Fire at Walnut Studios leaves dozens of Toronto artists devastated

The "family" of Toronto artists who rely on the west end studio have lost thousands of dollars worth of art, but also their main work space.

Thousands of dollars worth of art destroyed as shared studio space goes up in flames

Dozens of Toronto artists have found a temporary space to regroup after losing thousands of dollars worth of artwork in an early morning weekend fire at their west end studio. ( Christopher Mulligan/CBC)

Dozens of Toronto artists have lost thousands of dollars worth of work after a weekend fire gutted a well-known west end studio.

Ilene Sova, the artistic director of Walnut Studios, says she sobbed when she heard the news about the fire, which broke out early on Saturday. The studios, located in a large warehouse at 83 Walnut Ave. that was once a canning factory, were home to a "family" of some 45 artists, Sova said.

"I'm inconsolable," Sova told CBC Toronto on Monday.

"For me, it was just horrifying to think about these artists and what they have lost, the amount of hours, the amount of work, the materials, their equipment. How do you replace that?"

Nobody was injured in the blaze, and Toronto Fire says there's no evidence to suggest it was suspicious. The affected artists are now looking for a new space to work. 

"For the past few days, what we've been trying to do mentally is really focus on the fact that it happened at a time when no one was in the building, which is very lucky," Sova said. 

This artwork by Jamie Macrae was destroyed in the fire. (Jamie Macrae )

Painters, sculptors, fashion designers, jewellery makers, photographers and installation artists used the building, which had two main studios connected by a hallway and loft space. The studios are also home to Blank Canvases, an in-school arts program in which artists teach Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board students, and smoke severely damaged its office space, Sova said.

Some artists had between 20 and 30 artworks still in the space, many of which were damaged. Many art supplies, pieces of equipment and the workspaces themselves were also badly damaged. 

Sova said she can't put a dollar figure on what went up in flames, but the artists have launched a GoFundMe campaign so they can keep making art.

A view of the damage from inside the building. (Facebook)

She said many artists had been storing artwork there in preparation for numerous upcoming events, including the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair, Riverdale Art Walk and Queen West Art Crawl.

"They were building a huge body of work in their spaces and it was all destroyed," she added.

More than 50 firefighters needed to tame blaze

Sova said Jason Martins, the building owner who lives near the studios, told her he woke to the smell of smoke. Martins called 911, but by the time fire crews arrived they had to go through the roof to tackle the blaze.

A few windows were knocked out by the fire. (Christopher Mulligan/CBC)

Firefighters were called to the scene at 6:21 a.m. by a report of smoke coming from front windows, according to Toronto Fire District Chief Stephan Powell. Firefighters arrived two minutes later and part of the one-storey building was already engulfed in flames. 

"When we got there, there was thick yellow smoke at the corner of King and Niagara Streets," he said on Monday.

The majority of the fire was quickly knocked down and it was brought under control by 8:20 a.m., but firefighters remained on the scene until nearly 3 p.m. to monitor hotspots.

Fire, smoke and water damaged artwork, art supplies, equipment and workspaces in the building. (Facebook)

About 50 to 60 firefighters worked on the fire with the help of about 15 trucks. The cause is not known, and investigators are trying to determine where exactly it began and how it started.

"There was extensive smoke damage and considerable fire damage to a portion of the building," Powell said.

Community helping out

These artists are affected by the Walnut Studios fire. Left to right, Ursula McDonnell, portrait and abstract painter; Johana Cordero, textile and fashion designer; Rob Croxford, painter; Katrina Schaman, abstract landscape artist; and Kristyn Watterworth, painter. (Jasmin Seputis/CBC)

Sova says there's been an outpouring of support from Toronto's arts community. 

Coun. Mike Layton has been trying to find new temporary spaces for the group to keep the community together, she said, while a schedule will be created to allow the artists back into the building when possible to retrieve belongings. 

"Throughout the day, we were just managing the crisis in terms of communicating with the artists, letting them know what was going on and figuring out what are next steps are," Sova said.

"We're feeling really positive and comforted by the community and the city of Toronto that has kind of gathered around us in the past 24 hours," she said.

"It's really touched us and made us feel like we can come out of this and not be so desolate, that we have resources, and the broader Toronto family is going to help us kind of rise like a Phoenix out of the ashes."