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Artist-led effort fosters a new generation of craftsmen

Loriene Bridgett moved to Buffalo in January with big dreams and a small budget.

The Brooklyn native, eager to start a new life after surviving a bus accident in 2015, settled into an apartment near East Delavan Avenue and Grider Street to begin her job search. But she soon learned her prospects were bleak: Without a car, Bridgett couldn’t reach the suburban customer service jobs she was qualified to hold. When she lined up a job as a pharmacy assistant at an East Side Rite Aid, the store closed following a robbery there in June.

“Traumatic doesn’t begin to describe it,” Bridgett said of her 2015 accident and its aftermath, which pushed her dream of launching her own business farther out of reach.

But almost a year after her move to Buffalo – thanks to an innovative job training program headquartered in a former Catholic church on Edward Street – things are looking up.

SACRA – or Society for the Advancement of the Construction-Related Arts – is a collaboration of Buffalo artist and architect Dennis Maher, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Innovation Lab and the Erie County Department of Social Services. Its goal is to train a new generation of skilled craftsmen and women from the city’s underemployed communities and fill a skills gap in a city on the rebound.

“There’s definitely a need for this kind of skill building,” Maher said. “Not everyone who comes out of the program is going to be a high-level craftsman but we’ll take a couple and we’ll kind of push them along.”

Bridgett, by all indications, is shaping up to be one of them.

"I was very afraid of power tools when I came here," says Loriene Bridgett, who hopes the training she has received through the Society for the Advancement of Construction Related Arts will enable her to get a job as a carpenter's assistant. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

‘Love-hate relationship’

To a soundtrack of buzzing table saws and clacking hammers and the smell of swirling sawdust, a new career path for Bridgett and 11 other aspiring tradespeople is taking shape inside Assembly House, the project’s cavernous headquarters in the former Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

During the 15-week program administered by DSS, Bridgett has mastered the art of cutting Corian tile, learned the basics of furniture joinery and developed what she called a “love-hate relationship with the table saw.”

She said the program feels like a family, a sentiment echoed by many of her classmates and instructors, and has transformed her initially negative view of Buffalo. Working with lead instructor Danny Saloman and other skilled craftsmen, she added, has taught her skills she never believed she would be able to learn.

“I was very afraid of power tools when I came here,” she said. “I used to watch my dad do things on the table saw and it looked so complicated. The way that Danny teaches us, it’s like wood shop for dummies. There’s no way that you can get this wrong.”

Most importantly, Bridgett said, she feels confident she’ll be able to clinch an entry-level job as a carpenter’s assistant in the local construction trades with the skills she has learned.

And that job, she hopes, will help to fuel her long-term dream: to launch a food truck selling soul-food-fusion cuisine and design a line of lightweight, collapsible furniture marketed to food truck owners whose patrons have no place to sit.

Dennis Maher adds to some sculptures he and his students are building in a program called Society for the Advancement of Construction Related Arts. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Repurposing material

Maher bought the dilapidated Assembly House in 2014 and has been transforming it into a community construction workshop and experimental art space, using the guts of the church itself as raw material.

On a recent afternoon, the space literally buzzed with activity as students carefully operated handheld routers, table saws and high-tech machines for furniture joinery.

On the former altar, beneath the outline of a cross painted to resemble the outline of a hammer – Maher noted that Jesus was a carpenter – a small group of students made marks on pieces of wood from old church pews with painter’s tape and Sharpies to determine where they should be joined together.

The Society for the Advancement of Construction Related Arts Assembly operatoues out of Assembly House, the former Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on Edward Street. Assembly House features large-scale installation sculptures in what has become a learning center for the construction arts. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Jim Cordes, a resident artisan at East Aurora’s Roycroft Campus, helped them transform the pews into legs for a pair of tables that will stand in Assembly House’s new resource library. Cordes is one of more than a dozen local craftsmen and experts teaching skills to prepare SACRA members for a job in the trades.

Like so many projects at Assembly House, the tables themselves were also made from wood cut from the interior of the church. They were cobbled together from fragments of decorative wood flooring collected from the altar, which student Amanda Hull cut and pieced together like puzzle fragments to create a perfectly smooth rectangular collage.

“I worked in an office for 10 years behind a computer,” said Hull, who is required to be at the program from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. but usually shows up at 9 a.m. to fine-tune her projects. “I have completely changed what I’m doing with my life. And it’s awesome to not hate your job.”

Elsewhere in Assembly House, SACRA student Everett Myrick was working on a scale drawing of a chest from three different angles. He was being aided by visiting ECC architecture student Mike Bushen, who visits the class with his fellow second-year architecture students and their instructor every other week.

Saloman, who is working with SACRCA as part of a Cornell University fellowship, oversaw the finishing touches on a repurposed floor that students had recently installed in the library.

And student Christopher Tyes, a recent McKinley High School graduate who dreams of starting his own construction business, drilled holes in a set of soon-to-be table legs with a sophisticated piece of equipment called a Domino joiner.

In addition to the more practical demands of the structured afternoon program, Tyes has been spending his mornings working on a series of personal projects. These include an impractically large tool box that weighs about 150 pounds and a series of picture frames.

“I’ve made a standing dog bowl that everybody thinks is ginormous for no reason, but it’s a nice dog bowl. I think it stands 15 inches tall and 2 feet wide,” Tyes said over the high-pitched squeal of a nearby table-saw. “I get to do creative things and let my creativity come out a different way, a positive way.”

Bridgett, who has a handful of personal projects in progress, has made a pair of slick, professional-looking jewelry boxes out of poplar wood salvaged from the church. “I’ve had a little help,” she said. “But if you pay attention, you can do anything.”

Potential for jobs

While SACRA has had success teaching basic and intermediate-level carpentry skills to those with little experience and even fostering a new appreciation for the handcrafted among its participants, can such a short program truly prepare students for a career in the construction trades?

Buffalo developer Nick Sinatra thinks so. “I think the prospects for this first class are very high to get employed,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk about money available for workforce development, but it’s hard to do it. But Dennis is doing it, and if he can figure this model out, I think there’s a huge opportunity.”

Sinatra said he expects to hire at least one or two graduates from SACRA’s inaugural class and plans to bring the vendors he works with through the program to connect students with job opportunities.

What’s more, he added, Buffalo neighborhoods on the verge of a resurgence ought to play a direct role in the rebuilding.

“All the developers aren’t looking at this program like I am, but I think workforce development in a sustainable way in our community is crucial,” he said, “I have a really strong belief that people in their neighborhoods should be hired to rebuild their neighborhoods.”

Innovation in action

As workforce training programs go, SACRA is an unusual hybrid. It grew primarily out of the restless and creative mind of Maher, whose work to transform his Fargo Street house into a living sculpture has earned international press. Maher bought the former Immaculate Conception Church in 2014 with a mission to create what he called “a center for the urban imaginary,” in which a new vision for Buffalo’s future could emerge.

“We’re aiming to blend aspects of vocational training with those of a more creative art enterprise,” Maher said. “We try to give students the freedom to do design projects along the way and expose them to different creative strains that hopefully feed into their interests and get them excited.”

The Albright-Knox, which gave Maher a solo exhibition in 2013, has long supported him in his desire to build a community construction workshop. SACRA, which has received $100,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts along with money from other local funders in addition to the gallery’s support, emerged from discussions Maher had with gallery deputy director Joe Lin-Hill and Russell Davidson, director of the gallery’s Innovation Lab, in 2013.

And while it might seem unusual for an art museum to be involved a workforce training program, gallery leaders described it as a natural outgrowth of the Albright-Knox’s long-standing support of artists and their boundary-crossing creative projects.

“As a museum of contemporary art, we are interested in areas that artists are interested in,” said Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén, who launched the Innovation Lab a month after his arrival in 2013. “The Innovation Lab is one of those platforms that enables us to plug into the creative streams of our day and time and serve as a connector, if you wish, of different types of creative energies.”

For Davidson, the project represents a long-needed expansion of the museum’s work into communities whose members may not often visit the gallery.

“As the (region’s) leading cultural institution and an art museum, we say the aesthetic matters, and our heritage and our culture matters,” he said, “But if we want to say that, then we also have to acknowledge that the skills to realize that matter as well. So we’re taking that next step.”

‘It feels like a family’

The curriculum for SACRA is intense, involving field trips to destinations such as the Darwin Martin House, John Gullick’s window repair workshop on Plymouth Avenue and a recent trek through Delaware Park to identify local species of wood.

Soft skills are also part of the project, with speakers like Western New York Area Labor Federation President Richard Lipsitz giving talks on the importance of showing up on time, navigating local labor unions and preparing for job interviews.

And the sense of community that has emerged from the program, which wraps up in early January, has surprised program organizers.

“They support each other,” said Amy Dvorak, a Department of Social Services employee relations coordinator. “There are some days they’re worried about where they’re putting their head at night or where they’re getting food from.”

For Bridgett, SACRA provides her something to look forward to – a stepping stone on the way to her dream. Though the trip from the new apartment she recently moved to in Tonawanda takes more than an hour by bus, she’s determined to finish the program and pursue a job in the trades.

“It feels like a family,” Bridgett said. “I’m gonna be expecting it to be like this when I go to work, and I know it may not happen that way.”

Almost a year after moving to Buffalo, she’s confident she’s made the right choice and found the right place to launch the next phase of her career.

“I’m still here, and it’s about to be January again,” she said. “I’m ecstatic.”

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