- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - In 1986, 9-year old Jason Mraz and his sister Candace walked through of the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community for the first time. In the basement of the First English Lutheran Church on Monument Avenue, where a part of the school was housed at the time, they were invited to move around in an imaginary pool of Jell-O.

The two-time Grammy-Award winner and Mechanicsville native recently returned to Richmond to pay tribute to the place that so powerfully had triggered his imagination 30 years ago.

Before a crowd of about 200, Mraz dedicated the school’s building on Hamilton Street, which recently underwent a $4 million renovation, to the memory of his late grandfather John Robert Powell, “a generous Richmonder who’s not an artist by trade.” Powell died in 1990 at age 59.

“I have no doubt that the invitation into the Jell-O paved the way for me to become the artist that I am today. It was and still is one of the high points in my life as there aren’t many places left in our society where we can stretch ourselves in such ridiculous ways or be encouraged to daydream,” Mraz said.

He then strapped his guitar over his shoulder and sang a song about his grandfather that he had written for the occasion.

The John Robert Powell Center is the centerpiece of a major fundraising campaign that SPARC launched in 2008. The campaign brought in a total of $6 million from more than 200 donors, individuals and families.

The vast majority was spent on the renovation and expansion of the Hamilton Street facility, and the rest will go toward outreach programs, said Ryan Ripperton, SPARC’s executive director.

“I believe that SPARC is a unique resource in our community (and) that when we make these lists of all the reasons that Richmond is a great place to live, work, play and raise a family, that SPARC has got to be on that list,” an emotional Ripperton told the guests who had gathered outside the center.

The renovation project included the purchase of a 2-acre, two-building property; the creation of three instructional studios; a 100-seat state-of-the-art black-box theater; and two theater tech areas.

“We tripled the amount of instructional space in this facility and made the building accessible to young and old people with disabilities,” Ripperton said. “We don’t look at this and see a building; we see a representation that this community believes in the power of the arts.”

SPARC was founded in 1981. The organization offers a graduated curriculum of enrollment-based theater arts classes, workshops, camps, productions and outreach programs across the Richmond area for more than 2,300 students ages 3 to 18.

Previously, SPARC primarily relied on borrowed and rented spaces. But at its permanent site the school can serve 120 students simultaneously, in addition to the hundreds of additional students at partner organizations off-site.

Ripperton called SPARC an “economic driver” that “fuels the creative culture of Richmond.” The school pays $1 million out of its annual $2.3 operating budget directly to local artists and arts educators, he said.

“That is a vital part of their decision to stay, work and create in the city. SPARC fuels the next generation of leaders, young people who are filled with confidence and character,” Ripperton said.

One of those students is Josh Caven, a ninth-grader at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, who joined SPARC at age 10.

“The stuff you learn here doesn’t stop when you leave those doors,” he said. “In my years at SPARC, what I have learned isn’t always the same and it isn’t always life-changingly important, either. But it sticks with me wherever I go.”

Like Josh, Mraz spent many years at the school, which he said laid the groundwork for his own success as a singer and songwriter.

After graduating from Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville, he attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City and then, after a brief stint in Richmond, headed west to San Diego, where he had his commercial breakthrough in the early 2000s.

“SPARC is a school for artistic training,” Mraz said, looking back at his roots. “It’s a place to nurture creativity, compassion and empathy.”

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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