In the decade since Michael Kudela started volunteering to help out his mother at the arts center at the old high school, he went from volunteering to painting in his own studio to running a cafe in the old nurse's office.
"It definitely changed my perspective on how things can be done," said Kudela, 41. "If you're willing to work very, very hard for very little money, you can be self-directed in your life. You can kind of pace your dream, but it really involves a lot of work, and I was a naysayer before. You gotta deal with the naysayers."
His mother, Kathie, now executive director of the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center on Pine Avenue, seemed to be on a futile mission a decade ago. She asked him to go with her when the contents of the 1924 Niagara Falls High School were being auctioned off in preparation for demolition. At the time, she was treasurer of Save Our Sites, an organization that eventually did take over the building.
Their mission seemed doomed as his mother, with the arts center in mind, bought up the unwanted contents selling for $1 a room: He was dubious when she told him the classroom stools would be good for artists' studios.
"Some guy was saying, 'Don't worry in three days it's going to be torn down.' And I'm like, 'Why are we doing this?' "
It was February 2001, and Kudela was painting apartment walls for a maintenance company and living with his parents. A graduate of Lewiston-Porter High School, he had decided against college and instead tried out a series of jobs. He had lived in New York City, selling T-shirts at the Harley Davidson Cafe. He had also been a wine steward at the Grand Hotel at Michigan's Mackinac Island.
In spite of his misgivings, Kudela got swept up in his mother's project.
"She would get like 30 phone calls a day of people looking for her. I was at home," he said. "That's kind of what prompted me to come here. Because I was like her secretary at the house because everybody would call her and leave these messages for her."
Now 11 years later, about 70 artists, artisans and related businesses, including Michael Kudela, are renting space in the old school. And for the stools: They are all over the building. Four are in the cafe and one in his own studio.
To check them and the rest of the place out, he suggests the NACC's fifth annual fundraiser Friday, March 9. A $25 ticket gains admission to the "Art of Beer," with local craft brewers, a souvenir beer glass, live bands. (Details at www.thenacc.org.)
"It's three floors of beer and food and people," he said. "It's really fun."
So you started out by volunteering at NACC?
I was working at the gift shop. There was a handful of people that would stand at the cash register. They'd clean, they'd vacuum. They'd maintain the gift shop.
You'd sit in the gift shop and just talk about art. It was nice, but it was also tough. Sometimes you'd have to cut the lawn. It's a very large lawn. It's over an acre, for sure, of grass. We got a driveway put in, so there's less. Toilets would break. The roof would leak. A lot of work getting done by people who weren't getting paid.
A lot of volunteers came in from the community and cleaned up. The gum on the cafeteria floor alone was a massive undertaking. We had, like, grandmothers from Pine Avenue come in and scrape the floor and mop and then the artists, too, were working with them. And, then my mother got seven artists to come and rent studios in the building.
How did the gift shop evolve into running the cafe?
We had this large "No Child Left Behind" grant. Everybody started working for the kids program, and the gift shop fell by the wayside.
You could come take ceramics or jewelry or painting or cartoon drawing or dance or voice lessons. Our kids were basically the underserved population of the city.
It was a five-year grant. And then I think that the kids of Niagara Falls actually started scoring better on standardized tests. It got cut way down.
I was a teacher of computers for the kids. That job went away, and I had to make my own job. So I went back to the gift shop and turned it into a cafe. December 2009 was the first month.
I can pay my mortgage. I bought a house right down the street. It's five blocks away. The business is owned by the NACC. They contract me as an independent contractor to run it.
I don't even own a car because I live so close. I do all the shopping on my bike. Winter, summer, whatever.
What are your best-sellers?
Soup, sandwiches salads. The club sandwich, they like. They like the brownies. They like the julienne salad. And the chicken salad. I also have breakfast. I do eggs and home fries and stuff.
The next phase of what we're going to try to do here involves another group of artists. There's a group of artists who want to come in and learn. I'm also teaching culinary arts classes. How to make homemade bread, homemade pasta. I just helped them make homemade polenta.
I'm branching out and turning it back to that whole cooperative idea. A working classroom that will support itself. They do artwork, very wonderful artwork.
My job gets harder. I actually probably am going to double my workload. You gotta kind of keep things fresh. I'm kind of changing my job so it still stays interesting for me.
The cafe would still be here. It's just that I'd have more people. I think it's going to get better once we go to this next phase.
How did the work at the NACC get you to paint?
I just kind of saw everybody else was an artist here. And painting. I didn't really see art that I wanted to see: bright and abstract.
I took over my mother's studio. She said, "You should get a studio of your own because you're filling up mine."
I think I was always interested in art and poetry and books. It's just that I hadn't found a community to engage. It was more like a solitary pursuit.
What is your medium?
I paint on wood. There's all these flat surfaces that I could just grab on the way to work. My material is free. Because the buildings are older, you have to maintain an older house. There's more contractor work going on. They put out cabinets. I'll take the doors off the cabinets -- if they're in the garbage -- and paint on them.
It kind of frees me up. If I'm painting on something that didn't cost me anything, I can kind of cut loose and do what I want.
Do you have any formal instruction?
Lew-Port offered a lot of art classes. I took art classes and did some ceramics or drawing, but no painting. I just started painting here.
How often do you paint?
Either I get in early or stay late. It's just up a flight of stairs from here. I usually am working on some kind of art. I paint in the studio about three days a week. They're abstract and expressionistic. They lean toward expressionism. Expressionism is focused on emotion. That's the primary thing that they're trying to communicate. If I have a frustrating day or a good day or whatever, I am more motivated to paint. It's a cathartic release of color onto the wood.
What is the community like at NACC?
I've watched people come and go. A third of the people who come here have transformed their lives. Internally, they saw the opportunity, and they were able to motivate themselves to do the work that they wanted to do. But also it taught me you have to modify your idea of success.
There are musicians, painters, sculptures, wood workers. There's ballet. There are theater troupes. There are photographers. We have a person who gives yoga classes and sitar lessons. She's from India. We have more than 70.
It kind of has reshaped my philosophy of life and people, I guess. That it's the experience in the moment that counts, not any kind of material gain.
You kind of have to find something you enjoy doing. While you're doing that, you kind of get lost in it. I'm doing all right. I'm not rich, for sure. Like I said, it doesn't matter as long as you can pay your bills and have some free time.
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