. He appears completely drained and distant, which begs me to wonder if I am welcome. Pothiah lifts his hand so I can shake it and gives me a small smile before leading me up to the second floor of his red-brick house, nestled in the quiet suburbs of Peterborough.

As I walk up the stairs and enter a room I have only been in twice before, my mind wanders as to what my true intentions are. I’ve been lying to most people, saying I am here just for an assignment, undeniably masking the fact that I am looking for more. The truth is, I am searching for proof that the world beyond the physical exists.

I sit down in a big red leather chair, knowing I am going in with a skeptical eye, searching for the smoke and mirrors behind the magician that is Pothiah. I take a deep breath as he quickly enters the room, wondering if my questions will be answered soon.

He stands in front of me as he begins my third psychic reading with him, and I immediately notice a change from a few minutes earlier. The tired man I saw before now has transformed into what seems like an energetic child.

Pothiah begins to talk at a rapid speed, and his face lights up as he discusses  what he says have been my past lives. “You’ve been a writer in many lifetimes,” he says. “You used to be a short man, a bit plump, but you could write sonnets like crazy.”

Pothiah speaks about the spiritual world as if he has never known anything else. He says he is clairsentient, which means he is able to interpret the energy around him and make predictions based on the information he receives. He will try to convince anyone that past lives, spirit guides, ghosts and aliens exist. Pothiah speaks about these topics with such conviction that it’s easy to get caught up in his beliefs. After being around Pothiah for some time, I feel a push to try and find evidence to back up his claims. The problem is that finding such evidence is quite difficult, to understate.

Life beyond the physical is challenging to measure; however, Michael Newton, who has his doctorate in Counseling Psychology and is the Founder of the U.S. Newton Institute for Life Between Lives Hypnotherapy (TNI), claims he found a way to detect what happens after you die. Newton used a technique that has existed since the 2nd century BC, called past life regression. Past life regression involves a patient being hypnotized to remember their past lives, because it is believed we store everything in our subconscious that our soul has gone through. Usually, hypnotherapists use it to help patients discover and heal from the trauma that has been brought over from their past lives; however, Newton decided to use hypnosis to take the patient back between their past life and current life, so they can relive their last death and discover the spirit world that follows.

In Newton’s 1994 book, Journey of Souls, he explored the many case studies he conducted that support life after death. What Newton discovered was that his patients had similar experiences after they died in a previous life. The main commonalities involved a feeling of being pulled out of the body and continuing as a radiant white light, which is believed to be the soul. Newton said after his patients realized they had died, they mostly had the same response: “The most common type of reaction I hear is a relieved sigh, followed by something along the lines of, ‘Wonderful! I’m home in this beautiful place again.’” The patients say their soul feels at peace and they are happy to be rid of their human body. However, proclamations that  suggest there is life after death are difficult for most people to accept. people are beginning to accept the possibility of something beyond the physical. There is an increasing number of people turning to psychics when life becomes uncertain. In an article by IBISWorld, titled Psychic Services Industry in the US, the rise in popularity of psychics is explored: “Over the past five years, the Psychic Services industry has grown by 2.0% to reach revenue of $2bn in 2018.” It is clear psychics are more widely accepted by the public, but they haven’t always been accepted.

A Psychic From a Young Age

When John Pothiah was a young boy, society treated him harshly. In 1956, at the age of five, he moved to Tottenham, England from South Africa, and had to learn the hard way just how different he really was. It became obvious when he was enrolled in a Catholic school and started attending church regularly. He would look up at the stained-glass windows of St. Francis Catholic Church and notice the array of colours surrounding the people depicted in them. The colours he saw mirrored what he saw  every day: auras.

Pothiah describes auras as a unique formation of colours that radiate from us, based on our personality and soul. It is not something that most people can see, but Pothiah believes everyone has them, and he has been seeing auras since birth. When Pothiah told the nuns at his school, they would beat him and say he was evil. This made Pothiah suppress his connection to the spirit world and not tell anyone about his abilities for years to come.  

Aside from having to deal with the difficulties that come with navigating the spiritual world at such a young age, Pothiah also had to contend with racism. Pothiah’s family had escaped apartheid, but Britain, was not free from discrimination. Being of Indian descent, Pothiah was not treated the same as the other children at his Catholic school. Pothiah was neglected by his teachers and because of the lack of attention, he was still unable to read and write at age seven.

But what happened next seems like something out of a fairy tale. Pothiah says that, at this time, his spirit guides stepped in. These are evolved beings of the spirit world that Pothiah says taught him everything he knows. He says they taught him how to read: “They showed me how to absorb the knowledge of any book, just by holding it,” he says. This new skill catapulted Pothiah to the top of his class. “The teacher thought I was a genius. I wasn’t! My spirit guides helped me cheat.”

Pothiah excelled in school and discovered many subjects of interest, but he did not find his true passion until he moved to Peterborough, Ont., at age 21, and got a job as an aerospace machinist at Magna, Dowty ITT.

Pothiah says his spirit guides stayed with him throughout every challenge and success in his life and eventually encouraged him to become a professional psychic in his downtime. Due to the words of assurance from his spirit guides, Pothiah has been a successful, professional psychic for over 30 years, and he says it all started with just one small advertisement he placed in the Peterborough Examiner.

One of Pothiah’s repeat clients is Nicole Spradbrow, a 42-year-old massage therapist from Peterborough. She has had seven readings with Pothiah over the past 15 years. At first, she was skeptical of Pothiah’s abilities, but after his predictions rang true, she kept coming back. “He told me when people in my life were going to pass away,” she says. “He described the people and the circumstances around them and then told me approximately when they would die. Both times, his predictions were accurate.”


“He told me when people in my life were going to pass away.”

Pothiah does not usually tell clients when their loved ones will pass away, because it is far too much for most people to deal with. He will also not tell you when you will die, or if your partner is cheating on you. If you are single, however, he will say in great detail who your next partner will be and roughly when they will come into your life: “He describes them, the circumstances around them, what he sees us doing, and at the time, I don’t think it is ever going to happen, and then I meet that person and it freaks me out,” says Spradbrow. She is just one of many believers in Pothiah.

John Armitage, however, is not as convinced of Pothiah’s abilities. Armitage’s first and only reading with Pothiah took place in 2013, and the now 25-year-old executive chef at Peterborough’s Summit Terrace Luxury Senior Apartments says the psychic was wrong on multiple fronts; the first concerning his career. “He told me I would move to Toronto and become a big-time chef, and that didn’t happen.” Armitage still lives in Peterborough, where he was born and raised. Another prediction that was not accurate relates to Armitage’s love life. Pothiah told Armitage he would meet a woman named Jenn within the following four years and eventually get married. “I have not found anyone named Jenn, or even come close to marriage.”

When I confronted Pothiah about his inaccurate predictions he told me some people are more difficult to read than others. “You can see through the walls they put up but you can just see hints because they don’t want you to know everything.” Pothiah also points out that certain spirits are more challenging to connect with. “When spirit comes in it’s like trying to fine-tune a radio station for someone until you get them in clear. Sometimes spirit comes on strong and sometimes it’s weak.”

Due to inaccurate predictions and the rise in fake psychics, scientists have often tried to find evidence to prove or disprove psychic abilities, but few have gone as far as James Randi. Toronto-born Randi, a scientific skeptic and the Co-Founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI),  decided to create a series of challenges to prove the validity of psychics. This was first developed in 1964, and anyone with enough confidence was allowed to take it on. If the psychic could prove their abilities, they would win one thousand dollars. Over the years, the prize money increased, and by the termination of the challenges, in 2015, it had grown to one million dollars.

Over the course of five decades, up to a thousand people had taken Randi’s series of challenges, and none was able to pass.

With no solid evidence proving there is such a thing as psychic powers, then why do many people still spend time and money consulting with psychics?

A Huffington Post article titled Are More People Turning to Psychics for Life Advice, investigated just how expensive some psychics can be. “In 2015, Fortune profiled some of the top business psychics in the U.S., with many charging up to $10,000 a day for guidance,” the article reported.  Pothiah, on the other hand, charges $100 per hour and, at the height of his psychic career, he was seeing about 21 clients per week.

When asked what is the most common reason  people go to psychics, Pothiah says most want to find their purpose. Jeff Brown, a 57-year-old former lawyer from Toronto, turned spiritual writer, went to Pothiah for this reason, and found his one-hour psychic reading to be life-changing. “I feel like the essence of what he said to me made me feel validated and empowered. I walked out of there feeling like I am on the right path. I am here to do something intensely powerful, and I have what it takes to do it. Who gets a message like that just anywhere?”

Brown’s reading with Pothiah affected him greatly, to the point where he discussed it in his book, Soulshaping: A Journey of Self-Creation. “If the best adventures are those that turn our expectations upside down, then I was in a full-blown headstand,” he wrote. “This stranger seemed to know my story inside out. Every word he uttered resonated.”

Hearing about Brown’s experience with Pothiah only reminded me of my own reading.

What Pothiah instilled in me, that cold November night, was hope.

As I left his house, walking down the front doorsteps, hearing the fresh snow crunching under my feet, I felt a sense of calm in the knowledge that I was on the right path regarding my career. Pothiah seemed to understand me on a personal level; he fully expressed my fears and dreams, without me saying anything. My reading with him only left me with more questions about the existence of the spirit world. Comparing the many failed scientific studies indicating that psychics do not exist, with my own reading, I wondered if we are not meant to know for certain what is beyond the physical. Maybe psychics, spirit guides, past lives and ghosts are all meant to remain a mystery to us, just like death.


Bianca Mazziotti is a freelance writer. For inquiries, please contact her at bianca0830@hotmail.com.

The Counterfeit Clothing Wars

When fast fashion companies copy independently-made designs, Toronto’s independent artists find that fighting back is rarely an easy battle to win.

By Olivia Quenneville | Featured image courtesy of Pexels | April 17, 2019

During the last week of November 2018, Khloe Kardashian’s clothing brand, Good American, released a holiday collection that included a black crewneck with red lettering that read: “Santa is a woman.” When she saw it, Megan Campagnolo – a 29-year-old Toronto designer and owner of the independent brand Rosehound Apparel – was convinced Kardashian had ripped off her design. Campagnolo immediately posted photos of the copied crewneck on Rosehound’s Instagram account, comparing it to a design she released a year prior: a red crewneck with white lettering, and the exact same text. It was as a holiday edition of her “Satan is a woman” design. The post received hundreds of comments and re-posts from offended Rosehound fans, but the copycat crewneck has so far remained on Good American’s website, with no comment from Kardashian.

A number of alleged counterfeit cases involving independent artists started emerging in the media around 2011. According to social media and news coverage, it seems many Toronto artists have been increasingly involved in such matters in recent years. But due to factors such as costly litigation, Canada’s complex copyright laws, and having neither fame nor major-brand reputation to support them, independent artists are left with few, if any, practical options to protect their work. As a result, they are increasingly becoming easy targets for cunning fast fashion companies who know these artists do not have the resources to fight back if their designs are poached.

Some of the following victims have had varying degrees of success in combatting the infringements:

Prashant Gopal, a 34-year-old artist from Toronto and owner of the independent brand Yo Sick, found his original pizza slice design reproduced on a t-shirt sold by American Eagle in August 2015. After Gopal contacted the company, the shirt was removed from American Eagle’s website and store and never seen again. Although he had convinced American Eagle that it had violated his rights, Gopal received no compensation.

In 2016, Jody Edwards, who lives in St. Catharines, found her watercolour-painted feathers reproduced on a women’s shirt sold at Winners, Marshalls, and Nordstrom Rack. She contacted the companies and was told the shirts would no longer be produced. She also contacted the supplier, who was responsible for the copies and wanted to negotiate a settlement.

In 2015, Burton Snowboards released no-slip children’s mittens one year after ordering a similar product from the original Toronto designer, Anna-Maria Mountfort. In 2018, Burton stopped making the product, but would not compensate Mountfort nor admit to their mistake.

The Kardashian case was not Campagnolo’s first and only experience with counterfeiting, nor was it Gopal’s. Both artists have pursued cases of infringement with certain companies, ending in settlement. (Details about these cases are confidential.) Even though Campagnolo says she doesn’t feel threatened by counterfeiting, it is still something that makes her upset and she says wants her designs to be sold and attributed fairly. Besides, Rosehound Apparel has been her full-time job since its conception in 2013 as a fourth-year project in Ryerson’s fashion program.


“The line between imitation and blatant stealing is thinning.”

Campagnolo’s cubicle-like studio is in a two-storey, poorly-lit building near the Annex in Toronto, which is constantly humming and smells like sawdust. Partitioned by five-foot walls and painted pretty pink Pantone #196, Campagnolo’s corner of the shared room is adorned with assorted original products – enamel pins of young Leonardo DiCaprio’s face, chenille cartoon cat patches, car air fresheners – jumbled in bins and boxes. Open cardboard boxes tightly packed with “Satan is a woman” crewnecks and the latest, golden yellow “All flash no cash” design line one wall. A coir doormat that reads “Go to hell” peeks out beneath them. Campagnolo is in her element among the sounds and smells, reclined in one of the mismatched wooden chairs at a long rectangular table in the middle of the room. The cuffs of her sweater meet tiny tattoos sprinkled over her fingers, just as dark brown bangs lead to her stone blue eyes and wispy eyelashes. She embodies the theme of Rosehound’s brand – a classic, vintage character – but in the body of a millennial.

While Rosehound is very much about pastel tones, flowers, and girlhood, it has an equally gritty, rebellious side that Campagnolo also manifests. As soon as she finds someone has copied one of her designs, Campagnolo’s first reaction is to post it on social media, reclaim her design, and expose the perpetrator’s wrongdoing. This is exactly what she did in 2015 when she found out Forever 21 had copied Rosehound’s compact mirror – matte pink and heart-shaped, with the words “Not Your Baby” written in gold Candice typeface on the outside. Coincidentally, Forever 21 used the same manufacturer as Rosehound, and a contact from the factory notified Campagnolo of a similar design in production about a year after the original was released. The only noticeable alteration on the copy was the text, “Not Ur Baby,” written in a substantially similar font. When challenged, the company claimed it did not know about the copied designs. Forever 21’s version of the product was never released in stores, however, which meant Campagnolo couldn’t pursue a case against it.

The classic cliché says, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but the line between imitation and blatant stealing is thinning. Gopal says he instantly recognized the line work on American Eagle’s copy of his pizza design and had no doubt it was a replica.

Both he and Campagnolo believe their work is discovered when fast fashion companies comb through social media for marketable designs and search popular hashtags for trends. Fast fashion – which fashion news outlets The Good Trade and Fashionista believe emerged in the early 2000s – is the quick mass-production of cheap garments inspired by runway styles. Social media and the Internet allow artists to share their work and connect with fans, but it also becomes the new “runway,” making designs more accessible than ever. Campagnolo says many artists are aware of companies lurking online and have stopped using hashtags on posts because they were leading companies to their products. She and Gopal now make products that contrast mainstream trends; she doesn’t think companies, for example, will copy designs featuring cigarettes and Satan.

But ethical conduct is not always a fast fashion company’s first order of business. Copying an artist’s design is both unethical and illegal, yet some companies still do it. Chris MacDonald – an associate professor who teaches business ethics and critical thinking at Ryerson University – says though there are times when ethics and the law overlap, some companies may be relying on the cynical approach that if they can get away with something then it’s okay. Although American Eagle’s code of ethics says, “You should never make unauthorized copies of material from books, magazines…websites, products, [etc.]…” it still stole Gopal’s pizza design.

There could be many motives leading a company to infringe upon an artist’s copyright, including the consideration for profits and power over property. Companies will rely on legal and financial resources to protect themselves, which is why many cases like these are referred to as a “David and Goliath” situation. (Forever 21 and American Eagle were contacted for comment on this article but neither company responded.)

Although it would be beneficial to society and artists to take these cases to court, expose fast fashion companies’ business models, and create new case law in the process, it is rarely economically practical to take legal action. Shan Arora, an intellectual property lawyer at Shift Law in Toronto, says it is important to talk to a lawyer to get an honest assessment of the strength of your case before deciding to proceed with litigation.

Arora says a trial would typically cost no less than $100,000. Just sending a demand letter, which is usually the first step in such a case, can cost between $750 and $2,500. According to the Ellyn Business Counsel, a business litigation and arbitration firm in Toronto, elements such as the complexity of the case, volume of documents, and number of motions could stretch a case out for about two years before reaching trial. Toronto-based entertainment and IP lawyer, Raquiya Austin, says artists are often encouraged to settle for reasons such as these. For someone like Campagnolo, who runs her business by herself and relies on her products as a sole source of income, options costing large amounts of time and money are far-fetched. Gopal agrees, saying it is best to pick and choose which battles you get into. “It’s just not worth going after,” he says. “I don’t have the power to do this, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the dollars to do this, and [I don’t know] what could possibly come out of it.” Even if the designer wins, “Settlement negotiations can vary widely from a few thousand dollars to a few tens of thousands of dollars,” Arora says.

Fast fashion companies are likely also reluctant to put time and money towards litigation. Arora says the examination for discovery in a case is a major deterrent that may lead either party to settle, as documents could possibly reveal evidence of access to or actual infringement of the work in question. Negotiating a settlement with a non-disclosure agreement could protect a company’s image and provide damage control.

Unfortunately, turning to copyright law for a solution can also be an onerous task. Copyright is an area of intellectual property law that protects an author’s right to produce, copy, or perform their own literary or artistic work. It is an infringement of copyright when someone else does something the Copyright Act grants only the original owner the right to do. When fashion is involved, copyright law becomes more complicated. Copyright cannot protect ideas, only the fixed expression of ideas. For example, a drawing can be protected, but not the idea for a drawing. The Copyright Act of Canada does not recognize useful articles – anything that serves a utilitarian function – as copyrightable work, which means clothing cannot be protected. The concept drawing for the design of a shirt can be protected, but the shirt itself, as a useful article, cannot.


“You want there to be enough protection that people are incentivized to create, but you also don’t want to stifle creativity.”

Section 64 of the Copyright Act outlines exceptions related to useful articles that could be applied to these cases. For example, surface coverings, woven or knitted patterns, and graphics are all pieces that can be protected as long as they can be recognized as “art” apart from the clothing. Arora believes if an artist’s original design is on an article of clothing, the design itself could be the subject of copyright. He says, “I think that is consistent with copyright law because you’re saying the design has copyright. You’re not saying that the design of the shirt [or] the shape of the shirt is the subject of copyright. But the designon the shirt can be taken out separately.”

However, it is because of these exceptions and complications that Roger Fisher – a York University professor specializing in the areas of music copyright and the history of copyright policy – believes copyright law and its purpose can be misunderstood. He says copyright law was originally a statute that protected intellectual works, like books, created by people of the aristocracy. “It’s not really designed to be the kind of remedy for local artists. It is available, but it’s still very cumbersome.” Arora says copyright law needs to be understood as a balance of interests. The purpose of copyright is meant to protect works and promote the creation of new works. “You want there to be enough protection that people are incentivized to create, but you also don’t want to stifle creativity.”

Both Campagnolo and Gopal acknowledge their designs are inspired by pre-existing concepts – the incentives to create. Rosehound Apparel takes inspiration from vintage books while Yo Sick plays with local advertisements and anthropomorphic food. These artists are not appropriating, but are injecting their own style into existing concepts to create new works. However, American Eagle could easily argue they were inspired by Gopal’s pizza drawing when they reproduced it on a shirt and added a heart design to make it “new.” It is when everyone is asserting copyright that problems arise, Fisher says.

If an artist truly believes their original work has been copied, whether or not they own copyright over it, the cheapest and most immediate response to counterfeiting is to expose the copy. This has become many artists’ first instinct when they find their work stolen, whether it is their own or that of a fellow artist. Campagnolo says exposing copies is the easiest thing you can do to fight back and get people on the artist’s side. And it works. Some cases make it to the news, like Mountfort and Edwards’ stories, which were reported on the CBC.

Maybe what artists want most when their work is stolen is credit. “That can be enough: letting people know. Maybe they’ll support the next thing you do a little bit more,” says Gopal. If companies don’t consider where their designs are coming from, neither will their customers. Campagnolo believes people appreciate designs more when they know it is made locally and not from a machine. “I have 80,000 Instagram followers but you don’t know who I am unless you come here and see [that] it’s just me here, packing up cardboard boxes,” she says. She does this two or three times a week, by herself, in the pink cubicle.

Olivia Quenneville is a freelance writer. For inquiries, please contact her at
olivia.quenneville@gmail.com