The circuitous journey to Baltimore begins in a rustic workshop perched 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. There, impoverished teens tediously work on intricate furnishings with exotic woods like cherry and walnut mahogany. Once complete, the unique pieces travel down the mountains to Lima, Peru, and ultimately arrive at 11 galleries around the world, including a newly-opened one in Federal Hill—the first Artesanos Don Bosco in the United States.
The nonprofit galleries—featuring one-of-a-kind items—send all their proceeds back to the missions, which distribute paychecks and other funds. (More than 700 students have graduated from these carpentry schools in Peru.) The money also funds needed resources like electricity and housing in stricken towns across the South American country. "We build schools, orphanages, hospitals, and train nurses that travel around the countryside," says Elaine Smith, a lay missionary, who runs Baltimore’s Artesanos gallery. "When the children come to us, we give them food, clothing, medical attention—and they are all paid for their work."
The abject poverty is a far cry and continent from the tidy shop on the corner of Henrietta and South Charles Streets. It is filled with furniture the teens have made that is beautiful and expensive—with prices ranging from $400 for a dining-room chair to $8,000 for a sideboard called Alpamayo after a mountain peak in the Andes. The sideboard is a massive hunk of wood with two cabinets and three doors. A half-moon sits atop the base with smaller cabinets. Ridges are hand-carved across the entire surface, and geometric shapes are carved into the drawers and cabinets—the pieces held together with wood pegs instead of nails and screws.
"People walk in from the street, and they are stunned," Smith says of the gallery’s furniture. "They gasp. They are effusive. They can’t believe their eyes because they haven’t seen pieces like this. They haven’t felt pieces like this, and they are just amazed at what can be done with wood."
The chiseling begins far away from South Baltimore at the Peruvian Don Bosco carpentry schools. Only children ages 11 to 18, who are living within the lowest levels of poverty, qualify to attend. The economic criteria are tough. Smith explains, "If my family has two chickens, and yours has one, you would go." Such kids aren’t hard to find in a country where 49 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. That’s more than four times the percentage of Americans living in poverty.
The carpentry program offers a glimmer of hope to young people who might otherwise head to cities like Juarez and Lima to find work. Growing up in the countryside, they are ill-equipped to navigate the perils of urban life, Smith says. "They get lost," adds Mirko Codenotti sadly, a former Don Bosco teacher and now a gallery co-owner. "In the big towns, they get lost."
The work of the Artesanos is divided between two missions: the gallery furniture and the installation of religious pieces. The "sacred work," Smith says, came about when an Italian priest, who was familiar with the Don Bosco program, was assigned to be a chaplain at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. He suggested that new entrance doors for Our Lady of Pompei Church on Claremont Street be done by the Artesanos. The artisans carved the doors out of mahogany and created a nativity—among other religious scenes—for the 80-year-old church. Twelve Maryland churches later, the Artesanos mission decided to move in.
The mission dates to 1979, when a Salesian priest pioneered the first Don Bosco School in Chacas, Peru—a desolate town tucked in the Andean mountaintop. He opened the school to help the children learn a livelihood. "He gave them a general education and taught them what he knew as an artist," Smith says. "Soon, they started teaching themselves from the textbooks."
Smith moved to Baltimore 12 years ago after retiring from a legal career. Six years later, she joined the Don Bosco cause when she saw the Artesanos’ artwork at the Italian consulate, which was then on Mulberry Street. "The artwork was beautiful, and I could just see the spirituality in it. I was so moved," she recalls. She teamed up with Paolo Ghezzi—who had sold a business in Italy to join the Don Bosco project in Peru—plus two other Peruvian missionaries, and began searching for ways to finance a gallery space. (Because they are nonprofit, Artesanos Don Bosco galleries are funded out of pocket.) Smith and Ghezzi approached The Historic Charles Street Association and left a furniture catalog with executive director Robin Budish.
"I just really loved the story, helping the poorest of boys in Peru," Budish says. "I had seen the furniture. I thought it was beautiful."
She helped the association find its first vacant—but temporary—space, next to Sotto Sopra on North Charles Street. "They were amazing to work with," Budish says of Smith and her partners. "I just so believed in their mission."
But the building was eventually sold. After another move and a brief period when the furniture was locked in storage, an Italian benefactor came forward and financed the glass-enclosed space in Federal Hill. A permanent Artesanos Don Bosco gallery was finally established.
The program is all about enriching the lives of the students—and their villages, Smith says. Indeed, for two months every year, the Don Bosco schools close so that students can engage in constructive efforts, or "missions," to rebuild their deprived communities. In return, they receive a free education in carpentry and money for their work. But Smith worries about financing the next generation of artisans.
"The only way we can exist is by volunteers and charity. None of us are paid," Smith says. "We just want to help our missions in Peru thrive. If we are successful, we will be able to supply more people with an education and livelihood."
The Artesanos group also wants to give back to its new community. "We hope other artists will come to us and make use of our space," Smith says. "We hope to become an art center—with music, dancers, any sort of art that will invite the people of Baltimore inside for a pleasant time."
Artesanos Don Bosco gallery, 828 S. Charles St., 410-563-4577. Grand opening Friday, October 17, 6-9 p.m.