Artists paint, sculpt or otherwise create things that people often collect. But in the case of Toronto-based painter Vivian Reiss, collecting is as much of a passion as invigorating a blank canvas with her trademark bursts of colour.
The sprawling, three-storey Yorkville mansion where the New York native lives with her Canadian husband, real estate developer Irving Garten, is so crammed with curios, artifacts, furniture, fabrics, wood, paint and crystal amassed from travels all over the world that even she has begun calling herself a curator as much as creator.
"I wouldn't say I ever hide things away," allows the fiftysomething artist, whose latest exhibition, Colour in Motion: Portraits of Food, is showing at her V. Reiss Gallery in Toronto's Little Italy, through to Sept. 2.
"I have spent the last few years curating the collections in the house. Why did I do that?," continues the artist, whose work is collected by former prime minister Brian Mulroney, the Four Seasons Hotel and the Irvings in Nova Scotia, among others. "To enjoy them."
Inside are collections of dolls and shoes, of musical instruments and art deco objects, as well as collections of more esoteric items such as rain jackets from China and Japan, and what she calls "fish catches" basically a net on a long pole from aboriginal America.
"It's an aesthetic and a cultural interest rolled into one," she says of her collecting, proudly citing the pedigree of each rare find. "It's about my love of life and of the world."
With her musician son, Joel Gaten, now living away from home (daughter Ariel Garten is psychotherapist-in-residence at the Gladstone Hotel), Ms. Reiss has turned his second-floor bedroom "into a museum within a museum." There, in cabinets she designed herself in the shape of urns from an archeological dig out of her imagination Ms. Reiss displays an incredible array of items: a Japanese samurai suit, rugs from Turkistan, Confucian idols from China, kewpie dolls, pot shards, Roman glass perfume jars, feathers from Africa and U.S. political campaign buttons. among other things.
Not everything she has collected is behind glass. On the main floor of the three-bedroom, four-bathroom house she and her family have lived in for the past 20 years, rich accumulations of objects and furnishings are an integral part of the overall interior design, done by Ms. Reiss herself with no help from decor professionals.
"I have training in other art forms," the former student of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston says. "I live in a visual world, being a painter, and I have a connection to dance. I guess what that says is that I have a sense of my physical presence in the world. When I design a space, it's a combination of how the space feels and how the space looks. I also have 100-per-cent architectural recall, meaning I can remember the layouts of every house of every friend I have had since elementary school. That skill has always helped me visualize what a space should become."
Her house, not surprisingly then, is composed of "many visual ideas" some borrowed and some invented. In the latter category is a huge circular window (almost as big as the wall that holds it) that is positioned over a tub in a spacious upstairs bathroom. She got the idea for it when her husband, who also renovates properties, arrived home and mentioned a special find he had made in a teardown project: huge slabs of creamy marble and a pair of large structural arches that graced an old branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce at King and Yonge streets. Ms. Reiss took one look at the materials and decided to do something novel with them.
She joined the two arches to create the circular window, and used the marble slabs on the wall, floor and tub surround.
"There is a lot of salvage in this house," Ms. Reiss allows. "In itself, it is a type of archeology, which is why, in my opinion, it all works."
The same can be said of the eclectic items found elsewhere in the home. On the main floor, for instance, there are a series of exquisite handicrafts from Indonesia among them temple umbrellas that Ms. Reiss has standing opened in a room she calls "the Alhambra" because of its absence of natural light.
"I was inspired by the Alhamabra, that area of Spain where you can find residences built with inner courtyards fronting the enclosed spaces of the house. People are constantly moving from light to dark spaces and back into light again."
Her house has a similar feeling there are dark spaces jutting into sun-filled ones. Ms. Reiss strives to create an interior with interconnecting visual relationships.
Adding to the Moorish feel of the room which is sandwiched between a front-facing living room and a back-facing kitchen, both sunshine-saturated and painted a girly pink is one of the home's original eight tiled fireplaces themselves collector's items.
The fireplace in the Alhambra room is decorated with tiles painted with a bright yellow sunflower motif, a predominant theme in the house. Sunflowers inspired the design of the outside handrail demarcating the front of the house. As well, hardwood flooring on the main level has an inlaid floral pattern along the border.
Such beautiful details are also evident in the kitchen. The handcrafted cabinetry which, again, Ms. Reiss designed herself boasts images of apples, pears, tulips and butterflies, carved right into the wood.
That sense of whimsy carries over into the adjacent dining room, site of the celebrated dinner parties thrown by Ms. Reiss, a noted Toronto hostess. She designed the main table to resemble a roast chicken.
"Here's the neck," she says, pointing to one end. "And the legs are the drumsticks."
To carry the theme further, she recently had artist Susan Dix create cushions for her that are made of fibres from raffia fronds and strips of fabric, fashioned into the shape of birds' nests and covered with plastic to preserve them. They sit atop Lucite chairs Ms. Reiss found on one of her frequent trips to New York.
The idea, she says, is a house that is constantly evolving and an artist who just gets a kick out of hatching new ideas.
"The house is pretty well set," she says. "But I do add new paintings my latest are from a residency I did in Japan and I am always finding new objects to ad to my collection. Some people might think it kitsch. But for me it all has meaning."