A few years ago, Jimmy Chiale, owner of Cabbagetown’s 416 Gallery, was homeless. Crashing wherever he could, he made his money as a mainstay street artist on Queen West in Toronto, an area that’s become a bit of a hub for street arts and crafts. It was 2007 and he could be found outside The Rivoli Bar selling his work. “It’s a busy spot with lots of exposure. I met a lot of great people who led me to my first opportunities in the art world. It was me at the Rivoli and just down the street was Mike who held down the spot across from the The Black Bull.” (Mike Parsons a.k.a. Hey Apathy) Jimmy was 20 and had just moved from Paris, France. “I used to get up in the morning, hit the Dollar Store and buy up a bunch of frames for my work. I’d lay them all out on the street to sell.” Armed with nothing more than a stack of drawings in his backpack, Chiale hustled to make connections in the Toronto scene, while trying to stay afloat. The stack of sketches, standing roughly 12” tall and dating back several years, now sits behind the bar at 416 Gallery.
I walk in, 6-pack in-hand. Jimmy takes the Steam Whistle and puts them in the fridge. “Beer?” I ask. He cracks one for me, grabs a sip of his O.J. and vodka. “This is my drink…” Maybe it’s the drinker in me, but I’m instantly comfortable. Add to that, Chiale is the type of guy that welcomes you with a hug and smile, enhanced only by his endearing French accent. He has a solid grasp on the English language, despite suggesting he’s only become fluent over the past 7 years. We smash-out a cheers and kick back, the next hour and half goes by quickly while in deep conversation. We discuss growing up in Paris as a troubled youth. His career as a hairstylist, working at many salons in Toronto over the years, mostly ending in his firing. “Art became a big distraction. I’d get a paycheque, blow it all on supplies, paint all night and show up late for work.” The icing on the cake is that he and I establish a signifiant connection to my hometown and a family in the area I’ve known for years. During his first few years in Canada, he regularly hopped a bus to beautiful Elora, ON to stay with the Oxley family. The Patriarch, Stu Oxley, is an established and successful Canadian artist in his own right. Jimmy reminisces; spending hours in in Stu’s beautiful backyard studio and never leaving the area without a bag full of supplies from the acclaimed artist. “The Oxley family were influential in my early years here, huge supporters of me becoming the artist and person I am now.”
The Gallery is a long & lean space, at 404 Queen Street, just east of Parliament. The area, not unlike most of Toronto is beautiful mix of gentrification and street grit. To the north, lie million dollar homes, to the south, schools and one of the most significant Toronto developments of our day, the West Donlands. In the same vicinity lies The Good Shepherd Ministry and a slew of characters which frequent the area, all adding colour to his 1200 sq. ft. gallery. Chiale plans to run workshops for those who live and attend school in the area and is busy reaching out to stakeholders and residents. Floor to ceiling windows provide the perfect vantage point for those passing by. The plywood floors and vintage couches provide a rugged yet welcoming atmosphere. His friendly, relaxed and loveable dog Dennis is as much a fixture in the studio as Jimmy himself.
Chiale’s art is a mix of abstract shapes and designs, soft edges with huge explosions of colour. He’s also known to drop in the occasional black and white piece and pop-culture homage. It’s easy to spot influences in his work, the likes of Basquiat or even Picasso, both of which Chiale acknowledges played big roles in inspiring him to paint. The 416 Gallery is a mixed-use space and Chiale has big plans. The first week of every month, Chiale’s work is on display. Following that it’s a mix of group and solo shows, events and workshops. He’s assembled some great artists in the city under what we calls the “416 Collective.” 50 in total. He’ll organize shows with and on behalf of this group, which includes Nuvango artists, SoTeeOh, Jamil Keyani, Zara Diniz.
In conversation with 416 Collective contributor and Art Battle Events Producer Keyani, I first heard Chiale’s referred to as ‘The People’s Champ” and it has stuck with me ever since. In my time getting to know Jimmy over the past few months, it’s clear his network of friends and supporters is huge. His shows are always packed, bumping kick-ass music and a crowd of good-looking, young influencers. It’s about the art, but it’s also about the social factor. Jimmy has been a fixture in Toronto’s art scene and is just hitting his stride. People love him. And the man can throw a fucking party. I’d highly recommend you check one out.