Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Soft friends have urban, inclusive message

Fish on Fridays' Gabe Thirlwall is growing her brood

BURSTING WITH IDEAS. And cotton batting. Gabe Thirlwall's newest projects are hip, urban, androgynous, queer dark-skinned fabric dolls. Credit: (Karen Rodgers)

It’s the Ladyfest “Not Your Grandma’s Craft Sale” on a chilly Fall day in 2007. Upstairs in the Jack Purcell Community Centre, Gabe Thirlwall stands behind her table smiling as she speaks with a customer who is paying for a soft, handmade toy. He says his good-bye, tucking the cuddly little beast into a corduroy pocket.

There’s something quietly confident about Thirlwall. She stands tall in a plaid shirt and dark jeans. The androgyny is eye-catching and her quick smile, disarming.

We catch her off-guard — myself with a microphone, and two camera-guys behind. I ask her if she’d mind a quick interview on camera for an xtra.ca feature on Ladyfest. If she’s taken aback its only momentary as she laughs, asking the obvious, “Why? Do I look gay?”

Thirlwall’s company is called Fish on Fridays, a nod at an old Catholic tradition together with Thirlwall’s earlier days of religion-based art. Nowadays, Thirlwall is a regular at Ladyfest and other local art shows, showcasing her less controversial, more cuddly goods.

If you ask Thirlwall what she does, she replies with a simple, “I make pigeons.” Press her and she’ll offer only a touch more. “Okay, things for kids and aging hipsters.”

Thirlwall does make pigeons though. She’s not pulling your leg. Small, soft and flat — they were perfect size for little hands or quirky soft animal collections.

Thirlwall’s pigeons inspired her to create a larger collection — The Urban Wildlife Project. Six months later, this time at the spring Ladyfest, Thirlwall had a table full of animals — pigeons, raccoons, squirrels and seagulls.

“Most of those animals are seen as pests,” says Thirlwall. “I personally would prefer not to have raccoons in my backyard. But I respect them. It’s a sign of hope when wildlife adapts to our urban landscape. It’s the natural world resisting our onslaught.”

If it seems Thirlwall puts an unusual depth of thought into her kid’s toys, it’s got a lot to do with her history in activism. She carries the energy of years of involvement in social justice and message-based art. Her toys are no different.

The child of devout but extremely left-leaning Catholic parents (her father an art teacher), Thirlwall grew up learning to associate critical thinking with her faith. It was a natural progression that her creations became a critical statement on religion and the queer-disapproving church.

She describes what she considers her most sacrilegious piece.

“Once, I created a life-sized papier-mâché crucified Christ and covered him with homophobic posters! I was a member of the University of Toronto Student Christian Movement at the time and we had been at the centre of a homophobic campaign by other Christians on campus. The St Michael’s College paper called the sculpture ‘a desecration of the cross.’ I was very proud.”

It’s been a few years since Thirlwall befuddled and offended the rightwing conservative Christian groups. The key to her now softer artistic focus — the reason behind the sweet handmade toys — is motherhood. She and her partner decided to have a child.

“What I’m doing now is no less political than what I was doing then. I feel like every piece I create will have a political message. Simply the fact that they’re handmade, that they’re created in a just and fair way, simply the fact that they’re not created in China, is political.”

Welcoming a little boy into their lives, Thirlwall and her partner found themselves discussing ethical child raising. Now alongside the Urban Wildlife Project is a newer collection, created with the same depth of thought and creativity.

They’re “Art Dolls,” hip, urban, androgynous and totally queer dark-skinned fabric dolls that sprawl nonchalantly on the landscape of Thirlwall’s table. She picks one up.

“Check this out,” she grins mischievously, pulling down the pants of the suddenly undignified doll to show me red unisex underwear. Thirlwall nods knowingly.

Thirlwall is clearly proud of the handsome little beings. They represent everything she stands for — the DIY ethic, creative alternatives to commercial, mass-produced toys and a political statement of inclusion.

“They’re a celebration of the dignity of handmade and homemade goods. But mostly, they’re a reflection of myself and my friends.”