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Artists in the GTA: Bloordale curator Marsya Maharani weaves art, fashion, craft and community

Freedom Clothing Collective is, like its curator Marsya Maharani, at once sweet and steely, precious and principled.
Stylishly clad in knee-high brown boots, thick tortoiseshell glasses and a ladylike black dress by Freedom member Bettina Lou, Maharani guides me through the Bloorcourt space. My eyes are drawn by tidy rolls of rag rugs, colourful stacks of reclaimed-wool scarves and neat rows of patterned pouches. Upcycled armoires, repainted in vibrant hues, display animal-festooned baby bibs. Framed drawings hang alongside revamped bulletin boards. All wares are Canadian-made—75 per cent in the GTA, in fact—and are often crafted from sustainable materials.
"There's 140 artists represented here in the store," says Maharani, who, along with designer Karen Carrillo and stylist Jelena Pticek, operates Freedom as a not-for-profit workers' cooperative. "We [Karen and Jelena and I] picked every single piece here together, so basically we love every single one."
Over the past three years, Freedom has been the main—but hardly the only—passion for Maharani. Driven by a love of textile arts, this 25-year-old is gaining kudos for bridging the siloed realms of art, craft, fashion and community development.
"What I really respect about Marsya, and how her work is really relevant to the current critical dialogue around craft, is that she is very interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary in nature," says Jen Anisef, founder of Toronto Craft Alert. Anisef worked with Maharani on For Keeps, a 2010 exhibition of mended objects. "Marsya sees beyond those boundaries of 'what is craft, what is art, what is fashion, what is design, what is DIY.'"
In other words, when Maharani says there are 140 artists represented in the store, that term is equally applied to makers of large, painted canvases and creators of tiny, felted toys. Even more artists are drawn into the mix through monthly exhibitions at the store, and annual ones in other venues, where Maharani has paired printmakers with mitten-makers, jewellers with clothiers, and embroiderers with illustrators.
"The history of textile making has been very gender specific," Maharani explains. "I think that has a lot to do with the fact that it hasn't really been seen as a form of art. Essentially, textiles are beautiful things, and they mean a lot to culture and society."
Maharani knows the depth of textiles' cultural power firsthand. At 14, she faced a huge transition when her family (mom, dad and younger brother) immigrated from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Dufferin and Steeles. Getting involved in fashion events—from organizing Newtonbrook Secondary School's annual show to volunteering at the Fashion Design Council of Canada—was vital to making the move successfully.
"Reconnecting with people through the arts is a big deal," she says. "Being involved in the fashion show [in high school], for example, or collaborating with people in different projects really helped make Toronto my home."
Her response to those who say art is a frill, especially in tough economic times? "But that's when I turn to arts: when it's really hard, you know? I think that's what keeps you going."
In addition to helping her make connections in Toronto, Maharani's interests also provide poignant links to her origins.
"When I was young, I was always spending time with my grandmother and trying to learn her textile [techniques]," she reflects. Better to learn late than never: In April, Mahrani, funded by an Ontario Arts Council grant, will conduct a research trip to Indonesia. During it, she'll interview designers of ikat, a traditional fabric currently en vogue at Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie, but relatively little researched on the academic front. She'll also learn about ulos, a textile gifted on major life events like birth, marriage and death, and visit batik co-ops on various parts of the multi-island nation.
With the trip on the horizon, and the organizing of Freedom's spring stock keeping her busy in the meantime, it's strange to think, she says, that, "I was always like, yeah, I'm gonna be a doctor! Ha!"
She's not quite joking: Maharani completed four years of pre-med at the University of Toronto—albeit with after-school jobs few science students can boast, like being bookings assistant at a modelling agency and studio assistant to a fashion designer—before taking an art history class as an elective and rediscovering her core interests: art and textiles.
Like all 20-somethings, Maharani graduated (double major: human biology and art history) into a difficult job market, but she says it's been good for her.
"Because the job market is bad, you're kind of forced to take risks," she says. "I applied to a lot of 9-to-5 secretary jobs [when I graduated] because I needed to, but if I had gotten them, maybe I'd just be doing that for the next five to 10 years."
Instead of being deskbound, she juggled volunteer stints at the ROM's textile department with work at Freedom (where staff salaries come "eighth or ninth on the list" behind rent, exhibitions, mending workshops and other programs). She interned and wrote for renowned fashion journal Worn and assisted at galleries like Mercer Union. Now that Freedom is doing well enough to be her main gig (i.e. cover "rent and a just little bit of food… I'm learning that I love to cook!"), she believes it's paid off.
Drawing the many threads of her life together, Maharani credits friends and family, as well as inspirational influences like ROM curators Alexandra Palmer and Sarah Fee, for helping her get where she is now. And as a still-relatively-new Canadian, she also appreciates the importance of passing support and community on to others.
"I know every single person [who's a member at Freedom]," she says. "It's a nice feeling… even if a member is just dropping stuff off, and you're chit chatting, you find out about their daughter or family or what they're up to. It's exciting."
An even bigger bonus is her neighbourhood, she says. After spending her university years in the Annex, she now lives five minutes' walk from the store. "A lot of our designers are from this area," she says. "If you go grocery shopping, you might see your best customer and one of your designers buying carrots."
Talking with Maharani, and walking around her displays in Freedom, one gets the sense there's a lot of hope yet for weaving healthy, creative Toronto communities.
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