Finding a space to call home as a Black person can be challenging. In this series, we will be exploring how Black people navigate and create safe spaces that they call home. To share the story of your space, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vanessa Smithers is the founder of Helllo, It’s Vee, a consultancy company, and has recently started a clothing line. While growing up in Toronto, she lived in foster homes and experienced houselessness. As a Black woman, finding a space that she can call home has been a journey of self-discovery.
LAURYN STEWART: What has your personal journey been like in creating a space that you can call home?
VANESSA SMITHERS: Leaving foster care when I was 12 or 13 years old, I started my journey of finding a place that felt like home, for what seems like forever. In my life, I found myself moving a lot, trying to figure out what home felt like – because I had realized that I never knew what that actually felt like. Living in other people’s homes, living in spaces that weren’t mine, living in spaces that may have been mine but weren’t “it,” I came to recognize that home is essentially a feeling and less of a place if that makes any sense. Finally, I feel like, in my 30’s, I’ve found a physical space, outside of myself, that feels like home.
LAURYN: What was the inspiration for designing your space?
VANESSA: The inspiration for my space is always softness and the fact that it always has to feel like ‘me.’ As an introvert, I spend a lot of time at home. I enjoy spending a lot of time at home. Thus, things just need to feel good. My current apartment is finally somewhere that is exactly what I want it to be. It is airy, bright, old yet restored, and has high ceilings and a giant rooftop patio. As far as design is concerned, I love old, rustic, cozy vibes, so thrift stores are my best friend. I’m able to find things that people’s aunties and grandmothers get rid of and make them my own. I love soft linens, plants and candles. My space needs to smell good. I never really have a direction with my space. I just buy things that I like or think would fit and find somewhere to put them. I am also learning that minimalism is something that aesthetically looks better, so I probably should stop buying things.
LAURYN: What is your favourite room and why?
VANESSA: My favourite room is and always will be my bedroom, especially in my current apartment. The ceilings are high, the windows are huge and I have a closet that I could live in. Prior to this apartment, I lived in a bachelor apartment in a basement on Bloor Street. I had one little window and no closet space. I literally felt like I was going crazy. Going from that to where I am now has been life-changing. Having a bedroom that has big windows, where I can wake up with the sun, feels great. I don’t even close my drapes half of the time. Also, because I’m someone who loves working from the bed, my room is the spot for productivity. I’ve made it feel good.
LAURYN: What was the last thing you bought for your space?
VANESSA: The last thing I bought for my space was my bed. The bed is a dream. I bought the bed frame as well. I love it because it’s low to the ground, kind of platform bed-ish. I don’t like high beds, so this was perfect. I bought some white sheets to go with it and transformed my whole bedroom into a soft and luxurious (to me) place that I want to be in all of the time.
LAURYN: What three pieces define your space?
VANESSA: Three pieces that define my space would be…
My Benny Bing Nisaa painting that I won last summer. He’s such a dope artist, and I had been wanting one of his pieces forever. When I entered his contest, I didn’t expect to win, but when I did, I was elated. I had never won anything before. As a Black woman, having Black art in my home is important.
During the pandemic, I printed some photos of my grandfather at a Black Lives Matter rally in Truro, Nova Scotia. He’s like 89 and led a portion of the rally by speaking his piece. It was such a huge moment for him and our family, so I knew I needed tangible remembrance of it. I blew up the photos, and now they’re on my living room wall.
Books. I have books everywhere in my apartment. Books of various genres but mainly those written or illustrated by Black authors and illustrators. Having books everywhere makes accessibility to them easy for me, especially when I’m growing through something. They’re reminders that I can “check out” any time by just picking one up.
LAURYN: Have there been any challenges living in your space during Covid-19?
VANESSA: During the first wave of COVID-19, living in my space was unbearable, to be honest. I had a roommate who was a middle-aged white woman, and we would often butt heads as far as communication was concerned. I don’t like feeling as if I have to talk––especially at home. I’m someone who speaks only when I have something to say, unless I’m working; maybe that’s the reason why I love writing so much. She felt entitlement as far as being friends was concerned, and I wasn’t having it. Being in the house with her all day created a lot of issues. Also, I feel like she was low-key racist, so that started to come out in our interactions and created a lot of friction in the space. Because I am so racially ambiguous, I think that sometimes people “forget” that I’m Black, which I understand. When things started to open up a bit more and I would invite my family or my friends over, she would leave the house or make comments that certainly had me looking at her sideways like, “I don’t see colour, but are all of your friends Black?” Also, because I am so vocal in the work that I do and the conversations that I have with my friends, when the massacre of Black people became more public, earlier in 2020, I think it made her uncomfortable. Nonetheless, she moved out in the summer. After this, things have been smooth. I once again enjoy being in my home, I have a Black roommate and my mental health has certainly improved on a multitude of levels.
LAURYN: Describe what a dream space means to you.
VANESSA: A dream space is somewhere safe. When I say safe, I mean somewhere that I can just breathe and be. Somewhere I don’t have to worry about other people’s energy or moods. If I want to scream, I can scream. If I want to cry, cry. Laugh loud, and, most importantly, be quiet. My idea of a dream space depends more on how it feels and how it makes me feel than how it looks. My parents made a lot of mistakes, but as far as instilling pride into their children, they did that right, and I’m so grateful. With that being said, my home is full of Black art from Black photographers, painters, writers, tapestry makers and candle makers. Because I would rather have the apartment of my dreams and have a roommate than sacrifice space and live in a shoebox without one, I’ve learned the hard way that I need a Black roommate. As we know, not all skin folk are kinfolk; in my interviewing processes for roommates, I ensure that we are on the same page because things have the potential to go left and become super unsafe otherwise.
LAURYN: What advice would you give someone for creating their own space?
VANESSA: Make it feel like you. Make it feel good. Do what feels good. And you don’t have to drop bags on furniture or knick-knacks either. Use Facebook Marketplace, Kijiji and good ol’ thrift stores.