Choices, Choices: Fun 101

The Toronto Sun
January 29, 1995

Choices, Choices: Fun 101
Art School Magical Place for Creativity

Entering the Avenue Rd. Art School is like crossing the threshold of a child’s imagination: You’re choosing to learn “art” in its broadest sense, as a child learns art — for fun.

Framed primary-colored paintings hang on dark wood-panelled walls. Carefree wishes — “When I grow up I want to be everything, every day” — are taped around classrooms. Ribbons of twisted green crepe paper transform bathrooms into subterranean seascapes.

“It’s a place of creativity,” remarks retired business journalist Grace McKenzie, 71, now in her fourth drawing course. “The architecture, itself, encourages creativity.”

Vibrancy and fun bubble out of every nook and cranny. And, of course, there’s music in the air. That’s what founder and director Lola Rasminsky wants.

“I believe we all have a spark of creativity,” she says. “And what I want this school to do is ignite that spark.

“It’s extremely important that adults walking into a children’s environment feel their spontaneity, their freedom, their honesty and their directness.”

One of the school’s original adult courses — What A Glorious Feeling … Singing Broadway Showtunes — is also one of its most wildly popular, even with Rasminsky. She created the course out of a secret hankering to sing Broadway songs and can’t resist popping into the class occasionally for the entertaining emotional elixir it tends to dispense or just for the pure fun of it.

“It’s better than going to a therapist. And cheaper,” trills freelance photographer Rosemary Goldhar, 53. She and her husband are Showtunes stalwarts, currently enrolled for the fourth time.

Rasminsky started her Fine Arts Kindergarten in her basement in 1979, which she expanded to include a trio of adult classes in 1990 to satisfy the pleadings of parents picking up their offspring. When she bought the homey, old, Victorian Conservatory of Music building on Avenue Rd. in 1993, the school’s scope and size blossomed — enrolment has swelled from 150 to 800.

“You’re sitting in a kindergarten classroom, learning to write legal-crime fiction, listening to Broadway showtunes down the hall,” confesses criminal defence lawyer Steven Skurka, 38. “Now, that’s a unique experience.” He’s started a crime novel since taking Crime Writing.

During four, 10-week terms a year, Rasminsky offers about 40 inventive adult courses in art, drama, music and writing — from Cartooning, Paint’n’Wear andPapier Maché to Stand-up Comedy, Journal Writing and Magic. There are even one-day and weekend workshops for people too busy to attend during the week. All this, besides her Fine Arts Nursery and Kindergarten and her After School Arts Club for children 6 to 18.

“My class (in drawing and sketching) gives me two hours of solitude so I can concentrate on something I love,” says stay-at-home dad Peter Goodman, 35, who attends concurrently with his son, Robert, 3.

“I don’t worry because I know he’s having such a good time right above my head. He comes out happy, full of paint and goo, and smiling. It’s very comforting.”

Rasminksy hand-picks her 36 teachers. “Their personalities are as important as their credentials,” she says. “They have to be warm, encouraging and fun.”

In September 1993, Plum Johnson, 48, chose Singing Broadway Showtunesand Inner Ink, a women’s creative writing course. This group is still meeting, though outside the umbrella of the school. And she’s sold her parenting magazine Kid’s Toronto, so she can write full-time.

“It’s not the courses, it’s the atmosphere,” Johnson explains. “I’ve never been in a place so non-judgmental and nurturing. And that has everything to do with Lola.” Rasminsky believes in feeding the mind, soul and body. The school has two compact, well-stocked kitchens, with mountains of cookies and other healthy goodies galore which she serves to students of all ages.

Each week, she cooks her teachers lunch, turning informal, delicious repasts into easy-to-digest staff meetings.

A gentle, thoughtful, sprite of a woman at 50, divorced with two grown sons, Ottawa-bom Rasminsky (her father, Louis, was Governor of the Bank of Canada from 1961 to 1973) brings a lifelong love of music, a passion for the arts, a master’s in philosophy and an inspired belief-system to her post as the school’s visionary, teacher, den mother and resident Pied Piper.

“My mother was very involved in arts for children. She started the Ottawa Children’s Concerts and wanted to start a children’s art centre at the National Arts Centre, before she died. I’m doing what she wanted to do.”

Nothing ever seems static at her school, where freeing the child’s imagination in everyone drives every activity on a fuel of fun.

“Lola acts as a catalyst to people’s creative expression,” muses Johnson. ‘”That impacts on the kinds of teachers she hires and the atmosphere. It’s a magical place.”