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Artists in the GTA: Dorsey James' gods, goddesses and wizards unveil the mythology in mundane places

Tell most people that you've found paradise in Pickering, and they'd likely look askance. But artist Dorsey James seems to have discovered it. And you just might feel the same way after visiting his light-filled studio.
Housed in a converted garage on a quiet street along Dunbarton Creek Ravine, the bright, white space is filled with well-used carving tools and fresh sawdust smells. African masks, sketches and inspirational quotes (like Henry Miller's "Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life") hang from the walls. Wooden sculptures in various states of development rest on workbenches, shelves and floors, while offcuts fuel the brass and iron stove, creating a cozy retreat from winter's cold—one that James' friendly black lab, Merlin, and golden-eyed cat, Boo, often avail themselves of as well.
"This is my Shangri-La," James says with a smile. "But be careful of Merlin—he might just lick you to death."
This is pure James: a mix of centuries-old mythical references and warm, down-to-earth presence. That characteristic combination threads through more than 30 years of his artworks, from a small in-studio sculpture that renders Greek gods Selene and Endymion in glowing blonde ash wood to a totem-pole-like public piece at Alex Robertson Park that depicts Demeter and Persephone etched out of flame-coloured cedar.
It's also provided a surprisingly effective foundation for James' equally long career as a high-school art teacher; for a recent Grade 9 workshop, he requested that students carve symbolic portraits of their families using archetypical emblems like pyramids, eagles and yin-yang symbols.
"Mom was a great storyteller," says James, explaining his long-time fascination with ancient lore. "We never could afford a TV set, but we had mom!"
James grew up poor in Philadelphia during the 1950s, years filled with the kind of discrimination and racial tension that prompted him to "embrace the Air Force and get out of there." He spent four years as a military airplane mechanic, traveling all over the world and honing the inborn spatial visualization abilities that now make him such a proficient sculptor.
"Very seldom do I have to draw anything out," says James. "I can see it much better in my mind, and turn it around and play with size, just with a thought. I think that had a lot to do with mom telling stories—[listening to those] exercises that whole mechanism that allows you to manipulate imagery inside your mind. But it was also the same mechanism I used in the military to see the inside of an aircraft and explain what was wrong."
After leaving the military, James moved to the GTA, seeking respite from his home country's 1960s conflicts of "young against old, Catholic against protestant, black against white." He continued working as an airplane mechanic at De Havilland and Douglas Aircraft, and started a family.
For all his visualization abilities, James didn't actually see art in his future until, dissatisfied with his job at Douglas, he decided to take advantage of the US Veterans' education benefits and go to university. A related aptitudes assessment directed him to the fine arts—"the silliest thing I'd ever heard," he laughs. He'd thought of journalism (a good fit for his storytelling side) or architecture ("a pleasant blend between a strong technical ability and an aesthetic side I'd been ignoring"), not art. But family necessity—one small baby in the house, and another on the way—kept him at Toronto's York University for what he thought would be preliminary year in fine arts before transferring to the University of Western Ontario's journalism program in London.
But just as in one of James' much-loved ancient tales, the fates had other plans. Once in the program, James realized art really was for him. And then there was another happy accident—starting woodcarving. It wasn't an area of instruction for York's Faculty of Fine Arts, but when James was experimenting with a piece of wood one day, the building's janitor noticed and gave him some advice, eventually introducing him to a props builder, who also coached him.
"I learned the aesthetic of the work that I do from the profs," says James, "but I learned to work with wood from the caretaker and the carpenter."
"Do you ever think, when you find yourself in various situations, that it's a portal?" he muses. "People can act as portals, too. They open doors for you. I think I've been very lucky that way."
It's clear that James, in turn, has tried to act as or provide a portal for other people, often through his teaching, which he was engaged in full time at Markham District High School from 1977 to 2003, and which in recent years has taken place in workshops and stints at Durham Alternative Secondary School, Durham Integrated Arts Camp and Dunbarton High School, among other venues.
"He's not just a fantastic artist, but a fantastic human being," says James Klodnicki, vice-principal of Oshawa Central Collegiate Institute and a past employer at DIAC. "The kids learn without realizing they are learning."
"Dorsey brings a quality of patience, gentleness, and calmness that allows students to focus on what's important," says Andy Barber, program facilitator at the Durham District School Board. "For one student we had, the change in confidence was visible to everyone—he seemed to grow a couple of inches."
James has also provided all Pickering residents with a permanent marker for transformation in the form of his Home Place installation at Alex Robertson Park. Installed in 2001 and renewed in 2011, the installation consists of a "portal" constructed of carved poles at the top of a hill, a walking path lined with totems depicting deities from the Norse Thor to the African Chiwara, and another path where faces of wizards and leprechauns are carved directly into dead trees.
"What I have found is that people have a need to believe in something, to believe they have a telephone to the gods, as it were, so they will latch on to things like this," says James. "These are universal stories. It doesn't matter where you're from; everyone goes through things like this."
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