Next door to a vitamin warehouse, a growing idea germinated in a nondescript rowhouse on Baltimore Street.
It went like this: Take a youth from the one of the city’s gutted neighborhoods—someone with one of the least chances of success in Maryland—and offer him an apprenticeship under a master craftsman.
After two years, they release the youth, by now armed with the skills and knowledge that will let him lift himself and his family from poverty into the elusive , middle class. The idea went farther: Do it without public money, and make a profit.
The inspiration came to Joe Williams when he moved Atelier, his woodworking shop, to East Baltimore Street three years ago. Williams chose the location to be near a subway stop (The Shot Tower) so that his potential apprentices could get to work.
When entering the shop, the first thing one sees is an exquisite jewelry box. The carved walnut legs curve sinuously, the squat body of curly maple, the lid trimmed in African hardwood. Resting against a wall are mahogany display cases, something not made anymore due to the exorbitant cost of wood.
When Williams was asked if Atelier was refinishing the case for a client, he explained instead that clients had built it.
Walk through the shop into the refinishing area, the most noxious aspect of a craftsman’s job, where the most environmentally-friendly system available is used. Gas masks are hung from nails knocked into the wall. Walk up the back staircase, into what Williams labeled a combination office, employee lounge, and living quarters.
The smell of fresh lacquer sits heavily in the air. The walls are lined with paintings run on clock motors. In one, a stub of bicycle chain wraps and falls from a tiny gear every minute. The domes of the Ukrainian church in Highlandtown are cut out from a single piece of 14” by 36” brown paper. A series of portraits of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping are all works by Williams.
Sitting at his desk, he said that within Atelier, the youths are involved in all aspects of cabinetry. Williams acknowledged that he made it intentionally tough for the first few months, to weed out those without the necessary commitment.
The first six days, Williams said, cost Atelier $600-$700 in supplies and wages.
He points out a rocking chair in the far comer. It was refinished by Corell McQueen, a 17-year- old who has worked for him only a month. “Six or eight days tells the ticket,” said Williams, approvingly.
The young men begin part-time at minimum wage. But they advance to a substantially higher wage and fulltime employment within a few months. By the second year, the apprentice is making money for Atelier, which continues funding the project. Williams estimates the value of the highly detailed personalized training—in a field where annual salaries often exceed $50,000.
Atelier currently employs two frill time and two part time apprentices. Income for the company is made solely through word-of-mouth and the refinished antiques Atelier displays at the Broadway Antique Market in Fells Point, and the Great Finds and Designs in Timonium.
Atelier is solely Williams: its president, chief executive officer, banker, financier, teacher, master craftsman and, until recently, its marketer. Several interns from nearby colleges have taken up that duty this month.
Williams acknowledges that he has sometimes worked 70-hour weeks only to have no money left to pay himself after meeting payroll. His living quarters are in the same building, above the shop. He stresses, however, that Atelier is not a charity. He is in it for his own well being, financially as well as spiritually. The company has made as much in the first quarter of this year—which is always the slowest in wood shops—as it made in. all of 1996. He is expecting about $60,000 more in new commissions. His target is for Atelier to gross up to $300,000 and employ six apprentices within a few years, and move the operation to another building, and eventually become an umbrella organization for other artisans, as well.
“I have a lot of people telling me I can’t do this,” said Williams, “that you can’t take someone from Sandtown-Winchester and make him a craftsman. 1 beg to differ.”
To the obvious question of why he would willingly subject himself to such living conditions, he points to his belief, as a Taoist Christian, that he has responsibilities to the well being of the disadvantaged.
“No matter what happens, one can always work with his hands,” he said. “I believe in actions, to show what is right by example.”
Assisting his decision was a rebellious streak that has colored his life since he was 15, when he left his middle-class home in Prince George’s County to join the carnival.