Painting a Portrait of Hope

The Toronto Star
October 22, 2003

Painting a Portrait of Hope
by Martin Knelman

Camila Wong is a 14-year-old student from Peru who excels at painting and drawing. Her parents endured hardships upon moving to Toronto last year, but a priority was made to find a rewarding, creative outlet for their daughter.

Complicating matters was Camila’s hearing disability.

The magic answer for Camila and her parents was the Arts for Children outreach program at Lola Rasminsky’s Avenue Road Arts School. Camila now attends regular art classes on a full scholarship.

“Arts for Children provides a way to spread the benefits of this marvelous school to people who don’t live in Rosedale or Forest Hill, and can’t afford to pay for extras,” says Andy Barrie, the CBC radio host who was the master of ceremonies at the school’s 10th anniversary fundraising bash on Sunday.

Rasminsky’s school has turned into one of the few happy stories to be found over the past decade in the increasingly troubled and deconstructed education world in this city.

After starting an arts course for six pre-schoolers in the basement of her Forest Hill home in 1979, Rasminsky discovered there was a huge appetite for what she was offering. She wound up buying a building and opening the Avenue Road Arts School in 1993.

The demand for courses to teach people how to satisfy their need for creative expression through painting, sculpture, pottery, film and drama, even magic and singing Broadway showtunes, has been overwhelming.

The school currently has 1,200 students (including about 400 adults) and 40 teachers offering well over 100 classes in a ramshackle Victorian house (next door to Brown School) that has a warm, eccentric and decidedly non-institutional personality all its own.

“The reason I started the Arts for Children program is that I didn’t want high-quality creative experiences to be available exclusively to the kind of people who could afford to come to my school,” explains Rasminsky, 59.

Her upbringing in Ottawa was definitely privileged. Her father was a distinguished economist who became governor of the Bank of Canada. And her mother insisted she stick with piano lessons even though her piano teacher was a bit of a tyrant.

For Torontonians with a special interest in arts education, the birth and expansion of Rasminksy’s school arrived in an era when it was needed. This school has been a special consolation for many who were shortchanged when the Mike Harris government slashed budgets, forcing schools to reduce or eliminate the kind of programs Rasminsky showcases.

In fact, one of her supporters, former premier Bob Rae (a childhood friend) used the occasion of the school’s birthday bash to deliver a passionate speech about the need for restoring arts programming to the public schools under the province’s new Liberal government.

“Diminishing the arts in our schools is one of the saddest things that has happened in Ontario,” said Rae. “What Lola understands is that arts education is not a frill. It’s central to what it means to be a human being.”

Right from the start, though, Rasminsky resisted orthodox notions of how creative expression should be taught. Instead of hiring people with [formal] teaching [degrees], she was more inclined to hire artists with […] teaching experience [and] great instincts for reaching children.*

The key, according to Rasminsky, is allowing children to discover and define their own creativity, rather than impose expectations from on high.

“The idea is that people have a positive experience creating something that makes them feel positive and innovative,” says Rasminsky. “There has been a tremendous increase in the need people feel for that kind of experience, which is really what Richard Florida, with his theories about the rise of the creative class, is talking about. I am constantly excited when I see what a dramatic difference creative expression makes to the people who come here.”

Her push to extend her reach beyond the kind of privileged families who can afford courses at her school started about eight years ago. At first, to accommodate gifted people who could clearly benefit from the school, she started waiving the fees for certain people. Then she raised scholarship money through some of her generous and enthusiastic supporters.

Finally, Rasminsky wound up sending some of her teaching artists into under-privileged schools with the help of major funding.

At first the principals of those schools seemed indifferent. Now the positive response has become so overwhelming it will be hard for Rasminsky to meet the demand.

“Last year we reached 1,000 kids outside our school. This year we would like to reach 2,000.”

There is little doubt she will reach that goal, because it seems that, as the song says, “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.”

The limits are set by Rasminksy’s reluctance to expand beyond her ability to control the quality of what is being offered.

Which, in a way, is a pity, because it would be wonderful if the entire Ontario school system could tap into what Lola Rasminsky has delivered to a lucky minority.