furniture

Balancing Scales

I recently went before a group of folks from a foundation to pitch the idea for The Bench That Gives. The two big push backs were the scale of the endeavor, and the evidence or proof that what we are creating can work. I was told that what is needed is to produce 10s of thousands of jobs, and that it was a nice idea, but what can an handful of folk geared up to produce benches and other products achieve.

My knee-jerk response was defensive ~ trying to show that this is just a start and that as we brought more businesses into partnership to create more of the model, we would eventually reach scale. But this response does not honor what I know to be true, nor the intuitive evidence that underlies this initiative. I tossed around all night. What came to me in the wee hours, was to really listen to what I know ~ the concept that this blog is based upon ~ that it is not only huge efforts that create change, little efforts with big visions and integrity have the power to reach critical mass.

The power of an idea is not in its grandness, it is in its ability to be lifted and carried by many people. Therefore, by design, it must be small, compelling, apprehensible, and able to be transferred by those moved by it.

Seth Stevens, CWGI Advisor, retail genius, and proprietor of the successful Mount Washington Wine Company and Dogma took me out on a selling trip to introduce me to the retail products business. Seth had coached me on producing some stunning leave-behind sales materials including a spec sheet with the color pics of the bench. Our first stop was an up-scale garden center in “The County”. Seth began by saying a couple words about the bench, and I followed with an equally brief description of the project. Seth nodded to me to pull out the spec sheet. When the woman at the shop saw the pics, her head literally snapped back as she noted how beautiful the bench was. When she saw the retail price of the bench was $2500, she said, “Expensive! But we can do expensive here.” The sale wasn’t complete, but the message was clear. We left with a spring in our step. Seth leaned over and said, “That’s the evidence we needed!”

By combining the stunning design of the bench with a project that teaches folks to use their hands to “make good”, she easily got it, and was invested in both the product and the idea ~ little as they both may be. So as the bench moves from the workbench at Gutierrez Studios, out to the garden center. It gives the woman who was sold on the concept a chance to sell the concept repeatedly ~ in her own way. Each of the folks who purchase one for their yard have now been invested. It gives them the opportunity to share this story with each visitor who comments on the bench, and so on… This is in part the vision of this project ~ that each person who is “sold” on the concept of Community becomes an emissary, invested in the idea that we are all responsible for eachother’s well-being. In isiZulu this idea is known as UBUNTU. UBUNTU is the little idea with the power to help change the world to something that is giving and beautiful. Imagine the possibilities!

The Bench that Gives

Nurture Form Community Bench. Photography by Chris Hartlove

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve experienced a rapid reduction in access to vehicles. Last year I lost my car and relied totally on my motorcycle and sharing a vehicle with my girlfriend when it was raining or too icy to ride. This winter’s fury kept me off of the motorcycle for months. When there was a break in the weather, I hopped on to take her out, and for the first time she wouldn’t start. I fiddled and fussed, but nothing. A couple weeks ago the car we shared had a rapid decline. So I pumped up the tires on my bicycle which hadn’t seen the road for a couple years and off I went.

Thank SPIRIT that much of my time is spent at Gutierrez Studios where most of the gents who work there commute by bike, and for those who don’t, sweat is still a way of life. But not every meeting is appropriate for a sweaty, lycra-clad entry. So for those days, and days to rainy to ride, there is Baltimore’s public transportation “system”.

For anyone who has contempt for those who can’t keep a job, I recommend a couple weeks relying on the MTA. Example: I had to get to a place with wifi this morning to get some work done. My iPhone (incidentally, a very useful tool for public trans travel, but also unaccessible to those who can’t swing the buck-eighty per month nut to ATT) told me to walk the mile to get to the bus stop to catch the 33 which was due to pick me up at 10:54. I arrived at the bus stop with 10 minutes to spare, but waited until 11:25 for the next bus to arrive. This waiting is a regular experience for public transit riders. On “good” routes, the schedule tells you there is a half hour to the next bus. If that one doesn’t show, add over an hour to your travel time. I had to get downtown, for my next stop. This is a 7 minute car ride from the coffee shop. My phone informed me that it is a 44 minute bus trip, including one transfer. Now, if even one leg of that trip breaks, it could be an hour and 45 minutes for the three mile commute. My iPhone tells me it would only be a 59 minute walk. Interesting dilemma.

If I was traveling to a job just 10 miles away during rush hour, I would have to plan on a two- to four-hour trip. Simple odds tell you that I would be late at least a couple times a month. How many employers would care to hear my excuse after the second time? Add single parenting and getting kids to school into that mix, and welfare seems about the only viable option.

This morning, after my hour-and-fifteen-minute-long commute to the local coffee shop, I ran into a woman I know. “Oh, that was you walking down the hill. I wasn’t sure if it was you, so I didn’t stop so I wouldn’t have to give a ride to someone I didn’t know.” I wasn’t mad at her. I know that she didn’t know her 3 minute drive would translate to an hour of lost time for me. But I am mad at a system that doesn’t hold people who don’t have resources as a priority. I am mad at a system that has made it unsafe for a woman to see if it is her friend walking. I am mad at a system that doesn’t make it safe for anyone to add people they don’t know to their empty cars to enable them to have any prospect of keeping a job and having a decent life.

Several years ago, artist Samuel Christian Holmes produced ornate sculpted thrones for MTA Lightrail stops on Howard street. He told me that he made them so that when his people were waiting for trains they would at least have a moment of feeling like kings and queens. I know this image moved a little something in my soul. As it turns out that little something had a lot to do with the Nurture Form Community Bench that was recently born.

Since I was very young, I have adored beautiful things. Not flashy things ~ things that exude beauty. I love the craftsmanship of old tools, formed of wood and steel by hand. I love the exquisite lines of instruments whose curved shapes are made to hold, and to make room for the bow to travel. I love the action of the keys of a Steinway Grand, resulting from over 12,000 moving parts. And I love the beauty of a well crafted piece of furniture. I know that the privilege of my upbringing ~ with a Mom who would on occasion pull out her beautifully ancient violin, and who collected things made by hand, and pianist Aunt Elaine, who allowed me to play her Steinways, and older brother Mark, who spent endless hours coaxing historic automobiles to life and beauty ~ I know my experience is rare, particularly for a Black man in America.

Yesterday in preparation for her first photo shoot, I methodically followed the grain of the pink ipe wood, initially with sand paper to pull smooth the surface, then, with penetrating oil to release the rich, brown beauty of her grain. I realized that the little idea of the Nurture Form Community Bench was not only about bringing something of beauty to life. I knew then that what was being born was the sum of all the gifts my life has given me ~ the gift of loving things that were made to continue giving. Although the design for the bench literally came to me one morning in the magical space between dreaming and waking, so many hands have touched and shaped this gift, that it no longer belongs to me alone. From the moment I first learned of Sam’s thrones, to when I first saw a stunning “Guti” bench, to when I handed the drawing to John who smiled his approval as he passed it to Mo the virtual sculptor, to when Mo’s 3D drawings of the bench appeared in my inbox making it no longer just an idea, to when he turned those into shop drawings for craftsman Drew to heat and bend her to life ~ all of these touches created this strong and delicate object. Yesterday, when photographer Chris Hartlove set his lights and lens to share her with the world, I began to feel the true power and movement of this gift.

My Son Grayson, himself an artist ~ a writer ~ and I were musing on the future of art. He was feeling that we had run the full course of art’s current form. We began to imagine where it was headed. I believe that the future is an evolution of the old way. Art will pull free from the rarefied walls of museums and will reconnect with life. I believe art will return to its original collaborative form where many hands bring life to the work, then, bring the work to life. The evolution will drift away from anonymizing or individualizing who gets recognition for the work. The fact that many hands touched the work will no longer decrease its value. This process will create its value. This will become the sign of truly great works.

I am learning that the Community Bench is named for the community of individuals that are behind her inviting lines.  This bench is also gift to the community. She is a fine instrument ~ a Steinway, boiled down to its essence. She was not created to bless hallowed concert halls. She was designed to “give” ~ to yield ~ as she gently holds those who have not been held in the narrow band of esteem traditionally reserved for those of privilege. As we begin to produce the Nurture Form Community Bench, she will continue to give everyday people the skill and artistry to bend and form the steel and wood from which she is constructed. As we place her on the streets of forgotten and neglected communities, she will give hope to those who learn what her lineage represents. She will signal that we as a people no longer will we tolerate the maintenance of an underclass. She will give a people who have for 400 years served an owner, the chance to own their own. She will give those waiting for buses, and change, a loving place to rest. And she will call to others to join the evolution of a society that holds all her people as deserving of the best we have to give. She will become known as “The Bench that Gives“.

Photograph By Chris Hartlove Photograph By Chris Hartlove

Photograph by Chris Hartlove Photograph by Chris Hartlove

Join the Circle of hands who give in support the Community Wealth Generation Initiative