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.
In April 2007, she hosted a social gathering and mosaic workshop at her Encino home to raise funds and awareness. The same month she offered her first workshop in the community room of the Broadway Village II Apartments in South Los Angeles, a 50-unit building for very low-income families operated by the nonprofit organization, Beyond Shelter.
The workshop was an immediate hit. Since then, up to 35 people, including children off track from their year-round school schedules, have been coming regularly, every Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and occasionally on Saturdays.
"I wish they had it every day because I keep waiting and waiting for Friday," said seventh-grader Quaneisha McFadden, 12, who attends whenever she can.
And new people keep appearing. Four months ago, for instance, Jose Morales, 34, showed up ostensibly to accompany a friend. He quickly became a regular, completing five pieces featured in the exhibit. One is an intricate Aztec calendar, inspired, he said, by watching people dancing on Olvera Street. He also has two mirrors, complex and striking shapes that he designed and cut, covering them primarily in mirrored mosaics.
"This opened the door to a different period of my life. I feel more happy and peaceful doing something with my hands," Morales said.
In fall 2007, representatives from the James M. Wood Community Center in Skid Row, part of the nonprofit Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Housing Corp., offered Alpert space for a second workshop. This group, up to 35 adults, has been meeting regularly on Monday afternoons.
Chad Sperandeo, 39, who has been living in a Skid Row apartment for two years -- "to recuperate my life" he said -- is one of the participants. Before his life just fell apart, as he described it, he had done painting, sculpture and theater, and had even been accepted into the Art Institute of Chicago but couldn't raise the tuition.
Now Piece by Piece, which he finds "therapeutic and meditative and communal," is helping him to reemerge as an artist. His creations include intricate light boxes, some made of sided serving trays turned upside down, as well as mosaicked mirrors and other objects, and his works sell for $300 to $1,200.
Sperandeo, who is also studying Kabbalah and considering conversion to Judaism, has become a passionate spokesman for Piece by Piece
Not everyone is a natural artist, but Alpert believes that various levels of talent can be tapped or acquired. And while she envisioned the project as one in which residents could learn skills and earn money, she didn't anticipate the transformational potential of this work.
Eutiquio Mejia, 28, for example, came from Mexico in 2001 to seek a better life but ended up in a Skid Row apartment. He began coming to workshops a year ago. "He was depressed. I couldn't get a word out of him," Alpert said.
But he learned how to mosaic and has become one of the most prolific artists, even designing a mosaic panel of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which was auctioned off as part of a fundraiser by St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach for $3,000 and donated back to the hospital.
"This has helped me a lot economically and it helps me forget some of my problems," Mejia said in Spanish, translated by Alpert, who speaks the language fluently. It has also given him confidence. He now attends workshops twice a week at both locations, helping set up and take down the rooms and also mentoring other participants.
Image: Original lightbox by Chad Sperandeo For Alpert, who thought she could step back once Piece by Piece was operational, this has become more than a full-time job. She attends the workshops on Mondays and Fridays whenever possible, seeks out donations of money and materials, arranges exhibits, oversees all business aspects and forges relationships with other agencies. Right now, in fact, she is working with the Community Redevelopment Agency of the city of Los Angeles to become a pre-qualified artist for downtown beautification projects now required of new developments.
Piece by Piece currently has operating expenses of about $80,000 annually, according to Alpert, which includes instructors' salaries, materials, insurance and also fees. Thus far, about $30,000 worth of art has been sold, with 80 percent returned to artists for sold works and 50 percent for commissioned works. The nonprofit has received a $30,000 grant from Universal Studios Hollywood's Discover A Star Foundation -- along with a $5,000 commission for mosaicked flowerpot centerpieces for a special event -- and a $5,000 grant from Wells Fargo Bank.
On her wish list are additional donations of tiles, stones, mirror and glass. "We don't care if it's broken; we break it anyway," Alpert said.
She would also like wood and any pieces -- called substrate -- that can be mosaicked, such as boxes, trays and furniture.
Storage space is also a priority. Broadway Village has only a small closet for Piece by Piece's use and the James Wood Community Center offers none. Thus Alpert is currently storing materials and art works at her home and at her husband Alan's business, the Alpert & Alpert Iron and Metal scrap yard in downtown Los Angeles. She is constantly carting supplies and artworks in the back of her SUV, which more resembles a moving van.
Additionally, she is looking for a temporary storefront in which to sell art items, many with a Judaic theme, for the holidays.
And while Piece by Piece has grown beyond all expectations, Alpert occasionally loses one of her regular artists, which is often cause for rejoicing.
Cyndi Hayes, 43, married and the mother of four teenagers, became temporarily homeless due to a longer than anticipated recovery from surgery. Living in Broadway Village, she began attending workshops and quickly became a prolific artist, completing 30 pieces in 10 months. She netted $1,500, sufficient to buy a used Jeep, which helped her get a job at a property management company in her former capacity as a lease-compliance specialist.
The family has since moved to a four-bedroom apartment closer to downtown, but Hayes continues to make mosaic projects at home, crediting Piece by Piece for her turnaround.
"Miss Sophie never judged me for being homeless and that meant so much. She always encourages and brings up the best in everybody," Hayes said.
Image: Original lightbox by Chad Sperandeo