Art in our Community | The Birth of SPARC and the Importance of the Arts

By Lissa Reynolds

PHOTO: dmLemattre | | The Utility Box sponsors and artists attend the final Box Art Party

My passion for the South Pasadena Arts Council (SPARC) is rooted in my years of experiences in South Pasadena. Like so many people, my husband James and I came to South Pasadena for the public schools. James and I were working actors. When our son Jed started first grade at Arroyo Vista Elementary School, we began what is now a tradition at all three South Pasadena elementary schools; writing and producing plays for the students. We also wrote and helped the school produce Shakespeare plays for Jed and his fellow 4th and 5th graders. James re-wrote Shakespeare so every child had a speaking part! It was amazing to see how kids bloomed and became confident as they experienced being on the stage in costume and character.

PHOTO: Courtesy of SPARC | | One of the first public art projects SPARC produced, the giant easels

Eventually we discovered the Fremont Centre building and decided a space in that building would make an excellent theatre. The Fremont Centre Theatre was born. Our first play in 1997 was “Three Songs” by William Mesnick and it was a critical and commercial success. Now over twenty years and 50 plays later we have become a touchstone of the community.

A couple of years after the Fremont Centre Theatre opened, and after many accolades for the quality of our work, the City of South Pasadena was looking for ideas to redevelop the space near our theatre and citizens were asked for ideas about how it should be used. I floated the idea of creating an Arts District in South Pasadena and, to see if there was any community interest, I held a meeting at the theatre building along with my Mom, Rosemary Layng, who moderated.

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PHOTO: courtesy of SPARC | | An early SPARC meeting which included a drum circle led by Munyungo Jackson

That meeting was the first time I saw both business people and artistic people in the same room! It was electric. We came up with so many ideas about an Arts District and designs for Art District banners were sketched on the spot by an artist who did finished renderings later (I still have them). The excitement spread, and we filled the City Coucil meeting. Unfortunately, the idea was ahead of its time, and not approved by the City Council.

Fast-forward to 2008. The economy was bad and teachers were getting pink slips—including many Arts teachers. I was upset that the arts seem always to be considered the least important part of education. I have seen first-hand how valuable the arts are in school and how integral they can be to education when my husband and I helped put on plays at my son’s elementary school, and later when I was teaching at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. The arts are the common language that ties the varied human cultures together. The arts are beyond politics, race, languages, religion, and geography.

PHOTO: courtesy of SPARC | | The Giant Easel project produced by SPARC

I was so disturbed to see how easily disposable the arts were when school budgets were cut, that once again I floated an idea. An “independent arts council”. I spoke privately with the City Council members, the City Manager and the President of the South Pasadena Chamber Of Commerce. After hearing their input I put the word out about a meeting to be held at our theatre to discuss the idea.

PHOTO: courtesy of SPARC | | SPARC’s very first meeting

I had hoped that we might get a turnout of 25. I was happily shocked when more than 70 people attended! Due to the enthusiastic response at that initial meeting, I scheduled other meetings which showcased the arts. That first meeting featured a drum circle with my friend Munyungo Jackson (Stevie Wonder’s drummer). Together, the community came up with a name—SPARC, the South Pasadena Arts Council, and a logo design with a spark, a mission statement and our first signature Chamber of Commerce Arts Crawl event, the “SPARC Giant Easels,” created by artist Marie Miller. Our core group (all women at the time), organized community volunteers, a film showing of Bright Star about the poet John Keats, a Pop-up gallery curated by SPARC volunteers Liz Reday and Catherine Money. When art docents from Monterey Hills School were looking for a place to display their magnificent Calder exhibit the students had created we found (with the help of realtor, Andrew Berk) an empty building on Fair Oaks to display and celebrate the students art creation. All these things helped the community’s awareness that SPARC was being born!

PHOTO: dmLemattre | | SPARC board members

At the original meeting, I had liked the questions of a man I had never met before, Howard Spector, who I found out had headed the Arts Council in another city. We had coffee and I encouraged him come to our meetings and consider joining us. After attending our community meetings he joined our small band of organizers and eventually became a co-director with our first designated SPARC Director, Margo Newman. When Margo had to focus on other priorities, Howard and I together became co-directors. During that time the City declared SPARC as the official arts council of South Pasadena! I asked Howard to consider to take SPARC’s director reins and help guide SPARC to the next level. To my everlasting delight he agreed!

PHOTO: SPARC | | SPARC President Howard Spector holding a Hope Street sign

With Howard’s help SPARC has become an official non-profit and has made wonderful alliances with the City for our Utility Box Art projects, and a great partnership with the South Pasadena Education Foundation (SPEF) with our shared Street Sign project to help art education in the schools and public art projects. The support of our SPARC board, the City Council, City Manager’s Office, and Chamber of Commerce has been superb. The public officials of this city understand how the embrace of the arts positions South Pasadena as a unique and forward looking community.

It has been a wonderful journey indeed in the city I love! I believe that the real “founding directors” of SPARC, though, is the entire community of South Pasadena. I had the spark of an idea, but it would have gone nowhere without all the enthusiasm of individual people who have helped us grow stronger along the way. To be continued…!

Lissa Reynolds
Founding Director of SPARC
Artistic & Managing Director of Fremont Centre Theatre

P.S. Our upcoming benefit, the “SPARCtacular gARTen pARTy,” will be held Sept 22, from 3 to 6 pm. We will be honoring South Pasadena community members with SPARCtacular awards for their excellence in the Arts,  with a special guest appearance by music legend Billy Vera. Join us! Tickets:

Check out the gallery below for more photos of SPARC productions