Sterling Rd. gets an artistic polish

Not that it had a choice. Its old home was being cratered for — what else? — condos. But Sterling, a two-lane band of roadway that dips north from Dundas St. W. near Lansdowne Ave., is one of those urban industrial zones easily missed from street level. Buffered by the massive Nestle chocolate factory and zigzagging twice around old factories and along a narrow stretch of Victorian row houses before trickling out at Bloor St., Sterling is as below the radar as it gets.

Still, it’s not a blank slate. Sterling has nurtured a culture all its own over the years, including everything from artists, galleries, Drake’s first recording studio, a paintball arena, kids’ gymnastics, a circus school, architects and an axe-throwing club. MOCCA’s arrival here just lets everyone else in on what the city’s culturally aware have known for years: Sometimes, the best of a city’s culture grows not in full daylight but off in the shadows and up through the cracks.

128 Sterling Rd.


Sam Dunn the Canadian musician, film director, and anthropologist whose work focuses on the culture of heavy metal, works in his studio.

This low brick warehouse is the former home of the T.A. Lytle Co. Limited, purveyors of “Pickles, Catsups, Sauces and Fountacanvas Goods” (whatever they are), as a freshly restored sign on its battered old brick proclaims. Gutted and remade over the past few years, the former abandoned warehouse space and paintball park and a handful of quasi-legal work-live spaces have made way for such things as branding and film companies and, in place of a long-standing children’s gymnastics club, a brand new brew pub still under construction.

163 Sterling Rd.

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Diane McGrath Lokos, an aerialist and coach, owns Fly With Me, one of the eclectic businesses that have taken root along Sterling Rd.

A sprawling hodgepodge of two- and three-storey brick boxes all cobbled together, 163 is the stuff of local legend. The site of Drake producer Noah Shebib’s first studio, rumour has it that, in the late night-hours of years gone by, 163 played host to the likes of Rihanna and Jay Z for intimate, off-the-radar social calls. (Drake also shot one of his first videos, for “Headlines,” across the street at the derelict Tower Automotive building.)
It’s also been a haven for local artists like Kim Dorland, who operated an outsize studio here to produce his huge paintings for years. More recently, it was home to Tomorrow Gallery, an ambitious, next-generation venture in international art that helped launch the career of Hugh Scott-Douglas, who has since decamped for New York, where he’s a fast rising star.
Today, 163 has morphed from an illicit late-night party haunt and semilegal live-work haven to a warren of multiple creative purposes, from green renovations to furniture-making to a children’s drawing studio to architects to a cold-press juice maker. Though there are holdouts: Istvan Kantor, an infamously self-declared outsider artist (and Governor General’s Award winner), best known for his “performances” in which he sprays his own blood on the walls of museums all over the world, who keeps his archive here.
And transition is never so complete as it might outwardly appear. When asked if people still lived here, one tenant shrugged. “Not officially,” he said. We’ll leave it at that.

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Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art creative director David Liss at the back of the Tower Automotive building on Sterling Rd. The building will be home to the new MOCCA, if all goes as hoped, by next December.

158 Sterling Rd.

Adrift in a sea of pale neatly groomed soil, the 10-storey Automotive Tower looms over Sterling’s sunken streetscape, an imposing sentinel of past, present and future. Legend has it the 100-plus-year-old tower was once the tallest in the city when it was built by North Aluminum, which later became Alcan. After a decade lying fallow as a haven for squatters and graffiti artists — its last industrial owner, Tower Automotive, went broke and walked away in 2005 — its pending new life is well in progress.
Castlepoint Numa, a developer, has owned the building since 2007 and begins renovation this fall. Its transformation, remarkably, will be all but done by next December, when the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art plans to open its doors. Occupying the bottom 2-1/2 floors, MOCCA is the anchor of what the developer hopes will be a vibrant community and national cultural hub. The rest of the building will be commercial space and, if all goes as planned, those dusty fields — once home to low-slung warehousing and an abattoir — will host townhouses, a daycare and public parks.

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Artist Abby McGuane works on a piece in her studio on Sterling Rd. Once a hotbed of young artists sharing studio space and reveling in the outsider haven that Sterling once provided, development pressures and escalating rents are making emerging artists like McGuane more and more scarce here.

213 Sterling Rd.

Sterling veers west and north around this hulking warehouse, which in its first life was Moloney Electrical, a transformer factory. When that business decamped to outside the city centre, the building played host to an eclectic range of uses over the years, many of them not quite legal: all-night raves where its broad hallways became skateboard courses, to name one.
More permanently, its ample space was home to dozens of artists looking for studios on the cheap and one of Canada’s most famous architects, Philip Beesley, whose wild design experiments with synthetic forms of life have made him an international star.
Huge enough to host any number of uses, the building is also home to a sport club, a circus school, an axe-throwing club and, until recently, a high-end designer furniture shop. If it can’t survive here, on what was, until recently, the urban fringe, then what hope do artists have? Ask them yourself, while you can: They’re still here, but disappearing fast.

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Kent Monkman in his studio at 225 Sterling Rd. The artist, well-known nationwide, lived across the street for years but has since decamped for Prince Edward County. He keeps a studio in the city here.

225 Sterling Rd.

A cluster of long, low-slung single-storey warehouses, 225 Sterling has always embraced its inevitable future. “ARTIST STUDIOS FOR RENT,” proclaims the sign at the entrance to its parking lot. While some, like Kent Monkman, have come calling for exactly that, the uses are a little more eclectic: a reclaimed wood dealer, an antique refinisher, a custom furniture maker, an automotive detailer and at least one design studio sit shoulder to shoulder along the building’s long facade.

Murray Whyte

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