The Queen of Arts

The Globe & Mail 
November 25, 2006

The Queen of Arts
With a successful arts school, a citywide non-profit program and training for execs, Lola Rasminsky inspires kids – and adults – to channel their creativity, VAL ROSS writes

You used to see a lot of Lola Rasminsky in the front hall of the Avenue Road Arts School, chatting in her soft voice with intimidatingly stylish parents as they waited for their little ones to troop out bearing masks and cardboard architectural models. Some parents were friends; some knew her from taking the school’s adult classes; in their professional lives, some attended her corporate workshops.

These days, Ms. Rasminsky spends far more time in places like Portage Trail Middle School, near Jane Street and Weston Road. On a Wednesday morning, Ms. Rasminsky stands in the school’s entryway admiring a mural in progress, as kids, some on scaffolding, daub images on the theme of “peace.” One 12-year-old stops his work to tell her that he loves to draw and wants to design robots. This may be off the topic of peace, but it’s very much in the spirit of Ms. Rasminsky’s philosophy: “I have three endeavours with one message,” she says. “People need to recognize that they’re talented.”

Ms. Rasminsky was honoured Tuesday night at the RBC Canadian Woman Entrepreneur Awards gala at the Metro Convention Centre for her work at the Avenue Road Arts School. But the prize also recognized that her influence extends well beyond the midtown middle class to the city’s bleakest edges.

Portage Trail is one of more than 40 public schools, community centres and camps that are a part of Arts for Children, a program Ms. Rasminsky began in 1995 as a scholarship scheme to allow less-affluent kids to go to her arts school. It has gradually become her main focus: Arts for Children is now independent from the school, and she has stepped down as Avenue Road’s director to concentrate on the non-profit program.

She’s an unlikely arts educator. As a child in Ottawa, Ms. Rasminsky was terrified by her elementary-school art teacher, who would erase parts of her drawings and substitute “correct” lines. To dodge art class, she would fib that she had an early piano lesson. Her piano lessons were even more painful. “The teacher rapped our knuckles and make us cry,” Ms. Rasminsky says. “We have a support group of survivors.” Once, during a piano recital, young Lola froze. She can’t remember finishing her performance.

It’s revealing of Ms. Rasminsky’s personality that for her 60th birthday two years ago, she played a public concert of Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Bach. “The way I operate is, I set goals for myself, and then I am so ashamed that I’ve said things publicly, I have to go forward,” she says. “My father” – Louis Rasminsky, governor of the Bank of Canada from 1961 to 1973 – “always used to say, ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.’ ”

After getting a master’s in philosophy – her thesis was on Martin Buber’s aesthetic theories – she opened a small art school in her Forest Hill home in 1979, mindful of her early, crushing educational experiences. “They are the reason why I run good art programs. I don’t micromanage. I stay out of other people’s hair.”

She’s gentle, but inexorable. She met Julie Frost, program director of Arts for Children, when the latter was an arts consultant at the Toronto Board of Education. Ms. Rasminsky invited her to work at her school. “I’d never heard of it and I was happy doing what I was doing, so I said no,” Ms. Frost says. “She kept begging me. She was persistent. When I saw the school, I was inspired. I’ve never looked back.”

Another subject of Ms. Rasminsky’s persuasions was John Crow, the governor of the Bank of Canada from 1987 to 1994, whom she persuaded to chair the board of Arts for Children. “I’m the Suit,” Mr. Crow says. “More than once I’ve gone in gritting my teeth, and come away energized.”

Transformation is the idea with Beyond the Box (her third endeavour), a creativity program for businesses and executives that she runs with her husband, Bob Presner. Staff from Morneau Sobeco, a benefits consulting company, took the program for a day of lateral thinking, improv and group arts projects.

“My people were a little skeptical,” president Bill Morneau says. “You cannot confuse causation and correlation, but three years later, our team continues to work well.” Now, Mr. Morneau’s wife, Nancy McCain, sits on the board of Arts for Children.

But most of all, Ms. Rasminsky’s art programs energize kids. Three years ago, Arts for Children started a drumming circle at York Square under the tutelage of master drummer Muhtadi. “It started off slow, but slowly, slowly it built up,” says Staff Sergeant Chris Hobson of the Toronto Police Service’s 12 Division, which includes Jane and Finch. A core of about 15 boys and girls are now so skilled, they’ve performed at Harbourfront.

At the Jane Finch Mall, the lively murals produced by the Arts for Children program (jointly sponsored by the City of Toronto and Jewish Vocational Services) have even attracted the eye of Mayor David Miller, who commissioned one for his office. On a recent afternoon, instructor Jennifer Chin, who has a degree from the Ontario College of Art & Design, persuades four girls to outline each other’s bodies on large pieces of paper, so they can create images of how they’ll look in 25 years.

“I like coming, I like the art, I like the people,” explains Chanel, 13. “If I weren’t here, I’d be watching TV.”

Ms. Rasminsky says she’s not a visual artist herself – her early school experiences took care of that. But a few years ago, she noted that children in her programs, initially intimidated by their paints, would soon be painting boldly. Encouraged, she picked up a pencil and started to draw for her own pleasure.

Her works are soft and semi-abstract, Ms. Frost observes. “But each mark has a purpose. It’s all about making her mark.”