Northern Exposure: Petra Collins's Inside Guide to Toronto

Art becomes an outlet for Toronto's most controversial young feminist export.

When Petra Collins was a young girl growing up in Toronto, she felt neither smart nor beautiful. “Reading and writing was difficult for me because I’m dyslexic. My grades were terrible. I needed art to succeed,” she says. But now when she returns to her hometown, the photographer-turned-artist is seen as one of he city’s most cutting-edge talents.

At just 22 years old, Collins has already collaborated with a who’s who of artistic icons, including filmmaker Richard Kern and blogger-actress Tavi Gevinson, landed a recurring role in Transparent, Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning com-dram, launched a collection of menstruation theme T-shirts with American Apparel, and even got kicked off of Instagram for her edgy depictions of femininity. (The offending image? A self-portrait in a two-piece – in which she skipped the bikini wax.) Now a New York resident, her work often reflects on women’s issues. Her book, Babe, recently published under the Prestel imprint, brings together 30 female artists for a “yearbook of sorts,” as she calls it, dedicated to exploring the modern female psyche. Among the represented voices are a global rose of young, creative phenoms – most of whom have partnered with Collins on her website, the Arduous, or on magazine products at Rookie or Vice, where she has served as a guest editor.

Speaking of women’s sexual rights, and the recent political maelstrom about defunding Planned Parenthood, she says America sometimes feels 50 years behind its neighbor in the north. “I didn’t think these things were still issues,” she says. “I’m lucky to be from a place that offers no-judgement healthcare.” Coitus ethics aren’t the only social aspect in which she shows great pride for her Canadian roots. “Toronto is extremely multicultural and very free of prejudice. It taught me to consider everyone in my art, an not just the people I relate to directly.” 

Collins’s parents had no small hand in her success. Her father, a criminal lawyer, and mother, a script supervisor for films in her native Hungary, identified visual art as an outlet for the troubled teen, and steered her towards a dedicated high-school program for talented upstrts. “It changed my life,” she says, recalling he parents commitment to finding the right place for her to thrive.

It’s no small coincidence that the artist now returns to her alma mater as a favorite shoot location. “My high school has always been really lenient with me and they’ve let me shoot there so many times. I really enjoy going back. It speaks to my childhood. It’s where I grew up and it’s familiar to me. You know The Virgin Suicides was shot in Toronto, right?”

These days Collins constantly has movies on her mind. After filming a series of shorts about young female dancers in the American south (and starring in the second season of Transparent) Collins is working toward her biggest goal yet: a feature film. “I’m really into the horror genre. Thats the kind of thing I’d want to explore. I just saw White God and It Follows – both really inspired me.” It’s a slow process, she says, but somehow, there’s little question that she’ll get there – and fast.

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