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How a gamble by two starving artists -- 20 years ago -- paid off

His band never really broke out, despite years of hanging with his friend Mama Cass and opening for the likes of Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

So drummer Paul Eventoff, trained in art, switched to a different set of sticks. He painted and taught painting at a local art school, pulling in but a pittance.

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His wife, Donna Zweig, was a photographer who shot a lot of musicians and bands, specializing in jazz.

Nice work, but the car needs gas, the cupboard needs grub.

Paul and Donna were starving artists, or nearly so. With a daughter to raise.

"We had to do something," says Paul, "because we were not making ends meet."

So the Echo Park couple drove to Los Feliz one day in 1996 to scope out an empty storefront on Hillhurst Avenue. Opening their own art school would be risky, for sure, and they'd have to borrow money to take the leap. But options were running out.

"The address was 1947, which is her birth year," says Paul, who took that as a sign from the cosmos.

But the door fronted an alley, and that would be dangerous for their young Picassos. Then Paul and Donna looped back and discovered a door on the other side of the building.

"What if we put a yellow line around the building," Donna said. "Follow the yellow brick road."

Paul's hair rose, and the name for the business popped into his head.

"The Wizard of Art. Hey, why not?"

On Sunday, Paul and Donna hosted the 20th annual Wizworks, showcasing the latest masterpieces of their 143 students, who range in age from 4 to 94.

"This is paradise to us," the Wizard of Art said as he watched students lead their families through the studio and pose in front of their creations.

He can't believe it's been 20 years.

"It seems like five minutes," said Paul, 74, who has been the school's headmaster while Donna has managed the business and minded the giant tub of Red Vines, handing treats to paint-splattered students who say please and thank you.

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Los Angeles is full of little miracles like this — neighborhood institutions where someone scraped and saved and hustled and crafted something original. The city's spirit and soul aren't in its corporations, but in the imaginations of its storefront entrepreneurs.

"There's something about that place," said Madeleine Brand, KCRW radio host and a Wizard of Art student, along with her son and daughter. (Full disclosure: My daughter is a student, too).

"In this era of high pressure that kids are under — this pressure to succeed — there's none of that there and the kids thrive," said Brand, who adds that Paul and Donna have created a nurturing environment in which kids can momentarily escape their digital addictions and discover the beauty in the world and in themselves.

"It's important to be relaxed," said Paul, "in a world that's very unrelaxed."

It probably helped the business, Paul added, that arts instruction in public schools has been the tragic victim of mindless budget cuts. Parents wanted to fill that void for their children, and the work of the Wizard spread by word of mouth.

"We didn't even advertise," Paul says.

"We just now got a website," Donna says.

Over the years, some of their students went on to art colleges and became artists and teachers.

Audrey Leshay started with the Wizard at age 4, majors in art now at UCLA and teaches with Paul.

Kylie McMorran is another longtime yellow brick roader.

"I started coming here when I was about 4," she said. "I guess we heard about it from my mom's friend, and I came with my best friends."

She later got her degree at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and returned to the place where it all began.

At 24, she's a Wizard of Art teacher.

Janice Johnson, like a lot of adult students, was a little intimidated about going off to see the Wizard, having been told as a youngster that art was not a particular strength. But she wanted to give it another try. So she started showing up for Saturday classes with her daughter, Skyler, accompanied by their dog, Kipper.

Paul made it easy.

"He'd just stand back," she said, giving her some room, watching, commenting constructively, ruminating on the work of great artists.

She and Skyler are now on the path every student follows, from pastels to charcoal to acrylic to oil.

Aggie Wallbom, a physician, and her daughter, Chloe, 11, make up another mom-daughter team of students. She's way behind the kids in her group, Wallbom said, but just trying is good medicine.

"It's therapy," she said.

Chloe's exhibit piece was a brown bear in a green jungle.

I asked about her technique.

"If you want to do a bear," Chloe told me, "you have to pop it out."

I'm no artist, I told her. What does that mean?

She explained how she had framed the bear as if something was about to happen.

"Like the bear is about to jump out of the bushes," she said.

I think she pulled it off.

Paul and Donna long ago paid off a friend who lent them $1,000 to start the business, and another friend who lent them $5,000 and took payment in art classes. They do just fine now, and best of all, said Paul, he has the freedom to pursue the passion that still burns in him.

"I paint every day," he said.

He wakes up in Echo Park, grabs a cup of coffee and a brush, and reinvents the world for hours — desert scenes, beaches, landscapes, human figures — until he goes to work.

Donna shared a copy of a tribute written a few years ago by a former student, Talia Dutton, who now studies at Brown University.

"The moment I step through the door, the outside world fades away," Dutton wrote. "I can let habit guide me to the drawer with the missing handle to fish out a usable brush … and to my bench to squeeze paint out of the tube with the broken cap.

"Then I begin to paint. No other place in the world weaves so enchanting a spell that, for one hour, I can lose myself entirely in the strokes on my canvas."

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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