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Beyond the Brushstrokes

By Matthew Dusenbury

Great artists sign their work.

At the New School of Colour, an art class that operates out of the Ark Aid Street Mission, a young woman is putting the finishing touches on her latest painting. It is a breathtaking landscape of lush-green foliage. A stream flanked by rocks cuts through the centre of the canvas.

There’s just one problem. The woman is unsure where to sign her name, or if she even should at all, as the painting is actually a replica copied from an instructional book.

It’s at that moment of uncertainty that Marshall Custus, a 49-year-old with ink-covered fingertips, pokes his head over her shoulder, and points to one rock in the lower right corner of the painting.

“There,” he tells her. “Hold on.”

Custus disappears for a moment, re-emerging a minute later with a fine-tipped brush. He hands it to the woman, who signs her name on the rock in green oil paint.

“Over time, your work will become unique,” Custus tells her. “And this,” he says, pointing to the signature, “is important for identity.”

Marshall Custus
Photo by Matt Dusenbury
Marshall Custus holds up a drawing of the kitchen where he works.

For Custus, the bi-weekly art sessions are as much about the people as they are about painting. The relationships are an invaluable asset for someone like him who has spent much of his life on the street, on the move, and in disarray.

The New School of Colour was founded by Jeremy Jeresky in 2010 as a way of using art to reach those living with homelessness in the city.

Custus has thrived at the school. So much so, in fact, that Jeresky now considers him his “second-in-command.” It was a place where Custus could not only be artistic, but also help others who had the same aspirations, and life experiences, as himself.

“This place has been so incredibly awesome. For instance, a lot of people here have self-esteem problems. But they leave here with a greater sense of value.”

Custus’ journey to the school was a long one. A self-described army brat with an affinity for music and drawing, Custus spent his childhood following his father for his military career, moving every few years to cities in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta.

“After a while, you learn not to dread (the constant moving),” he said. “And it gave me a sense of adventure.”

This pattern continued, and Custus ended up in Germany where he began acting out and got into “an awful lot of trouble, mostly out of boredom.” He was then sent to a private school in Belleville, Ont. but was expelled after the first year. When his parents told him not to call home, he had nowhere to go.

So, Custus then came to London where he spent his first few nights in the city on the street.

“When I first came to London, I lived in a cardboard box in Harris Park. It was okay, it was warm,” he recalled. “But I had to get a job. I had to get a place to live.”

Custus spent the next few years in the service sector, working as a dishwasher and then a short-order cook in kitchens around the city. In 1985, he got a job with London Machinery.

Just two years later, however, the company was restructured and Custus was laid off.

“Financially, I didn’t survive that,” he said. “And I lost the drive to do anything.”

For years, Custus was caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, living under bridges, doing anything he could to get by. He lost contact with his daughter and slept on friends’ couches.

The worst blow, said Custus, was to his self-esteem.

“I just sort of existed.”

But despite the years of hardship, Custus never lost his creativity. Even while living on the street, he would draw little sketches of things he saw.

“Because everything was falling apart, I had free time on my hands. And drawing was my interest,” he said.

Custus’ harsh living conditions lasted years and eventually took their toll. What he thought was just a bad cough turned out to be a case of pneumonia, and he went to the Men’s Mission for help. It was there he met a woman who encouraged him to pursue his artistry and told him about the New School of Colour.

“‘There’s this guy doing a grassroots thing at a soup kitchen,’ she told me. “It’ll do you some good.'”

Intrigued, Custus decided to visit the small art studio where he met Jeresky.

Jeremy Jeresky
Photo courtesy of The New School of Colour
Jeremy Jeresky, the program facilitator for the New School of Colour.

A graduate of Western University with a Master of Fine Arts, Jeresky founded the New School of Colour in 2010 as a way of using art to reach those living with homelessness in the city.

“Many art schools are closed off, not social,” said Jeresky. “I take exception to that. With this (the New School of Colour), it’s open to everyone.”

Jeresky imbued the school with a philosophy of social engagement, making it a space where people can be themselves, and feel safe from criticism.

“It’s actually like a family,” he said. “This is a space that’s non-judgmental.”

Beyond the brushstrokes, that sense of community is the real power behind the New School of Colour. For Abe Oudshoorn, an assistant professor at Western University and founder of the London Homelessness Outreach Network, the school provides people with a way to define themselves outside of their living conditions.

“The arts are a way for people to connect, a way they feel they’re adding to society and culture,” said Oudshoorn. “For a lot of people, everything else is just survival, but life is art.”

Though statistics vary, Oudshoorn estimates that on any given night, there are about 2,000 homeless in London, including those in temporary arrangements. And although political solutions are necessary, a big issue is reversing the stigma that people in poverty or on the street are there by their own doing.

Community programs like the New School of Colour are in a unique position to change that.

“I think it does a lot to change people’s perception (of homelessness). Art is a brilliant way to capture imagination and change the stigma.”

Abe Oudshoorn
Photo by Matt Dusenbury
Abe Oudshoorn believes art programs like the New School of Colour provide a sense of community for the homeless.

“This is a one-of-a-kind place,” added another participant at the school, who wished to remain anonymous. “The opportunity to create and learn with other people – it’s incredible.”

By providing a space for creativity and community for people living with homelessness, people regain their sense of value. At least, that’s how Custus sees it.

“It’s not like the street down here,” he said. “Being in this environment, it helps you.”

Now, two years after he first connected with the school, Custus is looking to jumpstart a new career. He is working as a cook at a hotel and beginning a chef apprenticeship at Fanshawe College in the fall.

But, he said, he will make time to come back to the New School of Colour each week, to work on his drawings and catch up with friends. The school has been an instrumental force in his life, and he’s determined to keep it.

“It’s a big change from a few years ago, when I thought I didn’t have a lot of worth,” he said.

“Sure, I need a job. But I plan to get to the point where I have a day job and art is the real focus. That’s my signature.”


There’s no more room: the decline of MySpace

Susie Hill

Back in the year 2006 MySpace was the coolest kid on the social network block. Forget going to night clubs or the mall, the young generation were starting to hang out in a more public place, online.

“My social life pretty much revolved around MSN and MySpace in college, now I can’t even remember those passwords,” said Christopher Hayduk, 32, a city worker from Vancouver, BC in a Skype interview.

Hayduk’s sentiments about MySpace pretty much sum up the former social media giant’s chaotic and relatively short lifespan.

Founded in 2003, MySpace rose to popularity at a time when people were just discovering the benefits of connecting online. It offered users the opportunity to create a profile, list interests and meet others. Time magazine even named MySpace one of the top 50 ‘coolest’ web sites of 2006. Fast-forward just a few years later though, and the same site was struggling to survive. At the height of its decline it lost over ten million users in one month, according to ComScore figures reported by the Daily Telegraph. So, the obvious question here is: what the heck happened? How does a site degenerate into a has-been, and could it ever pull off a Mickey Rourke-like recovery?

Some blamed the demise of MySpace on its traditional corporate structure that began with its takeover by Newscorp in 2005. Then between its quick sale and resale by Newscorp it lost its hip image, drive and most importantly, the passion of its users.

However, according to Marcus Messner, a professor of social media and mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, the death of MySpace was primarily due to a lack of innovation and downright laziness on the part of the company.

“MySpace became complacent and did not innovate, other social networks like Facebook constantly change,” said Messner.

That’s why it’s difficult for old-school users like Chris Hayduk, to imagine using MySpace to the same degree he did back in its heyday.

“There’s nothing I can do on MySpace that I can’t do better somewhere else, on some other site,” said Hayduk.

But MySpace is still striving to find a new niche, and this time it has chosen to focus on music and television. Pop sensation and new MySpace co-owner Justin Timberlake unveiled the new direction of the site at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. MySpace television and music sharing allows people to suggest music and watch shows with their friends. Instead of offering friendship networking, the site offers a communal entertainment experience. It also offers up-and- coming artists a place to showcase their work. What’s so new about this you may ask? Well, that’s just the thing said Messner, not much is new at all.

“These changes are in a niche and at a very low user rate…MySpace has already tried to reinvent itself as a music portal under Newscorp.”

Indeed, MySpace is like an adolescent trying to find its place in a very changed world. It has gone back and forth from one niche to another for half a decade. People are fickle, the future is now and we all want the very latest. This isn’t the year 2003; we live in an age where the average household has more than one computer. Or, as Messner puts it,

“Just think about all of the changes we have gone through during just the last few months. MySpace lost its appeal, one demographic at a time. Facebook first won over college students and then moved from generation to generation until everyone had a Facebook account.”

In fact, the coolest thing about Facebook, which ultimately knocked MySpace off its throne according to Messner, is that it wasn’t really trying to get you to do anything. Facebook started out simple and focused, much like Twitter a few years later.

“I first liked Facebook because I could creep on people….I mean I could waste hours just looking at useless stuff about people,” said Chris Hayduk.

It seems that many are more entertained by the lives of acquaintances and friends than the latest television drama.

“If people want to watch videos, music and television, that’s what YouTube is for,” said Hayduk.

Confusion seems to be what killed MySpace. That is, confusion as to what they are as a social media site and what they want to become. Messner points out that a social media platform needs to constantly re-invent without irritating its users to a point where they will leave.

For instance, Google Plus seemed to pose a serious challenge to Facebook when it was released last summer. But Facebook reacted quickly and implemented its own changes to face this challenge by the largest Internet company in the world. Just look what this has done to Google Plus… after much initial hype it is still a tekkie platform that has not attracted the average internet user to stay around.

“In contrast to MySpace, Facebook has managed to defend its lead because it has maintained an innovative culture while being on top,” said Messner.

Or, to put it simply in Hayduk’s words,

“MySpace is just so 2000.”

Making music last

By Greg Colgan

Richard Cox sits on a stool in his workshop as he hits the green button to turn on his scroll saw.

The machine begins to whirl as he gently holds a piece of Ontario oak and slowly moves it as the saw whittles away the wood and begins the first step in transforming it into an Irish flute.

It’s a process that Cox has done several times since 2005, when he first started making flutes. Since then, he has sold 169 flutes, which gives him pride in knowing that throughout North America his instruments are being used to make music and entertain people.

The process of making a flute is one that takes patience and dedication, often taking weeks to complete, he says, but for Cox, it’s one of the few ways he maintains a Celtic presence in his life in a home that’s thousands of kilometres away from his native Dublin.

Before he sells them, Richard Cox tests each instrument to make sure they’re ready to be played (Photo courtesy of Richard Cox).

“It’s a huge satisfaction to hear somebody play it well at a Céilídh (a traditional Gaelic social gathering) or an event,” said Cox with a smile. “That’s my flute, it’s great.”

“The music is certainly part of the Irish culture,” said Cox. “There was a time when we didn’t have very much culturally, but we had our music and we had our language and those things are very much part of the development and maintenance of a people.”

Cox said he had musical experience from playing in accordion bands as a child in Ireland and continuing to play other instruments as he grew older, but had never played the flute.

As a member of the London Irish Folk Club, Cox looks to his Irish background as a reason for making these instruments.

Cox originally started calling his flutes Irish due to his heritage, even though what he makes aren’t traditional instruments of his native country.

“My making is very much bound up in that. I started from the beginning calling it Irish flutes. There’s nothing Irish about it except that maybe Irish people will play it,” said Cox. “The old traditional instruments are the harps and uilleann pipes and the fiddle and flute came later.”

Although primarily known for his flutes, Cox has also made other musical instruments like classical guitars, mandolins, bodhrans (a small handheld drum made with goatskin and a wooden frame), bouzoukis (an eight string guitar similar to the mandolin, but with a lower pitched sound) and mandolas (an eight string teardrop shaped guitar that’s half the size of an acoustic guitar).

As a craftsman, Cox has been working with wood since the 1960s. Although he began with more traditional forms of woodworking like millwork, cabinetmaking and furniture, he gradually moved towards musical instruments in the 1970s.

Some of Richard Cox's handmade instruments are displayed against his family crest. (Photo courtesy of Richard Cox).

His flutes can cost anywhere from $300 to $750 depending on the style a person chooses and the type of wood. Other instruments like the bodhran can cost as much as $1,000 and mandolins and mandolas upwards of $900.

It was after he took a night class with the Irish harp maker Jan Muyllaert in Navan, Ireland in 1972, that Cox began to craft instruments as a hobby. But he always wanted to give himself more time to make them, he said.

Cox, 65, is close to retirement as a craftsman and only works two days a week at his job. He’s unsure how long he’ll continue to make the instruments and is hopeful that an apprentice will come along to fill any void that he leaves.

He said he hopes one of his four daughters carry on the legacy he has created and is inspired to do it. However, it may be a few years until that will happen due to the time and training it would take, he said.

Among the several musicians playing his flutes, Jane Mettham, of London, began using Cox’s instruments after she went to the London Irish Folk Club about five years ago. As a lifelong musician, she said it was a natural progression to try instruments from a musically inclined culture like Ireland’s.

By talking with other musicians in the club, she found out that Cox made instruments and went to see if he would make one for her.

He initially gave her one to try to make sure his flute was for her. After four weeks of trials, Mettham came back to have one made.

As a trained musician for nearly four decades, she said she’s more inclined to play with handcrafted instruments because there’s a greater feeling of awareness with the instruments.

“I appreciate it more because it’s handmade and I know the person who made it. I’ve seen his work and I know he’s a good craftsman,” said Mettham of Cox’s instruments. “You just appreciate the fact that there were a number of hours that went into it. You appreciate that more than something you pick up at a music store you have no connection with.”

Richard Semmens, a professor of music in Western University’s Don Wright faculty of music, says handcrafted instruments offer a connection between musicians and their instruments.

“The relationship between a performer and their instrument is very intimate and they speak to each other,” said Semmens. “When I play my instrument I can hear it talk to me. When I play a lower quality instrument I talk to it, but it doesn’t talk to me.”

Semmens, who received his doctorate from Stanford University in 1980 and teaches music history, said handcrafted instruments are likely to be the only type trained musicians will use.

“For the very best instruments, the one that classically trained musicians would use, they almost always insist on instruments that are hands on and crafted to a specification.”

Cox was first asked by his friend Tony O’Callahan of Studio Celtia on Wellington Street to craft flutes because O’Callahan was looking for Irish flutes to sell in his store. Since there were few flute makers, he asked Cox because of his background with creating musical instruments from scratch.

“You improve things as you go along; there’s still some things that I see a better way of doing them and I will change them,” said Cox. “You learn how to do something and do it that way until you find a better way.”

Richard Cox plays one of his mandolas while his friend, Glenn Wray, plays a bodhran. (Photo courtesy of Richard Cox).

Cox described the process as a “long period of trial and error” and he had to invent his own equipment since the tools to make many of the instruments simply don’t exist.

Though Cox can no longer remember the first time he saw someone play one of his instruments, there was one moment when he realized the power his instruments can have.

“I was at the Summerfolk festival in Owen Sound about five years ago. A guy came into the booth and he was a cook at one of the food tents,” said Cox. “He still had his apron on and he was all dirty from his work.

“He picked up (one of my) flutes and he knocked sparks out of that flute, absolute fabulous player,” said Cox. “My jaw dropped, my eyes opened, it was absolutely fantastic.”

After that he realized the capabilities that his flutes can have when in the hands of a trained musician.

With few flute makers left, with the exception of a handful in the United States and Ireland and one in Australia, Cox is one of the last of a kind.

Still, after all his years of making flutes, Cox enjoys seeing his flutes be played to a crowd.

“It’s great, wonderful. I’m a quiet-keep-to-myself-work-away-in-my-shop type of guy, but it’s a very nice feeling having over 150 flutes out there being played.”

Wondering what an Irish flute sounds like? Take a listen to Seamus Tansey.

B-Boying in Toronto

Unity Charity in Toronto is offering a break dancing–or ‘b-boying’– program that aims to get kids off the street and involved in the art. In addition to b-boying, the charity offers workshops in graffiti art, mc-ing (rapping) and dj-ing. Click here for the full story

April 5th, 2012 Aggregator Update

Aggregator Jenn here!

We just aired our television features to the class for some critiques, and are just making some last minute changes before we air them to the world (AKA here on our blog)! Lisa and I are going to tweak our videos a tad, and then have them up by next week! So stay tuned!

Remember, Lisa’s feature is on successful women making companies profit more, and Jenn’s is on using modern technology to overcome stuttering.

Be excited!

Learning some new Blo-cabulary with Jenny Kent

Here I am interviewing the one and only Val Litwin, co-founder of Blo and most recently Business in Vancouver’s top forty under forty winner. Blo is a first of its kind blow dry bar in North America and Litwin along with his two business partners grew the concept to 12 locations in just three years.

Litwin is a razor sharp (and witty!) entrepreneur who has not only climbed the career ladder, he’s so far above our heads that most of us will only ever catch a small glimpse of his ever-stylish shoes.

I’m off to Toronto this weekend to experience Blo first hand and to see just what it is that is Blo-ing the competition away!

Catch Litwin’s story in episode three of Echo Boomers, working and living in the contemporary world, to be broadcast on CHRW (dates to be announced).

Vinyl culture in London

Chloe Berge is working on a 6 minute arts and entertainment radio documentary. She’ll be speaking with two vinyl store owners: David Clarke at Grooves and Mike at Speed City here in London. She’s going to ask them about collectors, the history of vinyl and vinyl events in London. Can’t wait to hear it!

Escape artist’s Got Talent

By PatrickCallan


Lucas Wilson is hanging upside down, wrapped in 17 feet of steel chain with his long red hair dangling wildly.

His arms are contorted and his feet are tied, but after writhing and twisting in the air, he escapes from his straitjacket in 43 seconds.

The feat earned him a new Guinness world record—and he has plenty of witnesses.

As a contestant on a March episode of Canada’s Got Talent—a show that searches for the country’s next superstar—Wilson described what was going on in his mind while performing in front of a live audience with thousands more watching on television at home.

Lucas Wilson

Photo courtesy of Lucas Wilson
Lucas Wilson practises escaping his straitjacket during a local performance.

“I’m slightly spinning a bit. I’m shaking. A straitjacket is a very strange thing. There’s different sensations being taken away from you, you can’t move, you feel claustrophobic,” he said.

During his escape, every move was synchronized to the song Let It Rock by Kevin Rudolf featuring Lil’ Wayne.

“I knew all the lyrics to the song and how many seconds they were in, and at what point in time I needed to be out of the straitjacket in order to break the world record. I’m really concentrating on all these tiny little details,” he said.

“Once I’m on stage, all my nerves go away. I find I’m most nervous in the waiting process. The hardest part was trying to face the camera.”

Wilson has been practising this performance for over a year in his hometown of Port Dover, Ont., getting comfortable hanging upside down. Being in a straitjacket now feels like second nature, as strange as that sounds, he said.

“When I practised it was in front of two or three people on the front lawn of my house. The Avon lady came one day and I scared the crap out of her. To go from that to millions being able to see this is amazing,” said the lanky 22-year-old, who has been fascinated by magic since he was four.

Wilson remembers getting dragged to see a live Sailor Moon show with his sisters as a kid. He wasn’t excited about going, but he saw something that changed his life forever.

“Before the show was a magic act. A magician came out and did all these tricks. I said that day that I was going to be a magician when I grow up,” Wilson said.

Lucas Wilson

Courtesy of Lucas Wilson.
Lucas Wilson and his straitjacket take a break from practice.

But success didn’t come easy for Wilson, who failed to place in his first talent competition.

“They said I wasn’t talented,” he said. “Most people when they hit a wall like that would stop, but I decided to keep going.”

While honing his skills as an illusionist, Wilson took a two-year program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., for theatre arts technical productions.

“It was kind of like magic, all the backstage work. My show went from a magic show to very weird theatrical things. It progressed and became stronger,” Wilson said.

Now, Wilson takes his unique act all across Southwestern Ontario, performing in schools, libraries and fairs.

“It’s amazing waking up in the morning and thinking I’m not really going to work. I’m performing at a school for 400 kids who are screaming and yelling because they all love magic,” he said.

Throughout his career, Wilson idolized Harry Houdini and looks to honour his legacy through his performances.

“Without Harry Houdini, this straitjacket stunt wouldn’t exist. In a way I’m challenging him and thinking, if he were alive, this is what he would be doing,” he said.

At the moment, Wilson is focusing on the next round of Canada’s Got Talent where he’ll be looking to add more danger in the coming weeks by combining three Houdini stunts into one.

Lucas Wilson

Courtesy of Lucas Wilson.
Lucas Wilson practising his magic inside a factory.

But he also has his sights set on establishing more world records—like most escapes from a straitjacket in eight hours.

“Every single day, no matter what I’m doing, whether I’m performing or not, there’s a straitjacket hanging in my room. I get somebody to help me get in to it, put it on and I try something new with it. Maybe one day I’ll try to get out of it sitting down or one day I’ll try to get out of it while (lying down) planking,” he said with a laugh.

Pretty, pretty princess

Susie Hill braved the world of child pageants to bring you the inside scoop about what it takes to be queen. Listen to this great piece here: Pageant Radio Documentary

Canadians go March mad

By Kaleigh Rogers

Every year around this time, a certain strain of spring fever sets in: March Madness. From coast to coast across the United States, it seems everybody has a stake in the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s division one basketball championship — and it’s spread to Canada, too.

The annual event is the preeminent competition for college basketball in the United States and it seems everyone—from die-hard sports fanatics to those who can’t tell Vandy from Vancouver—starts placing their bets, entering pools and filling out brackets to predict who will win the tournament.

“When you have the president of the United States filling out a bracket, I think that really tells you the scope that we’re talking about,” said Greg Sansone, vice-president operations for The Score television network.

“It’s actually hard to believe that any collegiate or university sport can make it to the mainstream like it is has in the United States, especially as it relates to March Madness.”

While The Score doesn’t air current NCAA championship games, the network airs memorable March Madness games from the past with notable players including Michael Jordan.

Every year, a few Canadian-born players in the tournament are highlighted by Canadian media, but at the end of the day, this is an American competition and a college one at that. So, why the hype north of the border?

“It’s the bracket. It’s being able to have a personal investment in what you’re watching,” Sansone explained.

Coach Brad Campbell

Coach Brad Campbell cheers on his team at a Western University men’s basketball game. Photo by Corey Stanford

“Most people couldn’t tell you Creighton from Alabama and their basketball teams over the course of the regular season. But if they have bracket in front of them, they’re going to circle one of those teams and all of a sudden have a vested interest in it. That’s what makes all the difference in the world.”

While exact figures for the number of Canadians tuning in to the championship are difficult to pin down, the number of hours devoted to coverage of the tournament speaks to its popularity. Full commentary and coverage of the championship can be found on The Score, TSN, and sports segments on CTV and CBC newscasts.

Even those involved with university athletics find themselves intrigued by the tournament south of the border.

“I would consider it one of the best events in sports, period,” said Brad Campbell, coach of the men’s basketball team at Western University.

“Basketball is an exciting sport at the collegiate level where basically every game in the tournament, if you lose, you go home. I think that adds a lot of excitement, intensity and immediacy to the games.”

He also noted the nature of the tournament lends itself to more attention as many future professional basketball players get their start—even are scouted—in this championship. But basketball buffs aren’t the only ones caught up in the madness. Campbell said this is because of the nature of the tournament.

“The universal appeal is the underdog. Every year you can see there are always underdog victories. … Non-basketball people can relate to that and it just makes for a very exciting atmosphere.”

But despite the popularity of March Madness, for some, the real excitement remains above the 49th parallel—future NBA-ers or no.

“I find the storylines north of the border extremely exciting and that’s where I invest my time and interest. There’s no shortage of great stories to tell,” said Marg McGregor, CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport.

“Canadians are kind of self-deprecating and there’s a misconception that if it’s south of the border it must be better, which I don’t subscribe to at all.”


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