Cardboard forts for grown-ups

A Montreal impresario hosts quirky events to lower the shyness bar

Cardboard forts for grown-ups

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

Step right up and meet Sherwin Sullivan Tjia! By day, he’s a medical illustrator. By night, he’s a modern-day P.T. Barnum. The Montreal-based impresario behind Chat Perdu Productions has hundreds of followers for his Honeysuckle Strip Spelling Bees in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa (that’s strip spelling). Other popular nights include Crowd Karaoke, Sock Puppet Party, Idea Adoption Agency, Arcade Choir and Slow Dance Night.

“My events are more intimate than zany,” said the 35-year-old Tjia, who is a published poet, graphic novelist and trained painter. “I prefer events that are unpredictable, like Love Letter Reading Aloud or the Bawling League, where people tell sad stories. There were 34 people crying in a small space. It was the strangest event I’d ever done.”

Tjia can have a hard time renting venues for his events, especially in Ottawa. “First of all, I’m a weirdo to them. Secondly, my ideas don’t always sound like fun. I’ve learned that the best way to rent a venue is to go have a drink and talk to the bartender. Then they get me.”

It worked with Andy Haslett, owner of Dovercourt House in Toronto, where Tjia staged his Cardboard Fort Night in June. “It wasn’t ideal to mix X-acto knives, sharp cardboard and a slippery floor, but I agreed to hold the event because it was for Sherwin,” explains Haslett. “He’s the Tim Burton of event promotion, and the crowd he attracts is very respectful. We had 105 people building 12 elaborate forts with duct tape. It was brilliant, but it wasn’t a feasible event for Sherwin to repeat.”

For a promoter, Tjia is notably unconcerned with the bottom line. “Ultimately, I do these things to satisfy my curiosity,” he explains. This uncommercial approach sounds more like performance art than event promotion. Is he the next Paul Butler, the Winnipeg artist who hosts collage parties around the world? “Sherwin’s events aren’t in the contemporary art milieu, whereas Paul Butler is activating the public in a sophisticated way in a gallery,” said William Huffman of the Awesome Foundation, which helped fund Cardboard Fort Night with a $1,000 grant. But David Elliott, associate professor in studio arts at Concordia University, isn’t so sure: “In his own way, Sherwin fits into a long history of playing with words and images and performance that goes back to General Idea and now artists like Daniel Barrow, who won the Sobey Prize, and Marcel Dzama,” said Elliott, who was Tjia’s master of fine arts thesis supervisor. “Sherwin didn’t choose the museum-gallery route, but he found an interesting way to be creative and succeed.”

Tjia doesn’t really care about belonging to the fine arts club: “I want people to do things together.” Mission accomplished. “My social life has become much more interesting since I discovered Slow Dance Night,” reported 30-year-old Lili Kondo, a social worker and doula in Ottawa. “In a society that’s so digitally connected, I think it’s the physical proximity and touch we all crave.” After singing Yellow Submarine at Crowd Karaoke, Farshid Etemad, a 36-year-old Montreal systems administrator, added, “These events lower the bar for shyness and improve the social fabric of the city.”

“You want to know the secret of Slow Dance Night? It’s speed dating in disguise. I like to turn wallflowers into perennials,” said Tjia, who grew up in Scarborough, Ont., watching TV and filling sketchbooks with poetry and illustrations. Now, he wears a black strapless dress (from Le Château) and heels to host Slow Dance Night and Strip Spelling Bee. “When we first met him, we didn’t know if he was gay, straight or Andy Warhol,” said Patricia Wilson, the assistant bar manager at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, where Tjia holds many of his Toronto events. Tjia laughs off the suggestion he’s a closet cross-dresser: “Are you kidding? Looking great in a satin dress and heels is agony.”

What’s next on Tjia’s to-do list? “I want to make a porno one day, but a funny, quirky one. Porn has become so fossilized,” he said. “I want to make a musical, but one that everyone can star in. I want to do a fashion spread, hold a wheelchair wedding and host Queer Speed Spooning. That one’s still un-done.”

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