Toronto-based writer and arts educator Lindsay Zier-Vogel wants to change the conversation between people and their cities. Instead of only focusing on what needs to be fixed (like, say, your property taxes are going up, public transit service sucks, or maybe you have a mayor with a substance abuse problem, for example), Zier-Vogel is, instead, helping people reflect on what they LOVE about their city.
Through The Love Lettering Project, she has been writing a LOT of love poems. Over 3000, in fact. She turns them into one-of-a-kind paper collages, slips them into airmail envelopes marked “love,” and then distributes them anonymously to be discovered later by strangers.
Since its humble beginnings in 2004, The Love Lettering Project has been transforming strangers’ relationships to public space and their communities through social engagement. In 2012, it was deemed one of the Top 50 reasons to love Toronto by Toronto Life magazine and garnered national media attention with features in CBC Television’s The National, Global National News, CTV’s Canada AM, The Toronto Star, Toronto Life, The Globe and Mail and CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera and World Report.
SL: Give me the love lettering project elevator pitch?
LZV: It’s a community based arts engagement project that gets people to write anonymous love letters to their city, then leave them out in the world for strangers to find.
SL: How does this project relate to your work as an artist?
LZV: I work as a writer and a bookmaker, so writing love letters and making them out of beautiful paper is not a huge stretch!
Where writing is a very solitary venture, The Love Lettering Project requires that I be out in the world, interacting and engaging with so many people – thousands of love letters have been written over the last nine years. It pushes me to get outside of creating in a solitary way.
One delightful overlap is that the novel I’m working on is set in Toronto, so finding out about all the pockets and corners that people love makes writing the city that much more rich.
SL: What inspired you to create an art project about loving your city?
LZV: The project began innocuously in 2004, writing poems with my friend Rhya Tamasauskas in Trinity Bellwoods Park, then slipping them into airmail envelopes marked love, and leaving them in cherry bins and phone booths in the neighbourhood. But in the years since, I realized how much of our discourse about the places we live end up being about what doesn’t work in a city. Thinking about what does work in the place that you live can be a huge shift in perspective. That’s what keeps me coming back to it each year – focusing on and collecting all of the things that do work in a city, the tiny moments and experiences that make a city feel like home.
LZV: We’re marketed to so very often these days that it’s nice to receive something that doesn’t require anything from the recipient. There’s no website you need to visit to receive a larger experience, there’s nothing for the recipient to do except receive a tiny bit of city-love.
SL: What made you want to involve community members in this project?
LZV: I was asked to bring The Love Lettering Project to a summer program at the AGO a few years ago where I got a bunch of eight-year-olds to write love letters to what they loved about their city. Hearing what they loved about their cities – specific swings in certain parks, pools, libraries, Riverdale Farm – made me realize their perspective and understanding of the city was much different than mine, because of the difference in our age, and how we move through this very same city. That’s when I decided I wanted to expand the project to become a community engagement project.
Up until that point, the community engagement piece factored in only upon receiving the love letters I had been writing. But after that workshop at the AGO, I started getting people to write and hide the letters and themselves. Since that shift, people who have lived in Toronto for 70+ years have written love letters, people who arrived just weeks earlier, really young kids and the elderly. It’s blown it all open in the very best way.
SL: What have been some of your favourite expressions of city love?
LZV: One woman, who had recently lived in Washington, D.C. wrote a love letter to how safe she feels in Toronto – something I often take for granted. And the love letter a really young kid wrote to marigolds also took me by surprise. I hadn’t ever noticed marigolds in the city before, but after that kid mentioned it, I noticed them everywhere – at the sightline of a three-year-old!
LZV: A delightful woman, Natalie Campbell, from London, England, flew to Toronto to chat with me about social engagement for a fellowship she was working on. At the end of the interview, we talked about how much fun it would be to get The Love Lettering Project to London to kick off A Good Week – a global celebration of good – that she spearheads across the pond. I started looking into funding options and received a touring grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. After fundraising the extra funds through an Indiegogo campaign , a 5-city UK Love Lettering tour happened last June. I partnered with the most incredible organizations while in London, Brighton, Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool and carted around thousands of airmail envelopes all over the country.
SL: What was the best thing about doing the project away from home?
LZV: It’s a very different experience, doing the project in a city I’ve called home for most of my life, and doing it in places I’ve just arrived to. Learning the secret pockets and hidden gems of a brand new city made them so much more three-dimensional and full, even if I only ever had a few days in each.
LZV: It’s the shift in perspective from what doesn’t work in a city (which is a totally fair and important component to social engagement and change) to what does work in a city. It has the capacity to transform strangers’ relationship to public space and their communities through social engagement.
SL: Did you glean any particular insights about what is important to people about the place in which they live?
LZV: When I first started the project, I had this vision of creating an online map with all of the love letters pinned to the places people love about their city. Except, I quickly realized that more often than not, people love the feeling they have in cities, experiences and memories they have, not necessarily geographical coordinates.
SL: What’s next for you and the love lettering project?
LZV: The 10th incarnation of The Love Lettering Project will kick off in 2014 and there’s an exciting collaboration in the works. Fingers are perma-crossed as the tour is pending funding.
Want to write your own love letter? Visit www.loveletteringproject.com. All you have to do is love, write, and deliver.
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