Sunday, July 24, 2016


One of the things that drew Ivaan and me together was our preference for simple living.  He was a creature of habit.  He had his favourite foods, his favourite meals, his favourite brands, and they were almost never what everyone else coveted.  Almost always, they were characterized by permanence and simplicity.

Ivaan and his sister would have endless discussions about where to get the best cheese danish pastries.  It wasn't just the right flavour of cheese filling, it was the proportion of filling to dough, the sweetness of the dough (not sweet), and a well-developed outer crust.  It couldn't be oily, it couldn't be puffy, it couldn't be doughy, it couldn't be pale in colour, and - don't even think about it - it couldn't be other than perfectly fresh.  He didn't like to eat things just out of the oven; they needed to have cooled down, but after that it was basically from the cooling rack straight to his lips. Three hours old was basically the outer limit of his tolerance.

I used to watch them have this discussion in a kind of disbelief: is this something people actually spend time debating? But food was really important to both of them. Ivaan's favourite soup was potage parmentier, a very simple leek and potato soup. His second favourite was his sister's borsch.

This morning I noticed I was running low on laundry detergent. I've been making my own laundry detergent for a few years, and I suddenly realized that this was something that would have met with Ivaan's total approval. My sister and brother do the same,  and our friends Iain and Emily are also converts to the practice.  It's quick and easy, it's environmentally preferable, it's economical, it doesn't smell like perfume or chemicals and it's excellent as a general cleaning product.  So today I decided to blog about how to make laundry detergent.

I'll bet you thought I was going to blog about how to make a good cheese danish, right?  Sorry to disappoint you, but this will be much better for your waistline.

Here's what it looks like when it's finished (most people don't keep it in a mason jar but this is the last of my current batch, reserved for emergencies). Don't you like how the grout on my backsplash coordinates with my kitchen counter?

Here are the only ingredients you'll need, except for water:
First, you take that bar of health-food store vegetable-based soap (don't use a coloured bar) and grate it on the box grater.  Use the blades you see in the photo. Pour about 3 quarts of water into a large pot and put the grated soap into it.  Bring it to a boil until all the grated soap is thoroughly dissolved.

Measure about a cup of Borax and a cup of Washing Soda (not baking soda),  pour them both into the soap solution and boil gently until they are also thoroughly dissolved.  You might want to add more water.  When it's completely dissolved, add more cold water till the pot is pretty full, stir the mixture, put the lid on the pot (very important) and leave it to cool.  When it's reasonably cool, I like to run an immersion blender through it to achieve a uniform consistency.  Depending on how much water you've added, it will either be like a cream soup or a bowl of pudding.
And voila!  For about three dollars, you've made enough laundry detergent to last you  for a very long time.  You can keep it in a covered bucket, as Iain and Emily do, or you can re-use your old laundry detergent jugs, or you can keep it in the same pot you cooked it in.

I love to stick my hands in a newly made batch and sort of squish it through my fingers.  The smell is very clean and neutral, my hands come out looking clean, and it's not harsh on the skin. Some people find it very disconcerting that it doesn't foam, believing that bubbles are essential for cleaning something.  They're not.  Bubbles are produced by surfactants, which break the surface tension of liquids and pollute the environment.  They are an additive to laundry detergent that you don't need.

If there's a downside to using this homemade detergent, it is that you very quickly become hyper aware of the smell of commercial laundry products  - even 'unscented' ones - on other people's clothing.  Unscented has a whole new meaning these days.  And now, back to grating soap.

And here's the final product.  I remember the first time I made my own detergent, it seemed like a slightly dangerous, subversive endeavour.  And I thought it would take hours.  Actually, the whole procedure takes less than 15 minutes.


Sunday, July 17, 2016


Yesterday, a woman came into the shop, and you could tell by her sense of purpose that this was a woman on a mission.  Often a newcomer will step in hesitantly, look around, taking in the atmosphere, and you get the sense that they are waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Something has to happen to make them feel like this is a place where they belong.  Usually that something is me breaking the ice.

This woman - we'll call her C, since that is her initial.  C wasn't like that.  It was as though she had already taken our measure long before she arrived here and knew she was completing a journey, not starting out on one. C already knew she belonged.  She had visited our website and she had come to choose a piece of jewellery to mark a milestone in her life.  She wanted it to be a ring, and she wanted it to be an Ivaan ring.

It's an amazing thing to observe, but people who are strongly attracted to a piece of Ivaan's jewellery will inevitably be attracted to other pieces of jewellery that Ivaan made in the same time frame.  Show them an entire display case of rings and ask them to choose what attracts them most, and even if the pieces don't fit them, or don't look remotely similar, they will be powerfully attracted to pieces of the same era.

And as C looked at and tried various pieces, I could see this phenomenon unfolding.  One of the first rings she tried was a substantial ring with a very wild and free appearance.  It had that strong, free quality all around the ring, but she was attracted to the top: a leaf and vine sort of motif in high relief, and though the ring was quite a bit too large for her finger, it was as though every time she took it off to look at others, a magnetic force was exerted on the ring and it swooped back onto her finger.

That's when I noticed the top of the ring looked like a swoop of metal, with a punctuation mark.  And when C made up her mind that she wanted to order this ring in her smaller size and her choice of metal, she signed her name - and I could see that same swooping element in her signature.

It's a ring for a person with a strong sense of self and a big personality.  A thousand people could come in here and not look twice at this ring.  Yet, when she wears it, a  thousand times people will stop her and marvel at it.  I felt a sense of awe, that here was  someone who "got" what Ivaan's art was all about without needing to get accustomed to it.  She was, as I say, completing a journey, not beginning one.

Now, I suppose you're curious to see what this ring looks like, but I'm going to make you wait until next week, when it is safely on C's finger.
Then I'll post a picture.  Stand by.
There you go.


Happy now?

Saturday, July 9, 2016


I remember 2008.

So much happened to us in 2008, just thinking about that year makes me break out in a sweat. On Valentine's Day, Ivaan had his fourth stroke.
Five harrowing weeks later, I'd sold our beloved three-storey house and moved us into a condo which was open concept enough to accommodate his wheelchair.

Caregivers came in to look after Ivaan while I continued my university studies. Our condo was a three-minute walk from most of my classes, but I had a brutal course load that year. Ivaan was brilliant at quizzing me for exams and a couple of times I brought him to class with me.  

In September, an exhibition of Ivaan's unfinished pieces was mounted at KUMF Gallery.  Entitled "Sweepings: Treasures from the Atelier Floor", it was Ivaan's tongue-in-cheek reference to  the "Treasures of Ukraine" exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum.  Ivaan was openly scornful of the artefacts on display at the ROM,  believing them to be fake, and calling the pottery "болото" (mud).

Life in the condo on St. Joseph Street wasn't easy.  People kept wanting to come and stay with us.  Ivaan was a social person and normally he enjoyed having people around, as long as they weren't interrupting his work, but it felt intrusive: an endless stream of people wanting to stay overnight at our place for one reason or another.  He didn't like overnight visitors unless they were family. My patience and hospitality were tested beyond endurance.  I felt as though I were running some kind of substandard hotel. One overnight visitor complained incessantly of having been cold and unable to sleep all night because the previous visitor had left the windows open in the guest room. Another repeatedly forgot our unit number and would sit in the lobby and have the concierge call us to come and escort them upstairs.  Knowing now how little time I had left with Ivaan, I wish I had refused their visits.

In November 2008,  Ivaan attended my convocation.  He devoted the next two weeks to helping me study for an important final exam.   He died three days before the exam.  My wonderful prof offered to excuse me from having to write the exam, but I was determined to write it in Ivaan's memory.  It actually felt like a relief to have something else to think about for a few hours.  I got 90% on the exam - or at least Ivaan did.  I couldn't have done it without him.

Although I've taken a few university courses since Ivaan's death, I hadn't really formulated a plan for future studies.  My life is extremely busy with Atelier Ivaan, my hospice work, social obligations, Ivaan's legacy, family responsibilities and occasionally some sleep. Nonetheless, I abruptly decided to make myself even busier.

I'm hitting the books again in September.  By some miracle, my classes are mostly on days Atelier Ivaan is closed, and while I no longer have the luxury of living three minutes away from class, I'm looking forward to the intellectual rigour of being back at university.

The Vice President of Atelier Ivaan recently pulled down a 91 in Calculus and a 92 in some other Engineering-related course.  Not sure I can aspire to that, but however busy I am in September, life is going to be easier than it was in September 2008.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


I can hardly believe it's been four years since ATELIER IVAAN opened its doors on Dupont Street.  I've learned so much - about jewellery, about business, about people, about trust, about luck, and about stupidity - that I probably should be much older than I actually am.  At least I'm wiser.
There have been some high points, some low points, some very funny things that have happened along the way, some things I'd have done differently and some very poignant moments I've had the privilege of witnessing.

I bought this building on Valentine's Day 2012 from a woman who owns an interiors store called Pimlico Design Gallery.

She and her husband had bought a larger building in the neighbourhood and were expanding her business.  I learned a lot from Tatiana about running a retail operation.  She was generous with advice and suggestions, and forthright enough to tell me frankly about things I needed to know, or to do differently.  I credit her enormously with getting me through the early days when I was a total imbecile.  I came to realize how gracious her help was, because in opening up a store in another artistic field, I was becoming in some ways a competitor.  She was definitely a mentor.

I also credit the Vice President of ATELIER IVAAN, my nephew Ivor, who has spent more holidays here than either of us can remember.  Inventory, I.T. support and persuading me to move from a POS terminal to another payment system are some of Ivor's improvements.  He has taken me out to dinner on so many occasions to talk things over, been my most trusted employee (I actually trust him far more than I trust myself) and been my confidant.  He has dragged me kicking and screaming into the 21st century.  Even now when he's away at university, he has carte blanche to make financial decisions for us both.

Everybody knows ATELIER IVAAN as "the store with the guy in the window".  I hear this all the time.  The "guy in the window" is an oil on canvas portrait of Ivaan by Daniel P. Izzard.  Sometimes I move the painting into the store so I too can enjoy looking at it.  Immediately, I get complaints from people who like to see it when they pass by.  So back it goes into the window.  I don't think Danny anticipated his painting would become a kind of landmark on Dupont Street, but I appreciate it every single day.

I have found myself among fantastic neighbours.  On both sides, I have restaurants owned by terrific people.  We look out for each other and I know if I ever need any help from Vinny's Panini or Universal Grill, I can count on them.  My next-door upstairs neighbour, Sam, saved my life one winter evening.  I was feeling unwell, had a bad headache and decided to sleep it off. Long story short: Sam had come home to an apartment filled with natural gas.  It took a few hours before a gas leak was discovered in the basement next door.  If I'd gone to sleep, I would not have woken up the next day.

I'm lucky that some of the funny things that have happened did not turn out badly.  Once, the summer after I opened, it was a very slow day and I decided I'd rather be having a pedicure than running a retail store.  So I got my purse, set the alarm, and headed to the nail salon in Yorkville.  Two hours later, I returned to find that the door was unlocked.  In my haste to leave, I'd forgotten to lock the door.  It's a testament to how slow it was that day: if anyone had come in, they'd have set off the burglar alarm.  But not a soul had come in.  It took me a while to calm down.

On another occasion, I'd gone to church on Sunday with my close friend Crystal and her children.  As we went into the church, my phone started ringing so I turned it off.  I could feel it buzzing all the way through the church service.  I ignored it....until on the way home I turned it on and learned the alarm company had been calling me for three hours.  Something had triggered the motion sensor in the store, and security personnel were stationed outside, but luckily nothing untoward had happened.

On another occasion, I was chatting to my friend Lesia on the phone when the store door opened and an older man walked in, with some clothing draped over his arm. He held up a pair of trousers and said he wanted them fixed.  I explained that we were a jewellery store and we did not take in mending. He pointed to the window and asked, "So why does it say "Alterations Ivaan" on the sign?" Lesia quipped, "Would it have killed you to hem his pants?"

Some of the very touching experiences I've had involved making engagement and wedding rings for clients.  It feels wonderful when a guy bursts through the door shouting, "She said yes!"  And on one memorable occasion I made lots of wedding rings for the mass wedding at Casa Loma which was an important part of Toronto's Pride celebrations. Being part of such an occasion felt very special.  "Pride" had extra meaning for me that year.

One evening, I was open late when a couple named Michael and Roxana stopped in on their way to dinner at Universal Grill.  That was their traditional "date night" restaurant.  Roxana was intrigued by our rings and tried on a few gold ones, until one in particular caught her eye.

The "Wave" ring, as it's known, has three diamonds spaced evenly around the band.  They have three sons, she had just lost her original wedding ring, and this one fit her perfectly: one diamond for each son.  I suggested she take it next door and wear it during dinner to make certain she was comfortable with it,  But she was adamant this was intended to be her new wedding ring, and I think of the two of them every time I show someone a "Wave" ring.

I try not to dwell on the low points I've experienced, because they tend to suck all the joy out of the room: If I had to do it all over again, I think I'd have opted not to move into the unrenovated apartment upstairs to help out a friend who needed a place (mine)  to stay for a couple of months while in between residences.  No good deed goes unpunished! That spontaneous act of kindness set in motion a series of unpleasant events that have brought me grief ever since.  I learned a lot about trust and the peril of ignoring warning signs about people. I have mostly managed to retain my sense of optimism and my belief in the value of being a good person, in spite of how others behave.  The people we know don't always wish us well.

Four years ago, just after I opened the doors of ATELIER IVAAN, I travelled to Iceland with family.  Last month, in celebration of four years on Dupont Street, I returned to Iceland with a close friend.  Revisiting some of my favourite haunts, I felt quite nostalgic for the days four years ago when I didn't know what on earth I was doing, and I felt extraordinarily satisfied that four years later I had the wisdom to know that ATELIER IVAAN would survive even without me here at the helm, making new mistakes and new friends every day.