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Curator Mia Nielsen shares how she introduces inspiration into life’s daily rhythm

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Curator Mia Nielsen, the director of this fall’s Art Toronto, makes her case for incorporating art into life’s daily rhythmIllustration by Lauren Tamaki

A few months ago, I was examining my late grandfather’s pocket watch. Missing the glass and the hands, it wasn’t much to look at, but I held a kind of reverence for it. My grandfather was a train conductor in Denmark and this watch was his constant companion. Reviewing it closely, I hit a button I had never noticed before and the back popped open for the first time revealing my grandfather’s initials and that of another, etched by hand into the silver lid.

I hung it on the wall. The open lid created a shelf, no bigger than a loonie. On it, I placed a tiny sculpture: a bullet casing, etched with a pattern of stylized daisies by artist Micah Adams. Together, the objects form a personal tribute to family stories of wartime in Denmark. That’s what they mean to me, at least.

As friends dropped by, everyone commented on how pretty the two looked together and marvelled at their delicacy. Art can be like that. Deeply personal for one person, a moment of beauty and wonder for another. It’s part of what drew me to working in art. I love being surrounded by objects and images that are full of layers of meaning, with stories that grow and develop over the course of your life.

As artworks have come into my home, I intertwine fine art with objects, heirlooms and other possessions, whether it’s a flea market trinket, found photos or a stunning pair of heels that are too high for me to wear more than once a year. As a curator, I’m always thinking about new ways weave art into the fabric of day-to-day life. Incorporating an artist’s work into public space where audiences can be surprised and delighted are my favourite projects. Whether it’s bringing sculptures by An Te Liu and Letha Wilson to Prince Edward County, a Ken Lum installation to Toronto’s Drake Hotel or working with feminist installation artist Judy Chicago to restage her sculptures as a dinner party, I’m often seeking new opportunities to share contemporary work with audiences large and small.

Personally, I’m drawn to works that are made from “non-art” materials: Shaheer Zazai’s abstract compositions, made entirely in Microsoft word, an elegant sun-bleached velvet from a jewellery display window by Carlos Reyes or Karilee Fuglem’s acetate sculpture that reflects light patterns across the wall. They all remind me to look for the magic in everyday objects. Living with these works is a constant reminder to not take things at face value, but to remember that our perception of things can evolve.

I didn’t set out to collect these works or build an art collection around these ideas. In a sense, I like to think these things found me. As I was drawn to specific works, the threads that tied them together started to weave into a collection strategy that continues today. Art is about learning – and living with art is about learning constantly.

There are lots of ways to live artfully. You don’t need a large painting behind your sofa. Our homes can be a sanctuary but they can also be places of play. It’s amazing how you’ll see something new in an artwork if you move it to a new location. Even something you’ve lived with for years can feel totally fresh in a new place, in new light. When my son was little, he would periodically relocate an object or artwork I had left on a table and replace it with a Lego figure he had just put together. There would always be a hurried few minutes of tracking down the piece he had removed. Sometimes I returned it to its former home. Other times, the spot where it had landed gave the piece new life and I left his Lego where it was.

Next time you’re throwing a dinner party or having friends over for drinks, use it as an opportunity to move things around. Bring an artwork or treasured photo from your bedroom into your entertaining space. Take out your grandmother’s silver serving pieces and use them as a centrepiece to hold flowers or fruit. Nothing has to be permanent. You can put it back tomorrow if you like. But in the meantime, it may become a great way to start a conversation about the value of looking at things from a new perspective.

Art Toronto runs from Oct. 27 to 30. For more information, visit

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