Montreal's 'Mile End Fairy' heads to Senegal to expand her community through her art — again

Patsy Van Roost and her art have touched many people, who have shown their love by secretly launching a crowdfunding campaign to send her to an art retreat in West Africa.

Patsy Van Roost and her art have touched many people, who have shown their love by sending her to West Africa

In October, Patsy Van Roost co-led the quirky 2nd annual Mile End Parade Phénoménale. She is seen here in her apartment, affixing decorations to her head. (Submitted by Patsy Van Roost/photo by Mikaël Theimer)

Patsy Van Roost — known to many as the Mile End Fairy — transforms loneliness into connection through her art. 

She has brought her community together for years through her collective art projects, and now the Montrealer is heading to Senegal, where she will share her vision of how art can create community with a new audience.

As a child, her life was permeated by feelings of instability and emotional — and physical — distance from family members.

As an adult, those feelings linger, but the community she has touched through her art has embraced her — and it shows.

A case in point: when arts-granting bodies rejected Van Roost's application for funding to accept a two-month, unpaid position at the Waaw Artists' Residency in Saint-Louis, Senegal, that community secretly launched a crowdfunding campaign to help her get there.

The $3,500, raised by more than 100 donors, will cover Van Roost's living expenses when the residency starts in December.

A foot in 2 continents

Van Roost describes growing up with feelings of dislocation, displacement and absence.

She was born in Belgium in 1970, and her parents divorced when she was a child. 

She felt torn between them. 

"My mom was kind of free; she was a bohemian. My father was from the bourgeoisie," she said.

Patsy Van Roost on the terrasse of Le Cafetier, in Sutton, the café where she ended up meeting locals to learn their stories for a summer project in the Eastern Townships. (Submitted by Patsy Van Roost/photo by Mikaël Theimer)

She and her younger brothers, twins, moved back and forth between their father's privileged but strict home and their mother's relaxed but modest one.

But Van Roost's mother, raised in Boston, longed to return to North America. 

"She was not made to feel at home in Belgium. She was seen as an American, which was not a good thing."

When she was 11, Van Roost and her brothers moved with their mother to Kanata, Ont., to live with their grandparents.

"My mom made us believe we were coming for a holiday," she said. But when her mother's car was delivered to the house from Belgium, Van Roost realized that was their new home.

"That was a huge shock. I think I'm still digesting it."

Patsy Van Roost, in red, created a 'naming' project to memorialize 98 former Mile Enders who lost their homes to gentrification. She was among them: Van Roost recently moved to Rosemont, after she faced eviction from the home in Mile End where she'd lived for 28 years. (Submitted by Patsy Van Roost)

Van Roost didn't like the idea of growing up in small-town Ontario, far from everything she knew. For a while, she hoped her father would come and take her back home to Belgium. But he didn't.

Her life took a sharp turn.

"From that point on, my mother never spoke to me in French," said Van Roost.

As an adult, she equates her mother's decision that the family would only speak English as an attempt to reclaim a feeling of belonging that her life in French — in Belgium — had lacked.

Now, Canadian

The transition was difficult for Van Roost.

"I suffered, just silently. I didn't talk about it."

When Van Roost was 16, her mother moved the family to Montreal.

The burgeoning artist returned to Belgium a few years later to study painting, reconnect with her roots and attempt to recreate a relationship with her father. 

"It was a nightmare," Van Roost said.

"I left a girl, and I came back as a woman. Imagine for him. We were two strangers; we didn't know how to talk to each other."

After a few months, she abandoned that version of her life and returned to Montreal.

To this day, Van Roost, 49, has almost no relationship with her father — but his absence still reverberates through her work, in subtle ways.

Becoming an artist-entrepreneur 

Patsy Van Roost helped organize Mile End's Parade Phénoménale in October, where hundreds of neighbours dressed in costumes and danced in the streets. ( Amanda Klang/CBC)

Van Roost went on to study fine arts at Concordia University.

It led her into an unlikely business — making wedding invitations.

"My mom had this really good friend who loved my work. She was getting married for, like, the fifth time, and she asked me to do her wedding invitation."

Van Roost's custom invitation business grew.

She took on a business partner, who helped boost her appeal to big corporations.

However, the partnership went sour, and Van Roost's partner cut her out of the business.  

She looks back on that episode as more of a gain than a loss.

It taught her the value of being more business-savvy so she doesn't have to rely on others.

French, her father, her future

Van Roost chooses to work in French and live her life in French: she raised her son in French. 

For her, cherishing her francophone identity is a way of linking her present with her past.

"It's all connected to my father," she said.

Despite the fact the two are not in contact, speaking French makes her feel closer to him.

Van Roost's work in Sutton last July included writing sentences in pipe cleaners and affixing them to spots around town. (Submitted by Patsy Van Roost)

The Mile End Fairy is born

In fact, her father's absence was part of what inspired Van Roost to create the project that made her famous in Mile End. 

It was December 2012, and alone with her son, she felt painfully far away from the rest of her family.

"The only way I would survive December was to build a project that would last 25 days, like an advent calendar."

She chose the story about another lonely girl, Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl, divided the story into 25 segments and wrote them out on separate pieces of paper.  Each day of December, she put a page of the story in a neighbour's mailbox — a different neighbour each day. Along with the story fragment, Van Roost included a note introducing herself and asking the person to post the page on their front door. 

One of her goals was to encourage neighbours to meet each other and turn Christmas from a solitary experience into a shared one. 

It worked.

"This is so beautiful," one neighbour told her. "We come out as neighbours every night, and we reread the story together."

One neighbour contacted Le Devoir, and in the resulting article, Van Roost was dubbed "the Mile End fairy."

From Sutton to Senegal

Van Roost continues to make magic in her community. 

The work she'll be doing in West Africa in the next few months will echo a project she did in Sutton last summer.

Van Roost invited locals to tell her a story about a specific place in their town. She turned each story into a single sentence, wrote it out with pipe cleaners and attached it to the local spot that inspired each story.

Patsy Van Roost joins CBC Montreal's Nantali Indongo on The Bridge Nov. 2 at 5 p.m. on CBC Radio One. (Amanda Klang/CBC)

Now her community is about to expand again, to embrace Senegal — a country that has long fascinated her. In turn, Van Roost plans to bring home to Montreal some of the stories her new friends there share with her.

Hear more of Patsy Van Roost's story on CBC Radio One's The Bridge airing November 2 at 5 p.m.

About the Author

Amanda Klang


Amanda Klang is a producer at CBC Montreal.


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