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Show Us Where You Live: Ashley McKenzie-Barnes’ Curated Loft

The independent curator’s home isn’t just a space to live and work, but a personal art gallery

By Designlines
Photography by Ashley McKenzie-Barnes

There’s a good chance you’ve already seen Ashley McKenzie-Barnes’ handiwork. Earlier this year, the independent curator and creative director guest curated Kuumba25, Canada’s longest-running Black History Festival, at the Harbourfront Centre. Before that, she took on the Scarborough leg of last year’s Nuit Blanche and transformed the neighbourhood she grew up in into a theatrical version of itself. McKenzie-Barnes was also on the TedxToronto team, and has taken on projects for Indigo, Lululemon and Samsung. She’s also doing creative consulting for the Nia Centre for the Arts.

Although her events and exhibits are seen all over town, most of the work leading up to them is accomplished from the comfort of her own home. McKenzie-Barnes is a confessed homebody, living and working from her West Queen West Artscape loft that she transformed from a concrete box into a warm, inviting space that – as one would expect – is chock full of art. Below, McKenzie-Barnes takes us through her home and office.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The coffee table keeps books and magazines close at hand, and right now includes issues of Paper Magazine, Fader and other arts publications, as well as Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, which exhibited at the AGO, and Vintage Black Glamour by Nichelle Gainer. The couch, which has long since lost its label, is from Leon’s, while the rug, from Wayfair, is by nuLOOM. The wall hanging is by artist Dahae Song.

Designlines: Tell us about some of your clients and collaborators.

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes: There have been so many favourites that I’ve worked with in the last year, it’s hard to choose. For Nuit Blanche, I brought Scarborough to life with artists like Kent Monkman, Durothethird, Jordan Bennett and Ebony G. Patterson. Ebony’s installation was on its final stop and shortly after was acquired by the AGO as part of their permanent collection.

Equally as meaningful was the work I did for #Kuumba25 at the Harbourfront Centre. We profiled artists like Yung Yemi, William Ukoh, sneaker guru D’Wayne Edwards, movement artists Jon Boogz and Lil Buck and athlete/activist Colin Kaeperknick.

The drapery around the bed hangs from a custom-made rod that McKenzie-Barnes had installed in the ceiling. The bed and dresser are from Ashley Homestore, while the artwork is by Shani Crowe.

Designlines: Who lives with you?

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes: It’s just me and my partner, Seven (a.k.a. the cat).

Even before the pandemic, McKenzie-Barnes spent much of her time at home. Her home office, which overlooks a small park, features an Ikea desk, as well as a substantial chunk of smoky quartz from The Rock Store.

Designlines: What part of town is your home located and how long have you lived there?

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes: I live on West Queen West and have been here for more than 10 years. It’s definitely been a live-work space for me. I create in my studio/workspace, surround myself with inspiration and work from artists I appreciate. I work out, entertain, relax and unplug here. It’s a good balance.

The shelving was designed and built by BlackonBlack Design, and is both a working bar and display for art. The praying hands sculpture is by artist Kent Monkman, while the knife above it is a collaboration between Dahae Song and Tosho Knife Arts. The framed magazine cover is from Now‘s Black Futures Month issue, which McKenzie-Barnes appeared on the cover of. After work, she occasionally reaches for Wray and Nephew, stocked on the bottom shelf, and cuts it with Perrier and lime.

Designlines: Have you done any work on your home since moving in?

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes: I moved in when it was first built with Artscape, an enterprise that provides live-work, open-concept loft/studio spaces for artists and art professionals.

My space looked nothing like this when I moved in. It had no rooms, closets or doors other than the bathroom. It was just a cement box with the basics. I’ve since renovated it to offer more functionality and versatility. Having an area specifically for work separate from entertaining or rest was important to me.

As I got older, my taste also changed, so my home aesthetic did, too. This past year, I changed the decor by painting, collecting new art and renovating the entire bathroom and kitchen, including changing the appliances and customizing pieces like the countertops and bar. I’ve also added in more rustic elements like brick walls and steampunk rods and coat and hat hangers.

McKenzie-Barnes most recently renovated her bathroom, adding a deeper tub from Home Depot and a floating vanity, sink, medicine cabinet and Caroma Caravelle toilet from Toronto Vanity.

Designlines: What are some of your favourite aspects of the home?

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes: My favourite is the bathroom. In the past year I focused on elevating and modernizing the design of it. All the original furnishings have been removed or enhanced. I installed pot lights, a deeper tub, custom wall and floor tiles, and also added a new toilet and floating vanity.

Also, I love the artwork I’ve acquired over the years, which are all very special to my home. It’s important to me to support and display mostly BIPOC artists. My home collection includes artworks, items and books from multiple artists, including Hatecopy, Shani Crowe, Yung Yemi, Kent Monkman, Dahae Song, David Krovblit, Che Kothari, Tessar Lo, Paa Joe, Tahsin the Good, and Mickalene Thomas.

The open closet keeps McKenzie-Barnes’ shoes and jackets on display. The print is by Hatecopy, while the bench in the foreground, by Cold Steal Creations, was purchased off of Etsy.

Designlines: How did your relationship with your home change during the pandemic?

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes: To be honest, I’ve always loved staying home. But I added weights and bands to a small area in my room, and used my treadmill daily, since I had no access to my gym. I also spent a lot more time eating in my kitchen.

McKenzie uses colourful lighting – in this case, a Philips hue light – to re-contextualize her bedroom.

Designlines: Moving forward, with home-time now more important than ever, are there further changes you would like to make to your living environment?

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes: Now that I am working from home almost full-time, I will be tackling my workspace next to help with inspiration and creative brainstorming. This will probably be focused on the layout, furniture and adding more creative elements.

Like the bedroom, McKenzie-Barnes uses lighting to re-contextualize space in her home – in this case, it’s the nook containing artwork and a small bar. The neon “Hustle” sign was gift.

Designlines: Creatively and business wise, what strides were you able to make during the enforced time off?

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes: I focused more on health and body care. It was a much-needed break and I was grateful to practice more solitude and re-focus my career goals, personal priorities and personal relationships.