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Developing in six million directions

Come Up To My Room is the Gladstone Hotel’s groundbreaking art and design show. With the 10th edition in her sights, Christina Zeidler reflects on a multifaceted career built on collaboration

It’s been a decade since Christina Zeidler began the mammoth task of revitalizing the landmark Gladstone Hotel. Built in 1889, it was once a hub for rail travellers, artists and vaudeville performers. But the hotel fell on hard times in the latter part of the 20th century, becoming a dilapidated shell occupied by week-to-week renters.

“It was a very sad place when I started. I literally cried on my first day,” says Zeidler, president and developer of the hotel. “It was like everyone had been forgotten; the staff, the people who lived there. Part of my whole thing was making it lively, bringing people into the space, making it a community and not just the land that time forgot.”

“I’ve seen how the city is literally bursting with talent but there often isn’t a place to have it realized.”

Zeidler’s background as an artist inspired her to invite other local creative types to design individual rooms within the hotel. “I’ve seen how the city is literally bursting with talent but there often isn’t a place to have it realized,” Zeidler says. “It was an amazing opportunity to say I’ve got these 37 rooms and we can have 37 different artists and ideas in here.”

Even before the renovations were complete, Zeidler saw how the hotel afforded a unique opportunity to nurture creativity with an alternative design event called Come Up To My Room. The first event in 2004 brought together artists and designers from various disciplines to showcase their work in the hotel’s rooms and public spaces. The event, now celebrating its 10th year, has grown to become one of the hottest spots on Toronto’s art and design calendar.

For the first five years, Zeidler curated Come Up To My Room with Pamila Matharu before turning it over to others. “We were able to mentor them, keep the shape of the show,” sayz Zeidler, “but they were able to grow the show.” Zeidler and Matharu return to curate the anniversary show with Noa Bronstein and David Dick-Agnew.

Among the 40 artists showcased this year are Quadrangle Architects, Rachael Speirs, Amy Markanda, Zanette Singh, Bruno Billio, Rob Southcott, Tong (Raine) Shen and Orest Tataryn.

“A lot of artists’ little shows don’t survive and it’s one of the advantages of having the Gladstone,” says Zeidler. The extra exposure and support has helped launch a number of success stories, including Brothers Dressler, who are also celebrating the 10th anniversary of their design studio this month. An archive of past shows exists at comeuptomyroom.com.

The hotel’s reinvention would rally the West Queen West community and solidify Zeidler’s place in a family dynasty that knows a thing or two about breathing life into bricks and mortar. Her father, after all, is Eberhard Zeidler, whose architecture firm is behind such iconic Toronto destinations as the Eaton Centre and Ontario Place. Not to mention her mother, an art consultant, and three older siblings: a successful architect and developer, an interior designer, and a property manager.

Once the Gladstone revitalization was completed in 2005 and the arts community blossomed around it, the threat was no longer decay but development. As large firms began to size up the area for large-scale condo construction, Zeidler joined forces with her neighbours to ensure they had a voice in the conversation on gentrification. Despite successes, such as securing affordable live-work space for artists in certain developments, Zeidler admits there’s only so much one can do. “Unfortunately, in our current system, no matter what you do politically and what you do in terms of the rules of the city, you are fighting a losing battle against money. That’s tough because you keep losing the character of the city.”

Neighbourhood activism and running a thriving business do take a toll. “It was stressful to take something from nothing and get people to believe in an idea and build a community. It’s not just a bar, it’s not just a restaurant, it’s not just a hotel, it’s not just an arts centre. It’s everything going in six million directions,” says Zeidler. Her release? Music. “That pulled me through. Having something really over-the-top, fun and performative was a relief.”

Zeidler is part of two high-concept bands. The first is an electro-pop collaboration with Celina Carrol named Ina Unt Ina. “They’re very grand. They want champagne wherever they go,” Zeidler says. “When Lady Gaga first came out, I was like, ‘Bitch.’ She kept stealing our ideas. The egg thing, we have a whole thing about how we were born out of an egg.”

And then there’s MINTZ, which sees Carolyn Taylor and Sarena Sarian join the duo. “Our first jam session got so elaborate that we had 20 albums and they had a real chronology and a whole discography. It had a rise and a downfall and a comeback.” In 2011, the group recorded music for all 20 albums at the Banff Centre, a renowned arts and cultural institution in the Alberta Rockies. “We played music, literally, 24/7 and collaborated with anyone who came in.”

Stepping away from the day-to-day operations of the hotel has also allowed Zeidler to revisit her first love, film, producing her first full-length called Portrait of a Serial Monogamist, a lesbian rom-com written and directed by Zeidler and John Mitchell. They’ve already shot a trailer as part of their successful fundraising campaign and plan on starting principal shooting this spring.

Zeidler is also exploring more tactile media. Canadian design store Made and Toronto Design Offsite Festival (TO DO) commissioned her to work with Hewlett Packard Canada for an exhibit last September called Special Delivery at the design and architecture expo IIDEX NeoCon. Her Simulacra project saw Zeidler transform the inside of a 18-wheeler transport trailer into a photographic forest and camp site — and camp in all senses of the word.
“I’m very attracted to that idea of fake-real, like wood panelling that’s really a photo of wood panelling. I also like the idea of what we’ll accept as real,” she says. “It felt like a magical woods environment. It was interesting how people entered it and got nostalgic about camping. Meanwhile, you’re in the back of an 18-wheeler that couldn’t be anything more anti-environmental.”

Among the digital and painted backdrops of urban wildlife and lenticulated light-box campfires, the standout pieces had to be the chairs, which Zeidler collaborated on with her partner Deanne Lehtinen. “They’re called Look-I-Like, which is actually our code for lesbian twinning. These chairs are definitely deep-woods lez chairs,” Zeidler jokes. “Lately, I’ve been thinking about that a lot, about lesbian aesthetics and glamourizing them or bringing them into an art culture.” Made has put the chairs into production and will sell them during TO DO this month and beyond.

And if all that isn’t enough, Zeidler will play homecoming queen this month for Come Up To My Room. “We’re going to have a reunion party,” she says, only hinting at what the milestone will entail. “We’re doing stuff on the side of the hotel and on the street. It’s a lot of negotiating with the railway, with Metrolinx to use the Dufferin Street bridge. We thought it would be cool to spill out of the building.” A fitting metaphor for an event, cultural hub and person, for that matter, that have had such a wonderful impact on the city.

LOOK-I-LIKE Thu, Jan 17-Mar 9.Opening. 3pm-6pm. Sat, Jan 26. Made. 867 Dundas St W. (416) 607-6384. madedesign.ca.

TORONTO DESIGN OFFSITE FESTIVAL Opening party. 8pm-midnight. Wed, Jan 23. See page 24 for more. COME UP TO MY ROOM 6pm-8pm. Thu, Jan 24. 11am-8pm. Jan 25. 11am-1pm. Jan 26. 11am-5pm. Jan 27. Both events: Gladstone Hotel. 1214 Queen St W. comeuptomyroom.com.