This west end Toronto laundromat doubles as a free art gallery

There’s a laundromat in Roncesvalles that isn’t just a laundromat. Though it’s been operational for over a decade, it had been pretty quiet until Jyll Simmons and her partner Dan Ihnatowycz took it over just before the pandemic. Now it doubles as She Said Gallery, a free gallery for artists who are interested in showing their work in an unconventional, community-oriented space. Now any day of the week, you can clean your clothes to the view of local artwork.

When Simmons and Ihnatowycz first took over the laundromat from the previous owner, they struggled to attract new customers. It had been an old space with a drab atmosphere and on most days, it stayed pretty quiet. That was until Simmons started wondering how they could reinfuse the space with life. 

Simmons came up with the idea to formally structure the laundromat as a gallery during the maternity leave for her first child in 2022. She’d had a Tumblr account for a decade called She Said, and she knew she wanted to take on a physical project, so she created an Instagram page and started posting her favorite art photos. 

She found herself particularly inspired by a photo series in an old issue of an art magazine. “There were these photos that Yevgeni Kotenko had taken over a decade from his mother’s window in Ukraine. It’s all on the same bench: people being arrested for being drunk, lovers kissing. And Roncy has such an Eastern European community. So I found him on Instagram and I used Google Translate to ask if I could buy a couple pictures with very little budget. He ended up sending me 40 pictures in a file for free, and I printed them all out and framed them in cheap IKEA frames,” Simmons says.

The photos became She Said Gallery’s very first exhibit in May of 2022.   

The second exhibit featured the work of Simmons’s niece, Kateryna Kovshun, “That’s when I realized people were coming in and saying things like ‘This is really cool,’ ‘You can smell clean laundry and look at art,’” Simmons says. 

She started reaching out to artist friends, now all of whom have money to invest in their own art career. “For the first while it had been me begging people to show their art or reaching out to people on Instagram that I liked and trying to convince them that their work was good enough to have a show, because a lot of people are shy,” Simmons says.

L-R: @hayleyaxelrad’s “Fresh Cut Flowers in Each Room” exhibit, @embattaglini’s “Sto Lat” exhibit

She wanted to be able to provide them with a free space to showcase and even sell their work, so she had her friend James Austin Hewitt, an established artist who previously owned The Run Gallery on Dupont, throw a show in late 2022.

He ended up selling multiple of his pieces for a couple hundred dollars each, eventually selling out. It created a strong precedent for others to follow suit.

Seeking to formalize the venture, Simmons had her friend Christina Mac design a logo. “I formalized it before I really even knew what it was going to be,” she says. But she did have an example in mind. She’d become acquainted with a fellow laundromat owner, Samantha Spencley, who operates Dirty Laundry as a laundromat and gallery at Dundas and Bathurst.

The challenge for Simmons was knowing that she was going back to full-time work, and wouldn’t have the capacity to tend to She Said every day. So rather than pay herself for curation efforts, she allows the artists to have full creative agency.

“I think that’s one of the reasons it has taken off; it’s kind of community-run,” she says. 

Simmons started hosting a show every two weeks, accepting submissions via Instagram. Now She Said Gallery is booked until August. Friday is the dedicated show day if the artists choose to host an exhibit. Some people have musicians come in.

“Our customers know that Fridays are kind of going to be like, ‘Who knows?,'” Simmons says. “And some people come on purpose for it. There’s a large aging community in that area and I think it’s a nice way to socialize.” 

In May of 2023, Simmons applied to register She Said Gallery as an official venue for the Scotiabank Contact Festival’s Open Call Exhibitions, which focuses on galleries and alternative spaces across the city. “When Contact released the print catalog, we were listed as a venue,” she says. “It was a small thing but for me it was really exciting. I obviously kept that magazine.” 

Then in late May, Simmon’s best friend, photographer Peter Andrew Lusztyk hosted a one-day gallery opening with food stylist and producer Michelle Rabin, and attracted a crowd of local art buyers. “One of the directors of the festival also attended Peter’s show and loved it,” she remembers. “He felt it was a unique place to have an art show.” 

Her project for her second maternity leave, since she must have a project, is to research funding and collaboration opportunities for the gallery to help it sustain itself. 

“Ultimately I’d love to grow She Said,” Simmons says, “I just wish I had more of a following or a status as a gallery, so that I could bring in more people, and more than just the artists’ friends, but buyers.”

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