About a dozen years ago, Sophie Alpert found herself going through Dumpsters in Los Angeles.
In a county where nearly 53,000 people are homeless, that’s an act of desperation that happens far too often. But Sophie wasn’t desperate. In fact, for this daughter of a Holocaust survivor who calls her life “incredibly blessed,” the Dumpster episode wasn’t a low point – it was the start of a calling.
Just the year before, Sophie had had her first close encounter with social enterprise during a visit to South Africa, where HIV-positive women were taught to create and sell hand-beaded dolls as a way of asserting their financial independence.
It was an “aha!” moment for the former Skid Row daycare worker who had left the workforce to raise her own four children. She wanted to bring this idea back home, to find an artistic medium that could offer hope and beauty and security in a neighborhood where thousands of people every night sleep in tents, bags, or cardboard boxes.
Beaded dolls didn’t seem very promising in L.A., but Sophie quickly settled on mosaic art because it was a quick and accessible way to introduce art to newcomers. She also liked the fact that the materials were recycled – thus those early Dumpster days, searching for tile store castoffs.
But most of all, Sophie liked what mosaic art represented: “It’s about taking broken pieces and creating something beautiful – putting things back together to make something new.”
Creativity Sparks Confidence
Piece by Piece, the social enterprise that Sophie founded, has been doing exactly that since 2007. Last year alone, more than 1,700 people joined an outreach class or hands-on workshop, with about 10 percent of those participating weekly.
For those who are really committed, there’s a certificate program that can lead to steady income.
Classes are taught by professional mosaic artists, and participants work together in groups as a way to build community. Through a four-stage program that starts with safety and basic technique, artisans can rather quickly work their way up to small projects that pay a commission based on sales, and then to hourly wages for public art commissions in high-visibility locations like Universal Studios or the LA County Arboretum.
At Level 4, participants can earn income as teaching assistants while they work on their resume and get help building a portfolio or writing an artist’s statement. The capstone of the certificate program is a solo exhibition of the artisan’s work.
In 2018, Piece by Piece artisans earned nearly $70,000 from selling their work and completing public commissions – a huge confidence boost for people who feel beaten down by life. It’s little wonder, then, that 80 percent of participants reported improved self-confidence and motivation, while 82 percent reported increased wellness and quality of life.
Those sales are important to the organization, as well, with nearly one-third of the annual budget coming from earned revenue and the balance from public and private grants. With LA’s homeless population especially hard-hit by the coronavirus, Sophie knows that grant funding will be spread thin, and the coming months could be tough for Piece by Piece.
But she’s been there before, with the Great Recession hitting LA just a year after the organization launched. That’s when she really discovered the power of social enterprise, working hard to sell mosaic ware to consumers and businesses as other funding sources dried up.
Sales of candleholders and award plaques helped to keep the program running through those tough times, and Sophie is confident that retail sales will be a lifeline once again, because some consumers will always look to do more with their spending.
“I think there’s nothing more beautiful than purchasing something with meaning, something with a story behind it, something that helps to improve life for someone. That kind of purchase pays it forward and carries the story forward.”
Stories of Pain & Hope
For the artisans working with Piece by Piece, “the story” is filled with twists and turns. Many of them went to college, started families, had careers – until a pink slip or medical emergency changed everything.
Such experiences often inform the mosaics they create. John, for instance, studied drama and traveled the world before health problems left him bedridden and homeless. His creations might reference his memories of an African landscape or a view of the equatorial sky.
Mike moved to downtown LA to advance a career in graphic design before he got “sidetracked” and lost his way. His mosaics might portray the gleaming city skyline as seen from the perspective of Skid Row or a series of keys that represent his feelings on home and shelter.
“I learned over the years that art has such a healing effect on people who have suffered,” Sophie says. “It can be an outlet for past sufferings.” When artisans are able pour their life experience into their creations, the process can deeply therapeutic. And when someone else buys those creations, the artisans get a kind of affirmation that can be life changing. One after another, Sophie can rattle off names of program participants who found jobs and stability “just because of the self-confidence they gained.”
And that, she says, was the point all along. “We’ve found some unbelievable talent over the course of the program, but the intent was not to create artists. The intent was to create an opportunity for employment.”
Spend for good: The Piece Shop is an online outlet featuring mosaic ware home goods such as trays, candleholders, picture frames, and more. Prices start at $15, and all proceeds go to ending the cycle of homelessness. Fine art display pieces are also available, including the broken china technique known as picassiette. Finally, Piece by Piece accepts commissions for one-of-a-kind creations ranging from bird baths to corporate awards.