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. 

Bodirsky, and many other 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