Hearing visual arts teacher Matthew Varey boast about his kids skipping grades, getting solo shows in Europe and using doctorate-level language, you’d think he was talking about his own children.
No, these are students at Etobicoke School of the Arts (ESA), an academy on Royal York Road also known for music, theatre and film. It’s the alma mater of indie darlings Amy Millan and Emily Haines and ‘90s it-boy Keanu Reeves.
With high school now done, many of Varey’s students will head south to the world’s best art schools.
Tuition is high, but not for these grads, who netted more than $1.5 million in scholarships to colleges in both Canada and the United States — including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) and Parsons and the Pratt Institute in New York City.
How they made it there was part skill, part marketing.
Varey, 43, organized a portfolio showing last fall, personally contacting all the art institutes he could find. He thought a dozen would come and offer his students at most $600,000 in grants.
To his surprise, 21 schools from Pasadena to Paris turned up at ESA’s non-descript, 1950s brick building. And after seeing the work, they courted the Grade 12 students with handwritten letters and cash.
“We had reps here last November who said, ‘I’ve done this my whole career. I’ve been to portfolio-day events for 18 years, and this is by far the strongest I’ve ever been to,’” Varey told CityNews.ca.
“I caught someone on the phone saying, ‘You gotta get down here. You wouldn’t believe these kids.’”
One of those kids — painter and photographer Andrea Chartrand — credits Varey and ESA with helping her land $350,000 in scholarship offers and her dream of going to the States for art school.
“I spend three hours a day total on public transit, but the school is really worth coming to,” Chartrand said.
“The teachers here really push you and encourage you to achieve your goal whatever that may be. We have a really great support system here.”
Chartrand starts at PAFA in September — something she couldn’t have done without the $64,000 the school is giving her — and plans on being a working artist when she graduates in four years.
Varey, a painter and sculptor himself, hopes students like Chartrand will eventually have a school in Canada equal to the ones in the U.S. and abroad.
“I think the kids that come out of here, if they get the right program and they stay in the city, we could really turn Toronto into the next major art centre in the world,” he said.
“We have the potential here in Canada, in Toronto, to be known as second to New York — equivalent to Berlin at least. I don’t think it would take long.”
Until then, Varey will do his part as cheerleader for his young protégés.