Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of Contents



CRADLING A PIECE OF POTTERY IN HIS arms, an artist at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on Pittsburgh's North Side is explaining the origin of ceramics in prehistoric times. Large clay pots were invented as vessels transporting water to arid places, he says. They literally served as vessels of life.

Vessels of life.

He might as well be describing Manchester Craftsmen's Guild itself, alive as it is in creativity, sunlight, geraniums, tapestries, and teapots (on exhibit). Young people are actually skipping down corridors. In an art studio, clay is abundant. A visitor feels an instinct to grab a hunk of it.

Outside, the atmosphere contrasts. A maze of gritty streets are etched in the architecture of warehouses and vacant lots, not far from where Pittsburgh's rivers meet. The rivers cannot be seen from the guild though. An old factory wall blocks the view.

This is an art school like no other. The students possess singular credentials. Some were disillusioned dropouts. Others were known to the police. At Manchester they are provided with first-rate mentors, top-of-the-line equipment, and an abundance of inspiration, perhaps for the first time in their lives. This is where William E. Strickland Jr. (Arts and Sciences '70) presides with business savvy and compassionate heart.

As founder, sachem, and CEO of the guild, Strickland has attracted a fair amount of attention--in the circles of the disadvantaged and in the circles of the extremely powerful. He counts among his patrons United States presidents and first ladies. This past summer he was awarded a $295,000 no-strings-attached grant from the MacArthur Foundation--the so-called genius grant. He was one of 21 artists, teachers, writers, scientists, and community leaders honored by the Chicago-based foundation.

Strickland, it is fair to say, is an unusual man, outside the boundary of stereotype. His exact occupation is hard to pin down. Artist? Community activist? Social worker? Entrepreneur? Guardian angel? But the purpose of his calling seems unambiguous. He offers hope to people who are down and out. This is his cause, and his own vessel of life.

Although there is a certain hyperbolic quality to the MacArthur nickname, there is assuredly a quality of genius here. There is also a remarkable story beginning, and continuing pretty much, in the exact same geography--amid the depressed spirit and dour warehouses of Manchester. Some odysseys are measured not by travel across space but by a deepening of the soul.

Bill Strickland is tall, trim, limber, and a thoughtful dresser. He has a great knack for advocacy on behalf of others. He is also a perpetual-motion machine, a marvel of willpower, persistence, and energy. As a college student, he taught pottery (for free) to a few kids in an abandoned row house. Today he oversees a lively mix of enterprises, his budget a balancing act sustained by an even mix of government grants and contracts, corporate and foundation contributions, and earned income.

There are three paramount Strickland talents. One, he possesses an uncanny ability to see the potential of individuals, black or white, young or old. Two, he is a wonder at brokering relationships among people at every level of power. And three, he has a vision of the future that builds on his already formidable achievements. Of course, it all takes place in Manchester. Where else on earth would he desire to go?

His professional home, this modern, welcoming building where the guild is located, is also headquarters for the Bidwell Training Center, a venture Strickland took over in 1972. Bidwell is a nonprofit vocational school for adults, a proven godsend for many blacks, women, and manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs because of factory closings. Students receive top-of-the-line training in such fields as culinary arts, computers, corporate travel, and medical technology. The board of advisors (all volunteers) are drawn from the finest ranks of IBM, Bayer, Alcoa, and other leading industries.

Strickland also oversees Bidwell Food Services, a for-profit subsidiary of the training center that provides a first-rate catering service.

Then there's the Business and Industrial Corporation, an innovative "incubator" for women and minority-group members seeking to create new businesses. This undertaking helped develop Riverside Commons, a 19th-century building in the South Side, originally a cotton mill, now home to 40 small businesses employing 180 people.

And then, oh yes, there is the jazz! In all its multiform munificence and glory! Strickland oversees one of America's finest showcases of this uniquely American art, which has attracted to Manchester a veritable "Who's Who" of musicians: Stanley Turrentine, Billy Taylor, the late Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Carmen McRae, Milt Jackson. Performances, which also include young, emerging talent, resound in a 350-seat auditorium and are often broadcast on National Public Radio. And, again, as is Strickland's dream, his genius even, there is an emphasis on education. The guild offers master classes and lectures in the neighborhood and coordinates innovative music programs throughout the Pittsburgh school system. A vessel of life, with chops.

But it is in the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild that the soul of Strickland resides.

This is a time in America when schools everywhere, especially those in financial difficulty, are all too ready to jettison programs in the arts. Strickland's philosophy flies in the face of this contemporary zeitgeist. His credo is that art lives at the center, not the periphery, of human endeavor. "My reason for starting the guild was to improve the neighborhood where I was raised. I thought the arts would give underprivileged children a sense of importance that they badly needed. It wasn't so much intended to turn them into master craftsmen or professional photographers but to give them confidence and motivation. That's still the goal here."

Strickland, by the way, is not your basic bleeding-heart liberal Democrat. In fact, he is not any sort of Democrat. A black man in an overwhelmingly Democratic town, he identifies himself as a Republican, both a mainstream player and an advocate of his own cause. He is at once diplomatic and street-smart. Ironies abound in Strickland's life. He serves as a presidential appointee to the National Endowment for the Arts. Yet he is well aware that many Republican leaders have called for abolition of that agency. In the largest sense, he is nonideological. Simply, he works to better the lives of others.

Every year now, 300 Pittsburgh-area students come to Manchester to learn the rudiments of art. Besides ceramics, the guild specializes in photography, drawing, and digital graphics. The word "guild" is significant here, evoking a philosophy that can be traced to the Middle Ages concept of linking masters to apprentices in an atmosphere that is both sophisticated and nurturing. What is essential , Strickland says, "is the quality of the people who teach and learn here. Our kids need people in their lives who make sense and matter to them. The objective is to heighten learning through the arts. I'm not necessarily interested in brilliant ability. I am interested in young people getting an education."

His degree of success is extraordinary. A review by the Harvard Business School found that 80 percent of the students who finished programs at Manchester went on to college.

Strickland's years in Manchester have, at times, been cloaked in obscurity and poverty. He has known loneliness and pain. Though the area around the guild is a safe zone, three students in the past two years have been killed by gang warfare in their local neighborhoods. Javon Thompson, a Manchester alumnus, a brilliant young painter attending Carnegie Mellon, was shot and killed at age 18. "It was a real tragedy. It's a reminder that this is serious business," says Strickland. "This isn't art just to have a nice day. This is a way of saving kids' lives, oftentimes quite literally."

Strickland has also known moments of profound recognition, brushes with fame, even a taste of fortune. Vice President George Bush came to Manchester in 1984, liked what he saw, and offered Strickland a prestigious job in Washington (not accepted). As president, Bush later named him to the National Endowment for the Arts (accepted). Hillary Clinton came to Manchester in 1996. She later invited Strickland to speak on education at the White House, which he did along with actor Richard Dreyfuss, fresh from his role in Mr. Holland's Opus.

Mr. Strickland's Opus. His parents met in Chicago during World War II. She performed housework in Pittsburgh; he was a cook. Evelyn and Bill Sr. were married in 1941. After the war ended, they moved to be near her large family in Manchester. Bill Sr. acquired work as a contractor. He was later pastry chef at Bidwell until his death in 1993.

In August of 1947, Bill Jr. was born. He grew up in a Manchester of multi-ethnic neighborhoods. "You could hear five or six languages spoken in the streets," he remembers. Blacks and whites peacefully coexisted in those halcyon days of the 1950s. Still, there were distractions.

By the early 1960s Strickland, by his own admission, was a long way from genius stature. With a wry smile he describes himself: "Flashes of brilliance offset by overall lack of performance. I had no interest in school." Then an epiphany happened.

This transpired in the 10th grade at Oliver High School. A teacher named Frank Ross took notice of Bill and taught him the history and practice of ceramics, the creation of protean forms of clay. "He introduced me to the potter's wheel," says Strickland. "It was a very powerful experience, exhilarating. I don't know. I got excited about clay. The potter's wheel is so technically sophisticated that I guess I figured if I could do that, I could do anything. It clicked, that's what I was looking for. It saved my life."

With a new world view, Strickland warmed to his other course work. He displayed a particular keenness for Shakespeare. With Ross's help, he was admitted to Pitt in 1965. He says, with genuine animation, "I received a wonderful education. Pitt was an absolutely vital place for me." He majored in history, with a special concentration in diplomatic history. And his subsequent success in his own maneuvers of diplomacy, gathering advocates of every stripe for his cause, suggest he aced the topic.

During the 1960s, Strickland volunteered on voter registration campaigns in the South. He adamantly protested the war in Vietnam. Formany young blacks in the incendiary year of 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and fires raged in American cities, the instinct was to tear something down. "I disagreed," says Strickland. His inclination was neither rebellion nor resistance. "My dream was to build something that would last." Build he did.

So it was in the year 1968 that a college student returned periodically to Manchester, opening a ceramics studio in a row house owned by a local church and teaching poor students to make pots. He chased away street thugs. He articulated his cause to white parishioners at Fox Chapel Episcopal Church and Saint Michael's in the Valley Episcopal Church in Ligonier. He raised $18,900 for two years, drawing an annual salary of $2,000. Human imagination in an abandoned row house, a vessel began to take shape.

As a pottery guru, Strickland made his national debut in 1972 on public television's Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. He later returned to the show in the late 1980s, escorting Fred Rogers on a tour of Manchester Craftsmen's Guild when it moved into its new home. To enlarge his income, the ever-resourceful Strickland learned to fly airplanes and became a pilot for Braniff Airlines.

For a year he flew commercial jets back and forth to Mexico on weekends. During the week he was back--at work--in Manchester. "It was a great ride," he laughs, "until Braniff went out of business."

Another Strickland joy is working with flowers. In his home basement, he meticulously grows orchids and exotic flowers dazzling in color. He is forever gently stirring the soil of life.

Two 11 p.m. conversations: 11 p.m., sometime in 1980. The Manchester Craftsmen's Guild , with a dozen years of history, is an unqualified triumph. Hundreds of young lives had been reshaped. But the guild was nearly broke, maybe $500 to its credit. Bill Strickland huddled with two county commissioners. "I was thinking, there is no way we can make it. But after long hours we came up with a strategy. We survived."

11 p.m., sometime in 1996. Strickland had been traveling. When he returned to Manchester late one evening he was told a woman had left a message for him to call "immediately any time day or night." He phoned back and received word of the MacArthur Fellowship and the check for $295,000. "This award, the media attention, the money, will change your life," she predicted. Has it? "No," Strickland smiles. "But it has enhanced my life." He immediately channeled a chunk of the money into a college fund for his 12-year-old daughter, Julie.

He remembers names, faces from the past: Gabriel Tait. Tait's father, Frederick (General Studies '78), was a barber, Strickland recalls. "I remember the son. He hung around the guild, showed a real knack for photography. He enrolled at Manchester in the sixth grade, caught fire, went on to Slippery Rock University and is today a top photographer at the Detroit Free Press.

"Sharif Bey. A very troubled kid, distant and uncommunicative. But he came alive in the art studio here. He, too, graduated from Slippery Rock, and today he's one of America's young developing ceramic artists. He totally transformed his life." He remembers. And, with persistence and faith, he continues to build.

Strickland's vision is clear to him, as near as the airy architectural drawing in his conference room. He sees it every day. It is a magnificent riverfront development a mile north of Pittsburgh's Point. In this vision, that wall that blocks the views of the rivers no longer exists. Walls of all kinds have been knocked down. A horizon widens.

In fact, Strickland hopes to enlarge his operations, offering more programs and services in a fancy office tower where empty lots now stand.

Construction is also about to begin on a good-sized urban greenhouse, adding a grace note to the grim neighborhood. Revenue from the sales of flowers and fruit and vegetables will help support all of Strickland's nonprofit enterprises: education, job training, economic development. The greenhouse will provide jobs and also serve as life-enhancing rehabilitative therapy for young people.

"Entrepreneurs, at their best, are innovative, always looking for that new idea and new opportunity," says Bill Strickland, who is about to bring new bloom to Manchester, to Pittsburgh, to the hearts of those in need.

Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of