TMU course trains students in the Carnival Arts

by Lincoln Depradine
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Candice Dixon

One of the skills of carnival arts that many worry could become a thing of the past is wire-bending. Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), however, is playing a role in ensuring that wire-bending, and carnival costume-making in general, are continued into the future in a program taught by Jamaican-born Candice Dixon.
“I am a wire-bender. I think it’s an artform that is getting lost; a lot of the people in Toronto that do it are elders and it’s not being passed down.
“So, it’s something that I want to make sure lives on,” Dixon told Share.
The TMU course is a collaboration between the university’s School of Fashion and SugaCayne, a company founded and co-owned by Dixon and partner Dwayne Dixon.
SugaCayne, described as a “boutique Caribbean carnival costume design and production company”, was launched in 2010 and has participated in several high-profile events such as Toronto Carnival, “ArtworxTO” and “The Bob Marley Experience”.
“We are artists first and foremost,” Dwayne Dixon said in an interview with Share. “We push the boundaries when it comes to fabrication, feathering, beading and wire-bending. But we also understand that things change; when mas’ began, it was about using the elements and material that were around you.”
Dixon is a former executive director of the Nia Centre for the Arts.
“Fast-forward to 2024. If you look at what’s around you today, you’ll find 3D printers and laser-cutting machines and those are some of things that we now incorporate on top of the foundation to push evolution through carnival costumes.”
The TMU Carnival Arts course, which is said to be the first-ever costume design program in Canada, started about seven years ago and was developed by Candice Dixon.
It’s a “trans-disciplinary live event super-course”, said TMU’s Caron Phinney. “It’s a big course.”
Phinney, an assistant professor, is also director of the undergraduate program in inclusion, design and technology.
She was present at a student-curated Carnival Arts showcase at the university. The runway event also featured a display of select costumes from SugaCayne’s “Innovation in Mas” collection, and included entertainment from Panatics Steel Orchestra, as well as the sharing of carnival history information by entertainer and former Canadian Calypso Monarch, Henry “Cosmos” Gomez.
Phinney described the students’ production as “colourful and intricate design work that celebrates not just Caribbean tales, but also encourages students to learn from, explore and embrace their own cultural background”.
Students in the Carnival Arts credit course engage not only in wire-bending, but also utilize other things such as thermoforming, digital fabrication, recycled material and laser-cutting techniques.
Candice Dixon, who is trained in fashion design and visited Trinidad on an Ontario Arts Council-sponsored study visit, said the TMU course is “all about carnival arts and carnival history”.
“The beginning of the course is really about the history of carnival; where it started, why we do this. It’s more than just a street party; that we’re actually celebrating our freedom,” Dixon said.
The course’s second part, said Dixon, is about “storytelling”, with students being asked to “come in with an idea, like a pretty costume they’ve seen and that they want to replicate. Here, they must tell a story with an overarching theme, with five sub-themes and they must dive in and tell me a story.
“That is about fabrication and how the costume is going to be produced”.
Wire-bending, Dixon added, “is an essential part of the selection of their final costume piece. But I also understand that we are in the 21st century; that technology is a huge part of everything that we do. And I want to elevate the artform a little by adding some digital fabrication, such as 3D printing and laser cutting.
Environmental sustainability is also a component of the program, and students are encouraged to reuse material and incorporate it into their costume design.
Dixon, creative director of SugaCayne, said carnival in Toronto has been “a part of the fabric” of her life.
“I decided in 2017 that I really wanted to learn more so I received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council and went down to Trinidad and was a mentee under one of the best designers down there in terms of wire-bending, feather-placing, beading, and all of that,” she said

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