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Women and Girls: Catching up with the indefinable Pandora Topp

Artist, musician and educator, to name but a few titles, Pandora Topp is showing children how to be unafraid in their pursuits, and moved past that critical voice to let their creativity shine
Artist, musician and educator, to name a few titles, Pandora Topp is now showing children how to be unafraid in their pursuits, and moved past that critical voice to let their creativity shine 

To define Pandora Topp in a few words is almost impossible. 

Usually, there is a clear title to include with a name on a page, ‘this is one person and this is the thing they do’. But not with Topp. 

You could use musician, but that leaves out theatre performer, puppeteer, dancer and writer; you could try artist, but that would omit educator, cultural advisor and Francophone icon. 

She moves between each with ease, vulnerable and willing to falter or misstep in the pursuit of creativity. She doesn’t just create, she exudes. 

It’s about being present, “showing up for yourself,” she said. But also, it’s about moving past the critical voice into creativity. 

Topp was born in Mont-Sainte-Hillare, a suburb of Montreal and moved to Sudbury in 1981. A fixture of the Sudbury music scene since she was in her late teens, singing everything from the blues to ska, Topp struck upon the music of Édith Piaf and it would inspire years of homage to the French singer, known as one of the greatest French musicians of the 20th century. 

Topp has also been an artist in the schools since 2002, and an artist-in-residence at the French Public school board, le CSPGNO since 2011, with her work including the adaptation of  their Ambassad’arts program to a series of 20 art-making videos during the pandemic.

She also performs for children at daycare centres with cellist Alexandra Lee. They adapt children’s literature through music and drama, with Les Contes d’un violoncelle – Cello Tales.

In 2015, Topp was honoured with the Northern Lights Festival Boréal Jackie Washington Award for her distinguished contribution to Northern Ontario’s cultural life, and she was a finalist for the 2018 Ontario Arts Foundation Artist-Educator Award.

Topp said her artistic influences were shaped by two worlds: one, the world of structured school, and the other, the influence of her mother, Heather Topp, a self-taught multimedia visual artist.

Topp’s mother’s work has been internationally recognized, and her work selected for the second time in three years for an exhibit at the Ceres Gallery's 40th anniversary exhibition. 

“I got to watch my mom create, do, as a young person, whether that was with food or she would make our clothes, the art she made,” said Topp of her mother. “Even stuff around our house, whenever we went out for walks we just observed. She taught us to observe and to notice things, but also, making things out of nothing. And I think that's a lot of where true creation comes from.” 

For her, it was about learning the rules, then learning to break them, but also, seeing the beauty in the everyday and the ability to make something from nothing.

“To me, the first gesture toward creativity is really, really sacred,” she said. “It's not about being bad or good, it's just your first as a sacred gesture, because you showed up and did something.” 

However, Topp also acknowledges just how hard it is to create without criticism. 

“We've now taken on that critical voice, that judgmental voice, into ourselves, and I think that's the worst place to be,” she said. “And so, now you're seeing kids that are afraid to make a mark or are afraid to take a step or free to use their voice, as they have now adopted this voice, they are using it on themselves. 

That is where she focuses her work with young people: giving them the courage to develop their own voice, one that is louder than of the critical one. 

The move to teaching began at the Royal Conservatory, where Topp learned music education from a pedagogical level, the ability to create lessons for teachers to use in the classroom. Through the years, Topp has worked for school boards to encourage educators to use music and art in all their lessons, including math and science. 

She said the diversity of voices from children still astounds her. 

“What you get is incredible,” she said. “But 20 individuals take the same structure and literally design a million different things with it. You're surrounded by a million different voices. Every one of us has a million stories and a way of seeing, a way of listening that is sacred.”

It’s part of the reason she loves working with children, and is deeply excited for the next phase of a program she runs through Carrefour Francophone at Place des arts, called Artmignons.

The program is in three parts and targeted to children between the ages of 6-12 and their parents. A parent and child work on a puppet or marionette together, and in the first stage, enjoy design and crafting technique, while enjoying the time together. 

The second stage, learning to animate the puppet, allows children and parents alike to learn to move their bodies, and to find joy in it, even if that joy is embarrassment. Then, onto stage three, Topp’s favourite. 

Rather than have a script or plan for the puppets, parent and child improvise their routine, which Topp said brings them to the moment, a chance to think on their feet and be present in the moment. 

“It’s about listening to the other; they aren't taking their turn to talk, they have to create a dialogue by listening to each other and going where neither could choose to go,” she said. 

It’s a “magical” project, she said, especially for parents who are not as comfortable with French and want to improve, while engaging with their child. 

You can find more information about this project on Facebook, here. 

And stay tuned for more from Topp: a solo show, more performances, and perhaps even a memoir. But one thing for sure, whatever she creates will be pure, unexpected, and more than likely, indefinable. 

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with 

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Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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