History of Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts

Built in 1965 on a small parcel of Scarborough land north-west of Lawrence and Pharmacy, Wexford Collegiate has shown a history of positive growth. Lorne Shewfelt, the first Principal, established the strong Viking tradition and embodied it in a colourful and happy mascot endearingly named ‘Harry’ and also stamped it on an official crest with the latin motto ‘Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat’ or in English ‘Earn The Right”. Bob Wilburn, a Wexford student in 1965 created the original drawings of ‘Harry’ and this was embodied in a Bronze statue by Peter Marsh, Bob’s art teacher, in 1968.

At its opening in 1965 the school had a small student population. Mr. Shewfelt was the Principal, and Al Kerr was the Vice Principal. The official opening saw the placement of a ‘corner stone’ including a ‘box of memories’. Ron Watson was the school Trustee at the time and he along with other honoured guest, the staff, and the students, attended the opening in the main foyer of the school, in front of the S.D.Rendell Auditorium.

Built in the north parking lot, in 1972 a large new wing was opened at the north end of the school, and it housed Wexford Collegiate Art Centre, a new gym and new business classrooms. The Art Centre was built, with its special studios and equipment, to meet the needs of students who wished to pursue visual art studies in the Municipality of Scarborough, under the auspices of The Scarborough Board of Education,. By this time Stan Taylor was the Principal of the school. The actual plans for the department were assembled at least in part through the help of a ‘Vocational Sub-Committee’ of the Board of Education, a group of teachers and business people who advised board administrators about what the Art Centre should consist off. The original courses for the Art Centre were assembled by Peter Marsh the first Art Director, with the assistance of Roy Wright, the first Assistant Art Director. The first teachers in the art centre were Peter Marsh, Roy Wright, Ginny Allen, Barbara Ridehalgh, Sirpa Christensen, Bob Jordan, and Mike Safka.

Since Wexford was sitting on the border of the municipality the school was quite a distance to reach from the furthest reaches of the municipality, however the reputation of the art program grew. Through its success the student population of the school was stabilized at an operable level.

In the sixties and early seventies Doug James had been the head of the music department and he was a fine teacher who established some excellent musical performance with yearly concerts including both classical and popular music. June Crisp ran an excellent library. Bob Thompson got the boys physical education department off to a good start and Judy Jensen did the same for the Girls Physical Education Department. Graham MacMillan ran the small wood shop and draughting area. All these people can be seen in the early yearbooks. Our first yearbook was produced by Lithoprint on Adelaide because one of our students, Ken Tilley, had a father who worked there and we got to produce it on the weekend and during the evening.

During the seventies, Ross Folks took over from Doug James as the new Head of the Music Department and he, along with Donna Benson, destined to be a Wexford Principal in 2003, established a very strong band. This Wexford Band was called upon for many school and city functions, it toured Europe, and the school saw its initial stage of fame for music studies. A young teacher in that department made sure that this initial interest was nurtured and during the nineties she worked hard and long to develop what has become our Music Theatre Program, a performance program second to none. The Music Theatre program performed an outstanding musical each year, and its performances continue to be famous far and wide, with community appearances, TV slots and fundraising stints for the Sick Kids Hospital.

Both the Visual Arts and Music Theatre Programs have continued to evolve and mature with the times, and represent in Scarborough, and Toronto, a pillar of strength for arts studies. For the size of the metropolitan population, specialized or ‘magnate’ art school are small in number. Some have not lasted. Danforth Technical School no longer has its specialized art department and Central Technical School has diminished in the early 2000’s. Etobicoke has maintained itself and Rosedale School for The Arts has joined the ranks of this minimal number of schools. Wexford Collegiate Art Centre and Performing Arts Programs are always in a tenuous administrative position in terms of existence. The school doesn’t fit the general mold of an average high school and faces many specialized problems of maintenance and development. Both programs have always sought the support of the local and greater community. The Art Centre has enjoyed some international fame and has received visitors from various other countries. Graduates from the art centre are employed in a large way in Canada’s graphics and design communities, and we have also enjoyed some fame from Brent Townsend, one of our former students who had the honour of designing an image for the first ‘tooney’. There are many others, including Simon Ng who won silver and gold medals for Canadian illustration, John Cook who has an advertising and communications company, Russel Kelly with his own Sign Company, Becky Marsh with her partnership specializing in visual presentation graphics, Helen Papagiannis who worked as a producer for th Ago show “Massive”, and many many others.

Academic Subject Departments are a strong part of Wexford’s history and development and we have had our fair share of outstanding academic scholars. Perhaps the growth of computer technology has tied all these departments together in some ways. English essays used to be typed in duplicate, with carbon paper, if the teacher was lucky. Now students work on a school network or on home computers to develop their work. The history department relied on student presentations and various tomes to bring its message to our population but now students can access vast amounts of research information, and images, on the web. The library used to have only shelves of books but now its houses a large bank of computers. The introduction of computers into Wexford’s study directions was rather difficult in the early 80’s but its was championed by Vince Astrella and Peter Marsh who determined that a network for all departments would be the most advantageous position to be in. With the strongest computer in the school, obtained from the art department for the purpose, Mr Astrella began his work to develop a network, and that work has continued to this year 2005, when the Toronto District School Board has installed a board-wide network administered by the central administration.

Our Math and Science Departments have always enjoyed a good association with performance tests and competitions outside of the school including the Euclid and University of Waterloo competitions. (Others are invited to fill in some of this history by making a submission to the school web site. Please contact the administration.)

Bob Thompson, the first head of the physical education department, later to become a principal of the school and also a superintendent of the Board of Education established a strong sports team group. These teams and groups have evolved with the interests of students over the years. (this history needs to be written by a more knowledgeable person). Although football was of great interest in our early years, rugger, soccer, and hockey have taken a strong place in our teams roster. Since the pool was added in the eighties, swim teams have also played a prominent role in team competitions. Coached originally by the then Head of Geography, Mr Arnold Bensky the swim team grew in strength and tradition. Field Hockey, Tennis, Archery, Volleyball and Basketball have all had a major role in both house leagues and inter-school competition.

It hard to say how long Al Flagel has been running the camera club for the school but it’s a long time. The Drama class had brought us Spaghetti Shakespeare, a performance with a spaghetti dinner! (We need a list of historic clubs and someone to write this history, so if you feel that way inclined please send a note to the administration. Thank you.)

It is interesting to note that the school at the time of writing in 2005 is in its forty-first year. It is still a strong force in the artistic community and enjoys an excellent reputation for its artistic graduates and artistic accomplishments. This is matched by all other subjects in the academic area and Wexford is truly a community school for all scholars. Wexford continues to need the support of all aspects of our community and administration in order to meet its enthusiastic goal of meeting the needs of our young artists.

Talking about the Art Centre specifically, as opposed to other departments that must fill in their own history, the Art Centre started in 1972. It followed a successful art department run in Room 230 for the first six years. The first art teachers in the early department were Peter Marsh, head of the department, Ginny Coatsworth, later to marry and become Ginny Allen, Barbara Anderson, who married and became Barbara Ridehalgh. Other teachers in the new Art Centre included the former teachers, plus Roy Wright, Sirpa Christensen, Mike Safka, Bob Jordan, Peter Reid, and then onward later to Lorie Hollingworth, Debra Wyles, Milton Jewell, Alex Tavares, Judi Island, Anne Jones, Michelle Mihaly, Mark Ruchlewicz, Connie Eckhert, Sophie Landau, Rosemary McDermott, and I’m sure a few others that will have to be added as time goes on.

The Art Centre has always had to fight for its existence, firstly because of the nature of being an art school, considered by some as being a “frill” and secondly because it is not initially understood by most administrators. The art centre does not fit into the standard category of being a subject in an academic school. Most people, including many teachers and many members of the community think that studying art has no future for students. To the contrary the art centre has recognized that the graphics industry in Canada is worth billions of dollars every year and many of our graduates now work in that industry. For this and other reasons, from the beginning, all courses were geared to learning art fundamentals. Colour theory, perspective, the elements and principles of design. lettering and typography, the use of a wide range of media, the study of the third dimension, the study of the human figure, composition, and most importantly, originality and creativity, have all been constant parts of visual arts studies at The Art Centre. From the beginning the courses of study after two years of fundamentals, were: Media and Techniques which eventually was renamed drawing and painting, (originally taught by a great teacher Sirpa Christensen, who wrote a book about the subject), Lettering and Layout, which eventually came to be known in the nineties as Communication Design, Sculpture and Ceramics, Printmaking, Illustration, Life Drawing, and Graphics. These courses have evolved over the years to reflect the needs of the times and the advancement of technology. For example typography was originally very manual and lead to sign writing and typesetting types of jobs, but by 2000 computer technology had completely taken over these fields and students were study all these things on a computer. In Graphics the same type of thing happened to analogue photography, which as technology has progressed has become totally digital in its study. Film and Video has grown tremendously over the period from 1990 to 2005 because of the same type of advances in technology, and it has been matched at the school with special film festivals and astounding productions. Most of that work has really been streamlined by John Kraft in the latter years, although other teachers did take a crack at the course. Actually film did start in the English department with a young teacher named Neil Anderson, but it has since switched its allegiance to the Art department because of its popularity among senior art students. Fashion Design has also been a part of extra courses that have been offered, and it too has been matched by occasional spectacular fashion exhibitions.

Initially of these original courses were written out for the department by Peter Marsh with a lot of assistance from Roy Wright. They had to be approved as experimental courses in the beginning. Eventually they were all revised by changes in names, content and ministry codings (another long story). Courses were revised by many members of the staff as they were teaching the courses and asked to update them. As a result the courses have kept abreast of technological advancements for the most part.

All of these courses come together in a big exhibition in May now called “Great Masters”. The Art centre turns itself into a huge exhibition of students’ art work that generally fills 8 studios and flows out into the halls. It is attended by hundreds of people on a yearly basis and sometimes hits TV and the newspapers.

In the nineties the art department suffered considerable administrative damage similar to what occurred in all schools in all departments. The provincial government led by one infamous Mr. Harris, decided to take large amounts of money out of education. In the Art Centre this had considerable effect that has last until 2005. Staffing was cut. The head of the department lost all administrative time. Money for curriculum and supplies was cut. Just for an example, when Peter Marsh was Art Director he was generally awarded 2 periods out of six periods for administration of the working of this very large department. Sometimes more. Rarely less. By 2005 the Art Director had no time assigned to administration within his timetable. During this same time period educational formulas have changed with no regard to what happens in art schools and as a result class sizes are getting gradually larger. Funding for maintenance and repairs has increased in 2005 and under the encouragement and hard work of principal Donna Benson all the walls in the department were replaced. A vast improvement over the previous walls which by te end of their tenure were actually literally falling down. Over the same 10– 15 year period the centres historical sense of relating directly to the community has been eroded by these administrative disasters. The school no longer has the time needed to relate well to all the needs of Scarborough area schools. It used to be that many of our students gained experience by visiting public and secondary schools with their artistic talents. All nature of graphic materials were designed by art centre students for many of the other schools in Scarborough. Students from those schools also worked with our students and visited our school to be part of the production. Times have certainly changed as education has become in some ways leaner and meaner, but the pendulum is gradually swinging in the other direction by 2005 and better times are ahead for the administration of the Art Centre.

The encouraged growth of the Music Theatre Program in the 90’s and the continuing success of the Art Centre resulted in the declaration of the school as “Wexford Collegiate School For The Arts” in the year 2000. This designation was sought after by the then principal Gail Darling, who fought fiercely in the board administration for this permanent stature for the school.

At the time of writing a large new sign designed by former Art Director Peter Marsh is about to be put at the top of the wall at the North end of the school. Mark Ruchlewicz is the new Art Director for this refreshed department. He was preceded for a year by Anne Jones, who retired and moved to British Columbia. Anne had taken over from Debra Wyles who had also taken her turn at being an excellent Art Director following the retirement of Peter Marsh in 1998. Peter was the director from 1972 to 1998 except for one year in ’86 when Alex Tavares was director for a year while Peter took a leave of absence from the position.

This very short history was written by Peter Marsh. He would be glad to hear about other parts of Wexford’s history that might be included here when we do revisions. Please recommend changes if you see mistakes in staffing or chronologies etc. Thank you.

November 12, 2005.