Brokenness into Beauty: Piece by Piece


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By Caneel T. Cardwell

LOS ANGELES — Sophie Alpert’s idea to create beauty out of brokenness has grown into an art organization larger than she could have imagined. Piece by Piece, which teaches impoverished individuals to make artwork from recycled materials, stemmed from Alpert’s desire to make a difference in the lives of these people.

“The hope is that people use us, and it’s a step up, and they buy a car or a new suit or something and move on,” says Alpert, founder and executive director of Piece by Piece, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2007. Piece by Piece holds workshops that teach homeless and underserved individuals how to make mosaic art from broken pieces of glass, china, metal, and more.

“We have a lot of those stories, where people go on,” Alpert adds. “We’re not trying to create artists; we’re just trying to help people get to the next step in life.”

One look at the work these Skid Row and South Los Angeles participants have to offer, however, verifies that many of them have become quite talented in mosaics—even if they are not aspiring to make a career out of art.

Alpert says even she did not realize how incredible the art was going to become, and that one of the participants has gone on to work in a mosaic career.

“I pretty much just thought that if at the end of the day, I helped some people earn some grocery money, by selling pots and frames, I’d be happy and I’d be done,” she says. “I just didn’t realize that with time on their hands, and really nothing to do … and no direction and nowhere to turn, that people would embrace this project and get busy all day long. And get more and more talented.”

Participants are learning this talent from mosaic artists who are recognized in their field, Alpert says. Several of the artists are paid instructors who are dedicated to the organization and regularly teach at the workshops, which are held twice a week. Others are visiting mosaic artists who teach workshops on occasion.

The Seed That Started It
The yearning in Alpert’s heart to help these underserved and homeless participants began more than 20 years ago when she was working in a daycare center for children, where she became acutely aware of the poverty and homeless conditions in Los Angeles. She stopped working there in order to raise her family, but never forgot that place.

“I just never got the whole situation—the dire need—out of my head,” Alpert says.

It was a trip to South Africa that gave her the initial idea that the organication was founded on, when she visited several micro-enterprise agencies helping HIV-positive women. The women were given free materials—beads, in this case—and would create art, then were able to earn income from selling the products.

“I took that sort of seed home with me and thought, ‘What can I do to replicate this sort of model to something that makes sense in Los Angeles?’” Alpert recounts.

She says the first thing she knew she needed to do was to find a material that was easily accessible to anyone, because it was pointless to teach people a skill if they couldn’t go out and do it on their own. With her husband being in the recycling business, it made sense for her to start there—with an idea of recycling something that was someone else’s trash. She also knew that she wanted to do something green.

“That was the motivation for using recycled material, and the fact that it was very accessible—broken china, cups, glass, copper—whatever found objects we could incorporate,” Alpert says. “I loved the whole metaphor of creating new life out of something broken—which is pretty much what these people are doing. It’s giving them hope for the future.”

Growing … Piece by Piece
It took a while for the word to spread about the program and the needs for broken materials, so Alpert says she began by going through trash bins, with a few items here and there from her husband’s scrap yard.

(Courtesy of Piece by Piece)

Now, however, through word of mouth and having made contacts in the community, stores that sell stained glass, mirrors, and the like will save things they were going to throw away and give the non-profit a call to come pick it up.

“People have been very kind,” Alpert says. Artists continue to pick up materials occasionally from her husband’s yard, and participants also bring their own items.

“They are finding things that are on the street. A table that was thrown out … whatever it is … and the next thing you know, it’s a mosaic,” Alpert says. “I can’t even dream up half the things that people create. If you look on our Web site, it’s just a tiny portion of what is made. It’s just unbelievable the things—the creative possibility of things—that people are doing.”

Making a Difference, One Person at a Time
Some of the participants attend both workshops every week, but also—because it is a transient population—there are new participants every week. Regardless of how often they attend, it is a positive experience for them.

“Piece by Piece has opened a new door for me and my family,” participant Cyndi Hayes says on their site. “My daughters love to create all different kinds of stuff. Such as picture frames, hot plates, mirrors, and so much more … . I can’t speak highly enough of all that [the group] has done for me.”

Alpert says the organization encourages participants to move on, and one of the non-profit’s success stories demonstrates how well this can be done. The story is about one of the first individuals to attend the workshops.

“She was a mother of four children, homeless and living in the building in South LA that we were holding the workshops,” Alpert recounts. “She earned enough money to buy a used car and was able to go out and get a job, and she’s been working ever since.”

For a while, mosaics continued to be supplemental income for the woman. Alpert would give her more tiles and glass when she would see the woman, so that she could work on the mosaics on the side. “She’s really moved on,” Alpert says.

Others, like Hugo Sulecio, are able to provide necessities for themselves with their mosaic work. “I have been working at the mosaic classes for one year,” he says on the official web site. “I’m so excited working these classes that help a lot [to] put away my stress and support myself with my food, clothes and other things.”

Stress relief was not a benefit Alpert had in mind when the work began, but she says it definitely happens.

(Courtesy of Piece by Piece)

“I didn’t anticipate that the program just in itself would be such a therapeutic program,” she says. “I mean, to do nothing all day and have nothing to look forward to in your life—and all of a sudden you’re creating some beautiful piece of art and filling your time. You’re not thinking about your problems, and there’s the hope that you’ll sell it. It’s really just supposed to be a really tiny piece, but for some it’s become so much more. The people that come week after week, it’s like a little family—a community—to them. A huge support system. That’s a benefit I didn’t plan for; it just happens.”

This direct impact and watching people’s lives change, Alpert says, is the most fulfilling part of being involved. She has seen individuals start out not speaking to anyone, but over time they become mentors in the workshop and teach new people how to do something.

Sales Points
Handing the artists their first check, Alpert says, also is an incredible feeling.

“I’ve had people cry; they’re just in disbelief. It’s just amazing, an unexpected,” she says, adding that some people sell a piece right away—although it doesn’t happen all the time. “It varies, but nobody’s ever not been thrilled or happy.”

That brings in the biggest challenge—selling the art. Because the organization’s mission is to help these participants provide something for themselves by selling their work, moving the artwork is critical—and there is a lot of artwork.

“The economy is not great, and the quality of work has skyrocketed,” Alpert says. “It’s gorgeous. And some of the pieces are not $35 anymore. They’re $500 … so that’s hard.”

She adds that because the participants are so motivated to work on their mosaics, she cannot keep up with the inventory. Having a place to sell the work is crucial. Their Web site does have an Etsy.com store where some of the artwork is sold, but the online shop is a new venture.

“We’d love to have a retail venue,” Alpert says. “We’ve talked about it. It all takes resources and time, but it’s something we hope to figure out.”

Until then, they rely on angel venues: galleries that will host the work without taking a huge cut out of the profits; and craft-type fairs. The group gives the artists 60 percent of the income from the sale and keeps 40 percent for operating expenses, so giving a large portion over to a gallery for hosting is not possible. Alpert says the organization has been able to do that in a few galleries over the years, and they also hold one large sale event each year.

Commissioned work also is bringing in some of the income lately. “People come to us,” Alpert says. “Somebody just gave us their holiday list for 80 holiday gifts. That I love.”

She adds that the artists also do centerpieces, mosaic flower pots, frames, and more for weddings and other venues where people want to give back to the community. They also have done centerpieces for Universal Studio’s charitable foundation, Discover A Star Foundation, in the last few years.

One of the big projects they are currently working on with a community redevelopment agency is a public art mural in Hollywood. The organication was awarded $75,000 to create the mural on a supported housing building, the Gower Villas, helping disabled adults and seniors. Alpert says they will try to get the residents involved in the project at some point, because they try to involve the community in its projects, and also because the residents are invested in their neighborhood.

A Place for Work Space
The mural project and other commissioned projects are separate workshops from the Monday and Friday workshops that are held each week. The workshops take place in a donated room space of an apartment building that was used to house homeless families. The group usually takes a break from workshops the last week of the month so that staff can regroup and collect more materials.

The workshops help about 40 people a week, on average, though Alpert says some of those individuals are counted twice because they attend both workshops. It requires a lot of help to hold each workshop—which is open to the community—in the donated spaces, because many times there are other classes being held later.

“There might be a parenting class in there an hour later,” Alpert explains. “So we are broken up, set down and grouting—it’s just a whole messy project when we’re there—and then we’re gone. So we need a lot of staff, and we also have a lot of volunteers, too. It’s wonderful, inspiring, hectic—and busy. A lot goes on. And when we leave; you’d never know we were in there.”

Alpert, who works pro bono, says that the paid staff includes an artistic director and program director, part-time bookkeeper and administration, as well as the art instructors. While they do have financial support from some partner agencies, foundations, and individuals who help in various ways through donations or donated space, the need to sell the mosaics for the benefit of the participants remains critical—and help is always appreciated.

Those who wish to help Piece by Piece by donating financially or with their time, or those wanting more information, can email Alpert directly at info@piecebypiece.org or sophie@piecebypiece.org, or call 818-789-8102. Information also can be found on the Web site, www.piecebypiece.org.

Caneel T. Cardwell is a former newspaper reporter, now a freelance journalist and gluten-free food blogger. Read her blog at www.mamameglutenfree.com.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

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