Photograph by Julia Pearson
It was a cold night, three years ago. The fire pit was blazing, spinning and shooting orange embers into the sky, challenging the stars for a moment before they flickered and faded. There were a hundred people huddled close. Some baking the warmth into their clothes, others pressing together in groups in animated exuberance. John had offered his amazing space to yet another friend and admirer in celebration of her birth. Farrah shone, wrapped in her grandmother’s fur like it was the best birthday ever. It was always The Best if it had anything to do with John Kennedy Gutierrez.
The drinks flowed like honeywater, painting soft our consciousness and vision ~ blurring the edges of who we thought we were. I wandered from the outside into the Gutierrez Studio showroom filled with stunning objects, armoires of shining steel and zebrawood, tables and chairs with legs of rust and patina, hanging amber light fixtures, each more simple and elegant than the last. One object captured my imagination. It was an exquisite desk lamp, honed of fine steel, delicate and sturdy ~ a cylindrical counter weight at one end, offsetting a long thin rod tipped with a tiny light. The entire piece was balanced with a polished steel ball sandwiched, well, more like suspended, between to thick steel discs. It looked like something pulled straight out of my dreams ~ the perfect object. It was blue heron-like in its hue and elegance. Like a child in a museum, I couldn’t help but reaching out to touch it. But rather than the metal-on-metal resistance I expected, the weighted rod moved as if it was floating in air. So perfectly balanced was this being from another universe, it stayed, without settling, exactly where I moved it. It was breathtaking.
I wandered around the room in awe ~ then, was overwhelmed by a feeling of deep sadness. I work in the neglected communities of Baltimore. Most people who don’t venture there imagine the pain of poverty. I see the majesty of my people making magic out of nothing. I see my young black teenage brothers in the streets pushing twisted bicycles, front wheels spinning off-kilter like tacos, slack chains, twisted handlebars. A condition that is impossible to ride. Yet, they mount these broken machines and bend the forces of space and time, hoist the front wheel towards the heavens with exquisite ease, and ride impossible wheelies for endless blocks, one hand swinging behind their backs as if to cuss back at the impossibility ~ to say, this ain’t nuthin. I knew in my soul that they deserve vehicles engineered like that lamp, and will never have access. These objects were made for those who can afford the artistry with which they were crafted.
I ran out the door to meet the man who conjured the space that created this magic. As I emerged out of the door, there was a man who towered above my 6 feet of stature, thick as a tree. He looked over at me with, olive skin, brushy brows shading sharp eyes peering through the delicately wrought glasses of an architect. His face broke into an off-kilter, snaggled smile as dimples danced up his right cheek. He stuck out his hand, which swallowed mine as if I were a child. His booming voice announced, John!
“Is that your shit in there?”, unable to pause for formalities. “Yeah, this is my place.” I don’t remember if this is true, but the residue of my memory tells me I didn’t let go of his hand. I pulled him into the showroom directly over to the “heron lamp”.
“Did you make this?”
“It was made here ~ designed by one of the craftsmen at the shop.” He walked me across the room and took me into the darkened space of the shop. He reached to flip a switch that flickered the lights to attention, revealing the caverness, cathedraled ancient space filled with machines, metal, wood, and projects in various stages of completion. It was the first time since childhood that I experienced the feeling I long to feel when I walk into a church. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reminds us, “God is in the details”.
I was standing there. I couldn’t move. “Let me run an idea by you…” I blurted in manic impatience. I sketched the image of the kids hittin wheelies on trashed bikes. I said, “What if we taught folk who can do that, to do this?” His mouth arched into that crooked smile ~ he let go a laugh and said, “Call me Monday.” That was the genesis of what will now be know as the John Kennedy Gutierrez Apprenticeship, the first project of the Community Wealth Generation Initiative.
Last week, three years later, we filmed the bending and welding of the prototype bench that will be the first product of the apprenticeship that will teach men and women in East Baltimore to do just that. The next day, I sat in the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center next to John as he labored to breathe. The next night, I stood in my living room watching the amazing footage of John’s youngest employee, Drew, heating, bending and welding the steel bench as John’s voice powered through the speakers of my stereo. I happened to record a conversation with John 6 months before. I was about to write the curriculum for the initial orientation for the apprenticeship. I asked “what do the folk we are training need to know”? John took the next 22 minutes and 40 seconds to explain what it means to be a craftsman and an entrepreneur.
As I was watching, the wind picked up outside, pushing its way through the still sticky sliding doors of my living room that John once instructed me how to fix when he was there. Moments later I received a text from John’s sister Diana that said simply, “John has left this world.”
If one is truly blessed, one is given a gift of someone with the power to bend time and space ~ to bend your life from something ordinary, into something exquisite. This is the gift that John gave to me. 500 people gathered this Monday, filling the cathedral he calls “The Shop”, that John Kennedy Gutierrez bent into being from the ashes of the Clipper Mill fire. As we pushed close to eachother around the fire pit, still blazing, spinning and shooting orange embers into the sky, challenging the stars before they flickered and faded; I knew that I was not alone.
A man who works with his hands is a laborer;
a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman;
but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.