Feature: Huntclub

TITLEHunting and Hustling with Little Italy’s Darlene Huynh

darleneDarlene Huynh keeps the few material possessions that she cares about at her desk at Huntclub, the multidisciplinary studio space on College Street she founded just over a year ago.

Huntclub started off as an artsy atelier of sorts — a place where she and her friends could work on their creative endeavours while downing red wine in the same fedora-friendly room. It has since evolved into a full-time studio space for a handful of Toronto artists like Lauren Pirie and Kathryn MacNaughton, and doubles as a gallery and showroom thanks to its street level, floor-to-ceiling windows. Stop by any day of the week and you’ll likely run into Darlene and her entourage of talented super-babes (seriously, they’re all really really good looking) hard at work planning the next Huntclub show, or making beautiful, hip, affordable art.

Huntclub is where Darlene stores her stash of art books, her guitar, photos of her family, empty bottles of whiskey (she says they’re a kind of trophy), and her Rubik’s cube, which she spends time every day trying to solve without the assistance of YouTube or sorcery. “I do it to try to relax and not smoke throughout the day,” she explains. So far she’s managed to solve two of the six stubborn sides.

In her own life, Darlene has put together two pieces of the puzzle as well: the type of community she wants to belong and contribute to, and her passions —not including Jameson or blondes. Like any other 29-year-old, a few of the other pieces — a clear career path, a stable love life, the ability to eat only pizza forever without judgment — haven’t quite settled into place. “I love romance so much, I could just lose myself in it and be so satisfied in that alone,” Darlene says. “But I need to be married to my work right now.”

hunt6Like any solid marriage, this one involves a lot of effort, flexibility, and bullshit. Darlene often clocks 12 or 13-hour days “hustling for Huntclub.” which is not as stripper-y as it sounds. Her time is spent curating shows, overseeing events, bringing together teams for projects, and trying to find funding for all of the above.

“Part of this job is being fucking everywhere,” she says. This includes places like Ossington or Dundas when she wants to spar with local artists, Little Italy when she wants to be visible in her neighbourhood or King West when she’s chasing clients. “Until recently, I used to always dread those meetings, like ‘tonight’s a King Street night, ugghhhh.’ But then I realized I’m really good at relating to people and blending in where it seems like I shouldn’t.”

Darlene is a veritable social chameleon despite her less-than colorful-look. Her daily uniform consists of a black t-shirt, black jeans, flat ironed black hair and a black hat. “All black everything,” she laughs. It was her motto long before Jay and Rih rapped about it in “Run This Town,” which Darlene is on her way to doing in Toronto. She’s already well-respected by her fellow entrepreneurs on College Street — an impressive feat for a young, gay woman in a sometimes macho neighbourhood. The men behind the counter at Sicilian Sidewalk Café greet her warmly, and her coffee is often on the house. “I always get coffee at this place — even though their coffee is shit. I refuse to go to Starbucks — I want to support the hood.” Her support hasn’t gone unnoticed. In its first year, Huntclub has hosted dozens of photography and typography shows, live dance and music events, a “porn fort”, and pop up charity clothing shops — all of which have been well over capacity on opening night.

A freelance photographer for the past decade, Darlene has become a master at balancing light and dark, and she applies this symmetry to her work, her personal life and her attitude. She never punctuates with smiley faces or a shitstorm of exclamation points when texting unlike many of her Gen Y counterparts. While this can come off as cold, she shrugs it off. “I just like to be succinct,” she says bluntly.  In person, however, she radiates warmth. “My friends always comment that I somehow manage to have really intense, intimate relationships with lots of people.”

It’s not hard to imagine: even with relative strangers, she always maintains eye contact, never checks her phone in the middle of a conversation, and doles out genuine, thoughtful compliments. Yet she remains a tad mysterious and distant at the same time. Her spirit animal would be some kind of friendly black dog-panther.

huntquoteThe duality that is present in her life isn’t surprising — she’s a twin. Her identical sister, Damara, is her best friend and her rock. “My down time with her is the best. It’s a lot of pizza, being horizontal, shared silence and video games,” Darlene says. “She takes really good care of me.”

Darlene, in turn, takes care of everyone else around her. She started Huntclub for her friends, many of whom are artists. “I wanted somewhere that my friends and I could hang out, but in a more professional way.”

Darlene prefers to observe and learn from others for the time being, rather than focusing on her own artistic output. “Huntclub is mostly individuals working in the same space. I like that vibe — watching how everyone executes their own craft, watching everyone else’s process.” She likes the challenge of figuring out what artists have to offer, and helping them turn their ideas into reality. “Toronto artists have these brilliant ideas, but we’re so insecure. I’ve tried to become a cheerleader for my friends and all the artists I’ve met. Like ‘Yes! Your idea is fucking awesome!’”

Most recently, Darlene has been trying to promote two largely under appreciated art forms: contemporary dance, and house music. “It’s modern day classical music,” she explains. “It’s genius.”

Huntclub will host a listening party soon that Darlene curated for new or unfinished house tracks by local musicians like Kristin Leeder (aka DJ Filthy Gorgeous). After that, there will be two solo shows next month by Lauren Pirie and Fred Caron. Darlene says Huntclub will also be actively participating in Little Italy street festivals this summer, when she plans to incorporate charity musical performances with the goal of raising $15,000 to rebuild homes in Vietnam, where both of her parents grew up.

“It’s hard being an entrepreneur,” Darlene admits. “It’s fucking exhausting. I’m constantly worried about what to do next and with paying my bills…but I’m confident [all this work] will pay off.” She hasn’t yet cracked the third side of that damn Rubik’s cube, but she’s working on it.

If only Rubik’s cubes were all black.

hunt8Photography by Tara Bartolini