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Rebuilding lives, one broken tile at a time

by Jane Ulman

November 19, 2008 | 12:18 am

Jose Morales finishes his mosaic mirror

Jose Morales finishes his mosaic mirror

It was an elegant opening for a gallery exhibition.

Artists and art enthusiasts mingled affably among more than 230 original mosaics -- elaborate and dramatic, whimsical and rhythmical -- that included mirrors, light boxes, flowers pots and Judaic designs with hamsas and candlesticks. They sampled catered hors d'oeuvres and listened to remarks by Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. This exhibition, titled, "Pieces of Hope," opened Nov. 2 in the Alpert Jewish Community Center's Pauline and Zena Gatov Gallery and runs through Dec. 1.

It was difficult to discern, on the surface, that the artists represented some of Los Angeles' most impoverished citizens, residents of Skid Row and South Los Angeles, who are actually using the broken bits of tile, stone and other rejected and recycled materials to rebuild their own lives. They're participants in a microenterprise arts initiative called Piece by Piece, and they generally receive 80 percent all of sales proceeds. On that day, about 50 pieces sold, amounting to $8,500. But the financial reward is only part of the program's success.

"I hate to be a drama queen, but this has pretty much saved my life," said Paula LeDuc, 58, a Skid Row resident, recovering addict and breast cancer survivor who had two frames made of fossilized stone featured in the show. "It's given me something to do."

Piece by Piece is the brainchild of Sophie Alpert, 50, daughter-in-law of Long Beach JCC leaders Barbara and Ray Alpert, who was impressed on a trip to South Africa in spring 2006 by microfinance projects that enabled HIV-positive women to create placemats, dolls and other objects with beads.

"It seemed so simple," said Alpert, who compared the seemingly hopeless conditions of those South African women and their families to what she calls "Third World" areas of Los Angeles. She had worked as a grant writer and fundraiser for the nonprofit family service agency, Para Los Niños, in the 1980s, before taking time off to raise her four children, and she has never forgotten those families.

When she returned from South Africa, she couldn't forget that experience either.

"I couldn't sleep. I couldn't get it out of my head," she said.

Alpert agonized over a way to replicate the microenterprise bead workshops, which she knew were impractical for Los Angeles, until she came up with the idea for mosaics -- something not prohibitively expensive, something that could be easily taught and done independently, and something that produced colorful and relatively quick results.

Artistically inclined and experienced in mosaics, Alpert nevertheless returned to school, taking three weekend classes at the Institute of Mosaic Art in Oakland. She also set out to find instructors -- insisting on hiring and paying professional artists and teachers, including current artistic director Dawn Mendelson -- as well as venues.

Alpert saw these first moves as a kind of pilot program, to determine if the idea was even viable.

"I couldn't answer every question; I just had to start," she said.

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