Leslieville Lives: Stories from the ‘Ville – Phillip Dabreo
Meet Phillip, aka Kassa. Many of us may know him/of him from his unique garden on Empire Ave,. or The Big Carrot, where Kassa worked for 17 years.An artist and environmentalist by nature, Kassa has cultivated not only his garden of earthly (and unearthly) delights, but a reputation as a collector. Made up of metal objects, wood, dolls, mobiles, coconut shells, gloves filled with water, motherboards transformed into an urban landscape, old lamps which become alien creatures and donated objects from neighbours and friends, his garden is something to see. Despite the lack of traditional garden flora, it’s an evolving creation. Each season he adds, changes, creates a new mood to the garden. A true labour of love. When I asked how it came to be he told me he’s been a naturalist and a conscientious environmentalist since he can remember. ‘When I moved here seventeen years ago, the lawn was wild with weeds and dead grasses. Rather than starting over, I decided to play with what was there; stones, old pieces of wood, adding found metal and material refuse, and build a recycled garden from the natural and unnatural world.’
After a few years, neighbours and passersby would actually start donating/leaving me pieces to incorporate into the garden’. He points to a chair with at least a dozen Barbie dolls. ‘One of my neighbour’s daughters gives me her dolls when she no longer wants them. I’m accumulating quite a collection!’. The chair the dolls sit on is made by Kassa’s hand. Old wood that was lying around/he found, bound with twine, becomes their throne. Kassa, a nickname he adopted when he joined the Rastafarian movement back in the Grenadine Islands, where he was born, is an Ethiopian word meaning compensation and reward. The Rasta community reveres Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s answer to the second coming, as a type of messianic figure who will lead the way to eternal peace and prosperity. Also a huge fan of Bob Marley, who espoused the same message, Kassa proudly boasts the Rasta colours (red, green & yellow) throughout his house and garden. We could also adapt the welcoming Spanish phrase ‘Mi Casa Su Casa’ (my house is your house) to ‘Mi Kassa Su Kassa’. Perfectly befitting.
Kassa came to Canada in 1985 when his mother, who had been working here as a nanny, brought him and his younger sister over. One of seven children, the remaining older siblings stayed in St. Vincent in the Grenadines, where he was born and lived the first 19 years of his life. Here over thirty years now, he is a single father with two grown sons who, after many years of working in a plethora of jobs, has returned to school. He looks nothing near his fifty years and when I asked him how he stays looking so young, he gives me his enchanting smile and leads me into his kitchen. The counter is full of scratch made goodies, including freshly made coconut oil. A huge fan myself, this was a treat. Now I know where all the coconut shells in the garden have come from. As I write, I have an order of fresh coconut oil in the making.
Kassa has lived on Empire Ave. for seventeen years as a tenant. When I asked how the landlords felt about the garden he replied ‘They love it’. He tends both his and the neighbour’s yards out of goodwill and praises the landlords, who bought the 2 houses years ago specifically with the intent to rent them out to those with low income lifestyles. Giving, generous people. Like attracts like it seems. Since Kassa started the garden, he’s gotten the attention of major newspapers and other media, but finds most of his delight in passersby and neighbours who he’s gotten to know over the years. His lifestyle has rubbed off and some are abandoning the traditional garden and using their own creativity, recycled items and nature’s leftovers to create their own piece of theatre. He laughs and adds ‘and we don’t hear the annoying sound of a lawnmower on weekends’. More recently, Kassa made an ‘interactive’ piece of art – a surgeon’s type glove filled with water and tied it to a tree, whose branch overhangs the sidewalk. He says he loves to watch people passing by it. Most will stop, play with the glove, feel it, and then move on. It’s a fun distraction and interesting experiment, as most of us are walking with our our heads full of the day’s work, worries, to-do lists, or in the clouds, getting from A to B.
Who knows. Thanks to Kassa’s creativity and passion for the environment, Empire Avenue may one day become Nature’s Art Arcade. We could all use more earth and art in our lives. If you haven’t seen the garden, get yourself over to 68 Empire Ave. You will come away feeling more mindful, refreshed, happy and of course, ‘wowed’.