Odessa Paloma Parker and Corey Moranis discuss second lives, Spit therapy, and friendly erosion in this conversation about Corey’s installation Living with Rocks, originally published in Opaloma, a bi-weekly cultural dispatch for groovy stylish folks.
This story starts with a random encounter at a home renovation store. I was mooching around looking for plants, obviously, when we ran into the designer Corey Moranis coming through the lighting aisle. I asked what she was up to, and was let in on a wee secret about a project she was working on for DesignTO: A figurative dovetailing of her ongoing existential journey, and commitment to the beautifully unexpected.
She’s plucked a prismatic selection of discarded construction materials from the shoreline of Toronto’s Leslie Spit area, and given them a new lease on life as vases, jewellery displays, lights, candle and incense holders and more – drilling them with holes, stacking them, or combining them with unusual accoutrements; yet always letting their original patinas and time-worn silhouettes take centre stage.
The works resemble tantalizing candies that would obviously crush your teeth, but that fact makes them no less appealing given you can simply admire them on a nightstand, credenza or office desk. And they invite us to think about how histories can be multiplied (and manipulated). In these cases, the materials had an initial use; then were discarded and subsequently molded by Mother Nature; and now, Moranis emphasizes the extensive potential in their futures.
“Sometimes I think we are here on earth to look for treasure,” she says in introducing Living with Rocks, her exploration of the function, form and motley stories of things (pun intended). “Heart-warming emotions, relationships, or objects that speak to our true nature. Treasure doesn’t always have to sparkle, but it must spark(le) our interest.
Over the last few years, I have been on a treasure hunt at the Leslie Spit. Along its shores, where nature hasn’t yet grown overtop, you find the city’s old sidewalks, buildings, rebar, plumbing — all of it stripped down, reshaped, and washed by Lake Ontario. The result is friendlier, more rounded, industrial materials that people play with like a giant Zen garden / Lego pile, a landscape for meditation, discovery, imagination, and playfulness. Visitors build giant necklaces, fireplaces, and towers. Perhaps we can’t help but sort, stack, and build. At the start of the pandemic, when I was searching for existential meaning, I became obsessed with digging through the relics.”
I’d been thinking about my chance meeting with Corey ever since the day it happened, wanting to know about what became of these Spit riches she’s dubbed “rocks” because of their often obscured and ambiguous origins; and I eventually invited myself over to her inherently jubilant studio to chat more about this work, where it came from and where it might go. After a meandering discussion about pareidolia and an explanation of the exuberantly-hued painting her grandfather did that hangs on one of the studio’s walls, we got down to it – this excerpt is edited and condensed.
Odessa: Tell me about your relationship to the Leslie Spit.
Corey: One of my first photo shoots for my jewellery line was done at the Spit, in 2017. During scouting – and I didn’t explore much of the area – I thought, this place is so beautiful. After that shoot I’d moved away, but I’d started seeing other people’s pictures over the years of parts of the Spit that I’d never seen before. Everything had been rounded by the water – all these construction materials. And I saw people were having bonfires and things. After I’d moved back, a friend took me to a magical spot at the Spit, and then I started going there every week. This was in 2020.
Odessa: When did you start accumulating these materials [gestures at the multi-coloured and sometimes wildly patterned stacks of stones, glass, wires, etc. elegantly arranged across her U-shaped desk set-up]. And then when did you decide to start the project?
Corey: I started about three years ago, collecting as many pieces as I could that were different from each other. The variety is so interesting. And I was living with a lot of it, either here or at home. Some of it was functional – I kept flowers in that metal thing for a while [points to a rusted vessel]. I wanted to keep working on the idea, like what more can I do with these things? What more can a “Spit rock” be?
I didn’t take a lot from there at the beginning, but I started to create piles of stuff that I’d found; when it was time to go home, I’d go through them and have to make decisions. I couldn’t carry everything because I bike. I didn’t like that part of the day [laughs]. Because before that time came, I had total freedom and it was so fun searching for things and moving them around. I’d also cut flowers and weeds. It’s a very playful place – you feel like a kid. But then it was like, how do I choose now?
Odessa: Is there anything you regret not taking?
Corey: Not really, because I figure it wasn’t meant to be. If it wasn’t perfect, I’d throw it in the lake. Like, don’t get attached. It’s not working. You can’t make fetch happen all the time. Anyway, after a while I couldn’t believe how much I had gathered. I started playing around to make things functional, and ended up giving away some of these pieces. The first thing that stood out to me to make was a soap dish [points to a sculptural piece of rock with a bar of soap resting in its crevice]. Lots of the rocks or bricks I’ve found are shaped like that. I started giving them to people as gifts, and I would get them a bar of soap too. Then the next year for presents, I made incense dishes.
Then I talked to Deborah (Wang, artistic director of DesignTO) about it because I really wanted to work on something around these concepts. I’m really into the nerdy part of it – like, what makes something functional? How does something change in an object – the small differences in shape and form that then lend themselves to different things. There are a million possibilities with some pieces I’ve found.
Odessa: That interesting, considering the festival’s focus this season is the climate crisis.
Corey: And also second life, with respect to [whispers] existentialism.
Odessa: I remember running into you and we talked about your plans for what you’d accumulated; and you mentioned that the project was kind of spurred on by your existential journey at the time.
Corey: Going to the Spit felt like therapy for me, every time.
Odessa: And looking at these materials, too – you want to know more about them. You can have a lot of fun with this exploration.
Corey: The way that everything is eroded by water makes these items very friendly; if everything was sharp and straight-lined, it wouldn’t be as inviting.
I was walking past Type (the bookstore) a number of months ago and they were digging in front of it; I saw this rock [points to a graphically patterned stone] under the ground. So these materials have come from old building projects around the city.
Odessa: Wow – so these items are really parts of Toronto’s history, but they’re also pretty anonymous. Like how would you even begin to find out their origins? But you’re archiving the city in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Corey: It’s been a really fun exercise but I’m not sure how much longer I’ll continue with it. I’ll still go there, of course, and pick things out and stack them. But I might not come back with as much. It’s just really cool to imagine possibilities and try to find magical things.