Nicole Skeehan: “It takes more than love.”

While teaching a dog training class in 2016, Nicole Skeehan, owner of Philly Unleashed, noticed a young, black Labrador. She’s trained thousands of dogs over the past 20 years as a dog trainer, while developing training and behavioral programs for training facilities, shelters, prisons, rescues, and her own business. But there was something special about Cooper’s demeanor, work ethic, and intelligence. “I first watched him in classes,” said Skeehan. “I thought, my lord, this is one of the nicest dogs I’d ever seen in my life.”

Skeehan asked Cooper’s owner, Katelin Jackman, to let her know if the breeder had another litter like him, knowing that she wanted to train and donate a mobility service dog. Buddha, Cooper’s brother, joined the Philly Unleashed team in August 2017, and applications are being accepted until February 1 to find his partner.

Skeehan and her team of 11 trainers have already trained several service dogs, including Queenie, an adult yellow labrador purchased by a Jersey Mike’s fundraiser for a local family in 2016. Skeehan wanted to do it again, starting from the very beginning, with the goal of donating the trained mobility service dog to someone who needed one.

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Skeehan found that taking on a service dog project was a natural fit after years of working for and with welfare organizations and shelters. “This was the perfect opportunity to give back to our community,” said Skeehan. “We have the means and the staff to train a great dog, and we wanted to invite others to join us–whether financially or even just in helping us get the word out.”

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Skeehan started training animals early–she took family dogs to obedience school, bought her own horse when she was 16, and earned extra money in college teaching riding lessons. She started training Libby, a Great Dane and her first dog as an adult, at a high-end boarding and training facility. The owner noticed her work with Libby. “He asked me, ‘Are you a dog trainer? Are you sure? Because you’re really good at this,’” shared Skeehan.

Skeehan became the daycare manager of the facility in 2002, while finishing her degree. She also earned her certification through Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, becoming a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She then starting working for Animal Friends, a Pittsburgh shelter, in 2006. A few years later, the PSPCA recruited her in 2008 to build a behavior program in Philadelphia, where she remained until 2011. She moved on to build the training program for New Leash on Life-USA, where she stayed for five years, while starting her business.

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It was her position at the PSPCA as Director of Animal Behavior and Training that showed her it was possible to make a living as a dog trainer, and she’s been moving forward full speed ever since. “I still thought I needed to do business things because I had a business degree,” Skeehan said of her career before being recruited by the PSPCA. “I was fighting that I wanted to train dogs and do animal things. I was really excited when PSPCA was like, ‘No, come back and work animals again.’”

She’s found that in dog training, as an unregulated field, studying the science behind successful training methods is important–and worth it. “You can do it,” said Skeehan. “The harder you work, the better you can do at it. Your success is directly related to what you put in. There are a lot of dog trainers who are struggling. You have to work nights, weekends, pick up poop.”

And there isn’t always a solution. “You can’t always fix aggressive and anxious dogs,” said Skeehan. “You can suppress behaviors if you want. If you keep dogs under the threshold of stress, there’s a lot more success.”

Skeehan has always loved dogs, growing up with animals. But she found love wasn’t enough. “No one really studies the science behind why it works,” explained Skeehan. “Passion–yes fine, you have to have that. It takes more than love. There are actually reasons why behavior happens. It’s not just ‘by chance.’”

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Skeehan’s hard work led to results. In 2015, Philly Unleashed won Best of Philly and added exclusive training opportunities for clients at Rammytime Farm in Medford, where Skeehan lives with her husband, Tim, their son, dogs, Uluru and Porter, and a menagerie of donkeys, goats, and chickens.

Now, Philly Unleashed has 11 trainers offering private lessons, behavior walks, group classes, and training at the farm. Most of the trainers, like Skeehan, are CPDT- KA, which requires at least 300 of dog training experience, a signed attestation statement from a CCPDT certificant or veterinarian, and a signed and filed Code of Ethics–all completed even before the examination of 250 multiple-choice questions.

In March of 2017, Jackman told Skeehan there was another litter from Cooper’s parents on the way at Hunters Run Labradors. Skeehan paid the deposit, and then a surprise hit–she found out she was pregnant. “I thought, oh man, I’ve got a puppy. I don’t want a puppy if I’m pregnant,” said Skeehan. “It was my staff and Katelin that convinced me to keep him and that we could do this. So we kept the plan in place and put the deposit down.”

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Skeehan had originally wanted a black puppy, like Cooper, but the breeder told her she needed to take a look at a little yellow one instead. Skeehan tested three puppies on responses to startling stimuli, tolerance for body handling and restraint, and prominence of toy and food drive. The little yellow puppy was the smallest one, but Skeehan found him to be curious without being cautious and not sensitive to loud noises or new sensations. After a poll, Skeehan named the puppy Buddha and started an Instagram account, @BringingUpBuddha, to show his journey and training. “It’s not as easy as slapping a vest on a dog and walking onto an airplane or into Walmart,” said Skeehan. “Having a dog just be there is not good enough. It actually has to do things.”

And Buddha works hard. He recently showed off his training at a Flyers game in December 2017, settling in for three hours and refusing to be distracted.  “I was so impressed with this little guy,” said Dana Vachon, a certified trainer with Philly Unleashed who attended the game with Skeehan and Buddha. “Even when people were reaching out for him and trying to pet him, he stayed on task and focused. After the game, when his service vest came off, his puppy side came out while he spent time with the team.”

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Now, Skeehan’s baby is four months old, and Buddha is seven months old–and ready for his partner. Applicants are encouraged to apply online through Philly Unleashed’s website until February 1, when interviews will start. There is no cost for Buddha, as Philly Unleashed is providing all of the training, veterinarian needs, and food. To help offset costs, since Buddha’s care and training will cost $30,000, Philly Unleashed has created a GoFundMe page. All funds raised go towards Buddha and his care, and anything additional will go towards his person to get Buddha started on his new journey.

The public is invited to a Yappy Hour fundraiser for Buddha on Saturday, February 17, 2018, from 6 to 8 pm, to raise funds for Buddha’s care and training. The event will be held at PANT Dog Center in Philadelphia, located at 1134 Dickinson Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147.

Raffle baskets, including wine, yoga, and training, will be available. Pups will also have the opportunity to get professional photographs taken for a fee.

 

Buddha’s partner will train with Buddha free of charge at the farm for six months to a year before full-time placement, and Philly Unleashed will sponsor lifetime training for the pair. “It’s all about the relationship,” said Skeehan. “That’s the basis for Philly Unleashed–dogs can only come train at Farm Camp if they’ve been taking group or private classes, because we want to get to know them and their owners. We want to do the same with Buddha. We’ve built this relationship with him over the past five months, and we want to continue to build on that and include his partner.”

Buddha is intended as a mobility service dog, and there are several stipulations for the right partner, but the recipient will not be charged for Buddha.“My hope is he finds the right person, becomes a contributing member of society, and gets to be with someone who needs him,” said Skeehan. “We’re looking for somebody who is as invested in the success of the pair as we are. This should be someone who is willing to work at it. There will be valleys and peaks. Just because the dog is coming trained doesn’t mean it will be easy. This person will need to be realistic what a dog can do and can’t do, and will benefit in more ways than just being happier or less anxious generally. Buddha, with continued training, will help this person propel to success and be independent.”

Eligibility requirements and the application for Buddha are available online. Buddha has not been trained as a guide dog for the blind, hearing assistance dog, seizure/diabetic alert dog, or autism/anxiety support dog. Requirements include a commitment to commuting to Rammytime Farm in Southampton/Medford, NJ one to two times a week for six months. Help Philly Unleashed with Buddha’s training and expenses. Follow Buddha’s journey on Instagram.

Natalie Stone: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Natalie Stone is a bit notorious in Medford, NJ. She’s caused quite the stir by taking parking spots meant for pregnant women and posting Youtube videos that poke fun at the typical yard sale shopper. She also works full-time, acts part-time, volunteers, and bakes constantly.

Cooking and baking have been a part of her life since she was a child helping her grandmother, Mary, in the kitchen. Stone started Bella’s Biscotti in 2011, and named the business after her youngest, Isabella.

Stone bakes biscotti in four flavors: classic anise, chocolate cherry, lemon, and vanilla pistachio cherry. She describes her biscotti as old-school traditional, using her grandmother’s recipe, which provides crunch but won’t chip teeth.

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She bakes for the joy of it while maintaining her career to pay the bills and keep her lifestyle, despite encouragement to open a bakery. She’s found that the Medford area can’t sustain a bakery–and exaggerated that 92 bakeries in the area have already failed. “Locals buy all of their pastries at the supermarket, which is a shame,” said Stone.

Even if her estimation of failed bakeries is high, Stone has seen her fair share of bakeries that couldn’t stick around in the 34 years she’s lived in Medford. “All these delicious bakeries came and went like that,” she said, snapping her fingers.

Even without the full-time reliability of a brick and mortar store, Stone bakes the best product she can as often as possible. “I like my specialty goods,” she explained. “I can’t sustain a livelihood here doing that, but I do make some money doing it and I’m happy with that. I don’t want to diminish my product with soybean oil. I love butter. If there’s a sale on butter, I’m there with 32 pounds of butter in my cart. You can taste it – there’s a difference. There’s nothing better than butter. I could never be vegan.”

While others have discouraged her baking over the years, with one previous boss even telling her to give up because it provided so little money and required too much time. Stone disregarded them all. “I was able to build it over time,” she shared. “I started at home, then got too big and needed a commercial kitchen.”

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Stone with her husband, Anthony, and their dogs, Vinny and Santino. Photo by: Steve Edwards

No stranger to the kitchen, Stone attended The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College after high school. She completed her internship at the Ritz Carlton, and then, over the following 17 years, worked at hotels in Philadelphia such as The Rittenhouse Hotel and Condominiums, The Loews Philadelphia Hotel, and The Warwick Hotel in various food and beverage management positions. She met all living presidents, actors such as John Travolta, Kevin Costner, and Bruce Willis, Oprah, and a bunch of bands, musicians, and athletes. “It was so much fun,” Stone shared. “The most fun you can have at work is acting and the hotel business. Nothing beats a day at work.”

In 2010, Stone found herself in a place to pursue the interests that she’s had to keep on the back burner. She had been born and raised in Philadelphia until the age of 13, when her family moved to Medford. She left Medford for a few years until moving back so her youngest could attend Catholic School at St. Mary of the Lakes. Now, Stone and her husband of 12 years, Anthony, have five kids between them, a grandchild due in April, and two dogs named Vinny and Santino. Anthony provided the support Stone had been missing in her first marriage, and she quit her job to start acting. “Life got in the way,” Stone explained. “I always wanted to do it. I always wanted to perform.”

Stone immediately started getting work. “Now things are different,” Stone shared. “I have my Anthony and he’s beautiful and supportive. I love him. I’m in love with my husband. He’s truly the greatest thing since a cannoli.”

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She booked Boardwalk Empire, industrial videos, infomercials, modeling gigs, a cooking show pilot, a variety of independent films, and several theater roles, including Tina’s mother in Tony and Tina’s Wedding. Stone also combined her love of acting and cooking, making it to the final casting phase of Hell’s Kitchen and snagging an episode of Rocco’s Dinner Party in 2011.

These days, with the spare time she can find, Stone volunteers for Heroin Kills New Jersey, assisting with fundraisers, and she’s active with her church, St. Mary’s of the Lakes, as a lector, while continuing to act and bake. This year alone, she worked on a series of commercials with a Mob Wives theme, airing in Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania; a film called Turkey’s Done that is seeking distribution in Los Angeles; and another independent film called Without You. “I feel like ‘I’m going to die,’ so I want to pursue everything I can,” Stone explained. “It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, it’s who you are as a person. I don’t think you can narrow me down to one thing. I want to do all the things. I want to try everything and have a good damn time doing it. And I get paid. I don’t work for free anymore. Those days are over.”

Her advice for others looking to follow their passions is similar to her own self-talk motivation. “You’re gonna die and you don’t want to die with regrets,” Stone said. “Try everything you want to do–not trying is where the failure is. You get a lot of time in a day, a week, a lifetime. Don’t spend it unwisely! I don’t know what that’s like to live without passion, to not do or not try something you want. Try different things. So many people are afraid of their own shadow or what people will say or think of them.”

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Puppy thief! Stone’s biscotti are so good, even the dog tries to get a taste.

When the worst does happen–well, Stone has found that it’s usually not so bad. “When trying new things, I ask myself, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ With that answer, I ask myself, ‘And then what?’” Stone shared. “That question usually leads to the conclusion that the worst that can happen usually isn’t that bad and it’s worth trying. I tell my kids If you’re not squirming, you’re not growing. Make yourself uncomfortable. Go talk to that person or try that new thing. I don’t care if you have to rehearse a script before a conversation, just go have it. I don’t care if you’re the pope or the president, I’m walking up to you. He’s probably smarter, but he probably can’t act or bake. Everyone has their God-given talents and they should pursue them.”

Find Stone on IMDB, Facebook, and visit her Bella’s Biscotti website.

Ben Cohen: “Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.”

Ben Cohen, age 94 (“That’s right, much to my dismay,” he said with a smile), finds that he’s consistently asked the same two questions about his work: What’s your favorite? and How long did it take you to do it?

He declines to pick a favorite while standing in a room at the Medford Memorial Community Center surrounded by his pieces and those of three others. The show, “Ben Cohen and Friends”, has about 40 pieces of art created by Cohen, Marlene Craig, Joyce McAfee, and David Watson on display through Christmas 2017.

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Ben Cohen, 94, framed by his work and those of his friends at the Medford Memorial Community Center. Photo: Elizabeth Silverstein

But Cohen does give his best guess to how long each piece takes. “When I’m teaching a class, I say about 60 years,” he said. “It took a very long time. Right through WWII and everything.”

Cohen grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City’s Lower East Side. It was a childhood considered disadvantaged, Cohen explained, since four families living in the tenement shared one toilet in the hallway. He attended kindergarten speaking only Yiddish and writing left handed — both of which were strikes against him in the New York City public school system, which would not enroll left-handed children. Despite a rocky start, he learned English and compromised with his writing. “To this day, I do everything left handed except write,” said Cohen.

He also attended the Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit organization developed by Lillian Wald in 1893, which provides social service, arts, and health care programs. “Social workers tried to help dead-end kids, to try to get us on the right path,” Cohen explained. “They decided I had possibilities as an artist.”

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“K Clamp”, watercolor, by Ben Cohen

When he was eight years old, the staff decided to send him to a life class at a larger school, which consisted of male and female nude models. “In the art world, it is an important function to learn how to draw the human body,” Cohen said, sharing the reasoning behind their decision.

But perhaps eight was a bit young. “I was far too embarrassed to look at the models,” Cohen added. “I was looking at the other wall. The instructor said, ‘You have to look at the model.’ I was just too embarrassed to look.”

His embarrassment didn’t deter him from the art world. Art followed him even when he was drafted into the service at age 19, leaving the tenement and New York City behind for the front lines. He was in every battle of World War II, drawing on pieces of paper before each engagement. “I just had scraps of paper,” Cohen said. “I drew everything from where we landed to where the invasion happened.”

Original col. pencil sketch by Cohen; view of Liverpool harbor through porthole; seagull and small green ship in foreground.

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view of Liverpool harbor through porthole; seagull and small green ship in foreground. Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

Those pieces now have a home at Brown University, but the memories linger. “I remember during the Battle of the Bulge,” Cohen shared, “I was told by the superior if we were captured, I better take my dog tags and bury them in the snow, because with a name like Cohen, they would shoot me on the spot. I didn’t get captured.”

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view overlooking stern of troop ship, with tall smokestacks; other ships floating in background.

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view overlooking stern of troop ship, with tall smokestacks; other ships floating in background. Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

After the war, he married Shirley, his wife of 71 years, who passed away a year ago. He was attending a program through his military service, attending the University of Pennsylvania for mechanical engineering, and heard that the local Jewish Community Center had the best pastrami sandwiches. When he had some time off, he decided to check it out. “Army food is nourishing but not gourmet,” Cohen explained. “I went for a pastrami sandwich and I ended up with Shirley.”

It was through Shirley that he learned that some families lived in entire houses, something he hadn’t experienced growing up in the tenement. Her father was a market butcher in Philadelphia, and when she took him to meet her family,  he was astonished. “I thought he was a big industrialist because I couldn’t imagine someone could have a whole house,” Cohen explained.

Cohen also went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn through the GI Bill for three years, their standard, unaccredited offering at the time. Afterwards, he snagged a job designing toys and toy packaging. When the toy company went out of business (“Not because of my lousy designs,” Cohen noted), one of the packaging companies he had designed for called looking for a design. “I did a package,” Cohen said. “Next thing I know, another call. From there on, it was nonstop. I worked night and day, around the clock. When I was getting ready to retire, I was very concerned I wouldn’t have anything to do.”

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“Summer Garden”, oil, by Marlene Craig

At age 55, ready to retire, Cohen called several of his longtime accounts, announcing that he was leaving the designing business. He made sure to add that he wasn’t leaving town, and if there were any issues, he was a phone call away. “Next thing I know, they called back,” Cohen said. “They used to give me about half of work, now they wanted to give me all of the work since I didn’t have anything else to do. So it sort of backfired. I finally convinced them, I’m out.”

Cohen started teaching classes and workshops, finding the freedom from commissioned work enjoyable. “I was thrilled I could now do what I want and no client would tell me, ‘No you can’t do that, we want so-and-so,’” Cohen shared.

These days, Cohen continues to teach beginner and advanced workshops at the Willingboro Art Alliance on Wednesday mornings and at the Philadelphia Sketch Club on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. He also attends the Philadelphia Sketch Club on Wednesdays to work on his own art. “I found now that I have sort of laid back a little bit on what you might call serious work,” Cohen explained. “To me, art is spiritual. For that hour or two or three, I can forget the world. It is terrific therapy. You forget everything.”

"Path to Kate's Track", watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (top); "Mill Dam Park, Mt Holly", watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (bottom)

“Path to Kate’s Track”, watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (top); “Mill Dam Park, Mt Holly”, watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (bottom)

His advice for other artists is simple. “I think one of the things I could say is don’t take yourself too seriously,” Cohen said. “Don’t get too uptight about it.”

He keeps his own work, mainly pastel, infused with humor. “I have nothing against classical art but I like to see a little bit of humor,” he explained. “Take a look around this world. I think we need it. There’s so much horror going on, we take it for granted. Happening all the time. We need something a little lighter. I’m not concerned about politics. I’m more concerned about doing the nose right.”

But when he does get the nose right, it’s because it’s just a nose. “When I do a nose, it’s really a nose; it’s not a metaphor for something major happening,” Cohen said.

"The Patriots", oil on panel, by David Watson

“The Patriots”, oil on panel, by David Watson

Working in almost every medium, even if pastel is his main choice, Cohen said he takes liberties to extract a certain vibe, one he calls impressionistic realism. He’ll change the colors, or change the settings, putting a model from a session at the Sketch Club on a $20 instead of a couch, adding in New York City below her, and calling it “Let the Money Float”. Another time, he dressed a model in a Santa Claus suit, added a window with a raging storm outside and called it, “I Ain’t Going Out In That.”

His pieces at the Medford Memorial Community Center are also semi-impressionistic, as he made artistic choices to change colors in real-life scenes, like “South Philly Graffiti” in pastel, or add a stadium behind a model, such as his “Phillies Fan” piece in pastel.

The influence of living in West Philadelphia for many years can still be seen in his work, but New Jersey has been his home since 1968. His house in Cinnaminson has three studios, a Wall of Fame filled with the work of his two children and five grandchildren, and plenty of nude figure pieces that he and Shirley picked out. He’s come a long way since his days as a shy child in New York City. “Relations would come and tell us we were going to corrupt the kids,” Cohen said of the nudes. “Now the kids are in their 50s and 60s, and every time they come around, they tell me they weren’t corrupted.”

The show, “Ben Cohen and Friends”, will be up through Christmas at the Medford Memorial Community Center. Stop by on Saturday, Dec. 2, during the Dickens Festival, to view the art while meeting Mrs. Claus with other fun for the children at the center. The show will also be available for viewing on Friday, Dec. 8 from 6 to 9 pm, with four other shows opening on Main Street.

Ginger Kuczowicz: “The simplicity of it is beautiful.”

Ginger Kuczowicz has a mission: crafting all-natural home and skin care products and providing ecological cleaning services to encourage healthier, greener living in Philadelphia.

Kuczowicz owns two different businesses, the first of which is Holistic Home LLC, an ecological cleaning service she started in 2010, and the second is a physical store called Soap Box she opened in 2013. Soap Box sells hand-made, all-natural skin care products and household cleaners. She now has ten employees, and Holistic Home LLC was named The Best of Philly 2014, and​ one of the best by Yelp and Angie’s List, while Soap Box won The Best of Philly 2015.

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Kuczowicz opened Soap Box as an extension of her cleaning business to provide simple, all-natural items. All of the products are handmade in the back of the store. “If you use soap and touch your skin with it 25 times a day, it should be healthy for you,”  Kuczowicz said. “Lotions, skin care, anything you put on your skin. We sell supplies we clean with at the store. We often have clients who say, ‘What can I do to make my home smell like the store?’”

Using vinegar, baking soda and essential oils as some of the foundations for her products, Kuczowicz explained that what she crafts is simple to make, and easily replicated at home. “The simplicity of it is beautiful, in my opinion,” Kuczowicz said “There’s nothing harmful about it.”

Kuczowicz developed a passion for cleaning during her upbringing in Upper Silesia, Poland, the most industrial part of Europe for the 20th century, with coal mining coating houses regularly in soot. “We had to clean from almost the moment we were born,” Kuczowicz said. “Every Saturday, everybody would just clean their houses. The windows had to be cleaned once a month or we couldn’t see through them.”

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She came to the United States in 2000 to be with her partner, who had made the trip the year before to work on his doctorate degree. Having gone to accounting school after high school at age 15, she was already an experienced accountant for the Foundation of Cardiac Surgery Development. When  she arrived in the United States, she continued to work in nonprofit accounting. She found a job with Your Part-Time Controller, a company that specializes in nonprofit accounting. “Every day was a different nonprofit,” Kuczowicz shared. “You become friends with them, because they care about certain causes that are close to your heart, like pets or the elderly. That was a great job too.”

She started cleaning on the side, and when considering the products she wanted to use for her cleaning work, Kuczowicz examined the number of cancer cases in the western world after World War II, and saw a correlation between health and the staggering increase in amount of chemicals that were being used. “The number of cancers has grown drastically,” Kuczowicz explained. “Obviously the chemicals in the cleaners did not help the situation. They were not even necessary. We just have a tendency to overdo cleaning. Simple vinegar can do the job just fine. It’s actually good to be exposed to bacteria, on some level.”

Three years after she started her cleaning business, Kuczowicz quit her accounting job. “It had grown to such a size that I could no longer do both,” Kuczowicz said. “It was just not fair to my employer at the time, or my own business. I couldn’t keep up with the demand on both sides. I had to make a decision. Either close the cleaning business or quit accounting world, which I enjoyed immensely.”

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Her accounting experience has proven invaluable with her businesses, and she encourages anyone considering starting their own business to keep good books. “Books are the most important thing to see how healthy or unhealthy your business is,” Kuczowicz said. “You can have someone do them for you, but understand what they mean. That’s something people have a tendency to run away from because it’s not easy or pleasant to learn, but it’s so crucial I can’t stress it enough.”

She also encouraged potential business owners to have a plan on paper, be aware of the time needed to grow a business, and set time aside every day for self care. “Get ready to be finished with their social life because there’s no such a thing as weekends,” Kuczowicz shared. “There is work around the clock. At a certain point, after a few years, you build a client base and are able to get help.”

Until that point, however, Kuczowicz stressed the long hours. The job is draining,” she said. “It is stressful either way. That will never leave you. I want to add at the same time the importance of taking a break. It is difficult to take a break because the amount of work is staggering, but I think a person should make a point to have thirty minutes or an hour to close the laptop, close your iPhone and do something for yourself.”

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She’s found other challenges as well. “Even though you are driven by your mission to do good things, that mission gets pushed aside by daily necessities of filling out paperwork, on compliance, or taxes, bookkeeping, hiring people,” she shared. “Normal business stuff that you don’t think about going into business. You think that you’re just going to be focusing on the mission – why did you even open the business. There can be only 20 percent of that left when you have all of those other obligations on your back. My desk is never clear. That is a challenge. I would love to have a secretary, but I’m not big enough to have somebody just yet.”

As many challenges as she faces, Kuczowicz has found her work to be rewarding as well. “When people tell me that someone no longer suffers from asthma attacks after we’ve done the cleaning or when we come to clean on a regular basis,” she said about the encouraging things she encounters with her work. “When we clean with natural cleaners, there’s nothing that triggers asthma. I love when people ask specifically for green cleaning, because they have small children, animals. A lot of them have the tendency to spend a lot of time on the floor. Dogs lick the floor. It’s fine licking vinegar but not so much Pine Sol. That’s very rewarding when people notice the difference. Not to mention they don’t have to spend the time cleaning. They’re buying time also from us.”

Visit Holistic Home LLC’s website, or Facebook. Follow Soap Box on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram or visit the online store.

Laura Sallade: “You need discipline.”

There was never any doubt in Laura Sallade’s mind about becoming an artist.

Eight years after moving to Philadelphia, she’s renting additional space for the studio she’s had for the past six years, she has representation at Seraphin Gallery in  Philadelphia and MasseyLyuben Gallery in NYC, and she’s about to show 34 pieces.

Sallade creates two-dimensional sculptures, using a combination of glass, silver, epoxy, and watercolor to build complex patterns and layered works that are wall hung. She utilizes her sculpture, chemistry, and printmaking knowledge to explore and experiment.

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Sallade’s pieces consist of glass, silver, epoxy, and watercolor.

The foundation of each piece always consists of glass, and Sallade uses her other materials to explore the glass and create patterns. “I’m drawn to patterns because I find them everywhere in nature,” Sallade explained. “I enjoy the feeling of discovery and pursue it on a daily basis, and as the work evolves, it can go through a process of appearing like many different natural formations.”

The complexity of each piece can require help from others, since quick movements for large pieces can be needed as glass is lifted, chemicals poured and sealing conducted. While her largest piece to date was a sculpture created for a Nantucket home, the largest artwork she created for her upcoming show required the help of two friends.

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Sallade’s largest piece, hung in Nantucket. Photo courtesy of Laura Sallade.

Originally intended as a door for the Comcast Center, the piece is one of the 34 works in Sallade’s show at Massey Lyuben in Chelsea, opening on November 16. “I really wanted to make something this size where I didn’t have anyone else telling me what they wanted,” Sallade explained. “I’m really glad I trusted my gut with this piece.”

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Sallade with her upcoming show’s largest piece.

The holes for a doorknob and hinges are still visible through the transformation that Sallade provided. “I love that it was meant to have this other life and it got miscast,” she said.

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Originally meant as a door, the holes meant for hinges and a doorknob are still visible.

Now, it is what Sallade refers to as a vessel of contemplation. “The purpose of these objects is to make a place for contemplation and people can put their thoughts in,” explained Sallade. “For one person, it might be the joy of becoming a parent, while someone else is grieving the loss of someone dear. Art is this space to contain all of these thoughts. I’m glad I got a door. I was able to take something that otherwise would have been thrown out and give it life.”

Even with the beauty that comes with giving discarded pieces new life, there’s challenge in creating. “The difficulty isn’t in the physical putting together of elements,” Sallade explained. “It’s facing your fear of manifesting an expression of yourself. Doing that takes courage. Putting yourself out there to be criticized is the hard part. I think our battles are more invisible than we realize.”

Sallade has fought her own share of battles, working hard over the years. “I like when people are cautious to own the title of ‘artist’ because it shows they revere it,” Sallade said. “Everyone has creativity and I always strive to encourage that in everyone, but to be a fully committed artist you need discipline. To say everyone is an artist is not letting artists have their own space and category and a lot of artists fight to be in that space. I have definitely sacrificed a lot to be here and that serves as motivation because the stakes are higher due to the sacrifices I’ve made.”

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Sallade’s studio space, with elements that will become part of a sculpture.

Sallade’s own journey started in childhood, growing up in the suburbs of Reading, PA. “I didn’t really ever consider anything else as a career,” she explained. “When it was time to go to school, it was, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do.’”

Her parents were supportive, and Sallade found that she really enjoyed building things and working with material. She uses colors, lines, and composition as part of her process, but not the goal. “I make things that look like paintings,” Sallade said. “Everything I make has sculptural content to it. I like the challenge of 2D because it’s figuring out how well I can investigate on a two-dimensional surface. There’s so much much more that goes into my process than applying paint to a surface, so describing these works simply as paintings doesn’t feel quite accurate.”

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She went to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Center City, earning a Certification in Sculpture, and stayed in Philadelphia when her career began even before graduation. Needing a second studio for a large commission, she found her current space with an affordable rent, and recently expanded to a larger studio in the same building. Conveniently near New York City, where most of her sales occur, Sallade has found herself in a good location while building her career and even traveling for inspiration.

She was able to travel throughout Europe for two months on a travel grant and spent time in the south of France earlier this year. “The change that happens is internal and indirect,” Sallade explained. “You go and travel and realize what things fall away and what things remain when out of the context of your normal life.”

While in France, she spent time exploring nature, examining the light. “It’s a really wild spacial experience,” Sallade said. “The mountains are right up against the ocean and it’s really beautiful.”

She decided to paint in nature, bringing her watercolor supplies, where were easy to bring along. When she lost her large brush, she only had a small one to recreate the patterns she found, and she discovered new inspiration in the process. “You walk a couple of meters and everything changes,” Sallade shared. “Five watercolors came out of that experience of what it felt like to be on the mountain.”

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Sallade incorporates patterns into her work, using nature as inspiration.

These days, as her commissions became more consistent, Sallade moved from bartending to driving for supplemental income. She drives for Lyft a few hours in the morning before working a full day at the studio. She usually creates more than 40 hours a week, and having the ability to pick up hours when she needs gives her the freedom to work on her pieces without interruptions. “It’s a little bit of stability and if I need to drop it, no one is harassing me,” she shared.

She’s also able to focus on experimenting more and has found that imagery becomes more beautiful when she gives up control. The pieces that look the most organic are the ones where Sallade allows the work to flow. She can engineer the process to get a certain look, using gestures to build complementary patterns. “If there’s too much control, it’ll look contrived,” Sallade added. “I’ll always try to tweak it a bit. I pay attention. You have to be willing to sacrifice your own plans. You have to make plans. Then you have to let go of them.”

Sallade often shows behind-the-scenes video of her work in the studio on her Instagram, and her website holds more information about her process and representation.

Phil Roberts: “There is no shortcut.”

Phil Roberts likes a challenge. As he’s developing his second wood-based company in five years and his third company in eight years, he’s realized he has selected a big one.

Roberts grew up in Southampton as one of five kids, with a creatively-minded mother, Carol, and an engineering-orientated father, Sid. Spending a lot of time with his grandfathers, a farmer and a carpenter, provided more exposure to skill-based careers. Sid, a software/electrical engineer, encouraged Roberts to pursue engineering. “So I got an art degree,” said Roberts. “It wasn’t a direct rebellion — maybe subconsciously. His work seemed really interesting but also boring. Sitting at a computer didn’t seem like a good option.”

Roberts earned his B.S. Digital Media Arts with an emphasis on cinematography from John Brown University in NW Arkansas. After graduation, he started work as a freelance photographer and videographer. While the travel was fun, the unpredictability of the work took its toll. “I would spend two weeks in St. Louis and then have three weeks with no job,” Roberts said.

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Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

Looking for a hobby, Roberts began to build custom farm tables in 2012. “I would sell a table, then spend money to buy more equipment, and make another table. It was a slow process,” Roberts shared.

But it was a process that worked. Using sustainably sourced wood to make customizable tables at a good price, Roberts was able to build the business from a one-man show to a ten-man team. He also brought his wife, Melinda, on staff in 2015. “Marketing was easy because it was a product I would want to buy,” explained Roberts. “We built a really good product, sold one table and asked the customer to tell one friend. It was a snowball.”

His digital media experience was also a huge benefit when building the business. “If you have to hire someone for every single process, it’s impossible,” Roberts said. “I grew that company until I realized I wasn’t the best person for the job anymore. I wanted to be designing, not building the company. … Once I realized I was just the email guy, I realized someone else could do this better than me. Someone with business, marketing experience.”

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Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

He and Melinda decided to take a step back. In June 2016, they sold most of Emmor Works. A few months later, they traveled across the United States in an old VW van they called Benjy, documenting their journey through their Instagram account, @tires2fires. During their trip, with a stop in Boulder, Colorado, the couple ran into an old friend at a public library makerspace. They toured the location, which included a laser cutter that caught Roberts’ eye. After a brief discussion, they moved on.

They didn’t know when they were getting home or what they would do when they did, and the stress of needing to pay bills was starting to build. Melinda had always wanted to return to library science, the field she had left temporarily to join Emmor Works. “She was really good at her job, but she’s great wherever she goes,” Roberts explained. “It was great to have her at Emmor Works.”

When they got home, Melinda found a job as the school librarian at the Maple Shades High School, while Roberts intended to return to Emmor Works, where he planned on designing and building furniture without having to run the team or manage the business side of the company. “In my fantasy land of my mind, I wanted to separate from Emmor Works while designing products for them,” he shared. “That seemed like the best of both worlds. Hopefully, it’s still possible.”

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Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

But there were creative differences and mismatched expectations. After several months, Roberts decided instead to combine his love of technical woodworking and design ability into an entirely new company, Art by Philip Roberts. He remembered that laser cutter and the brief conversation they’d had in Colorado, and he decided to invest in his own machine. “I knew I wanted to be in a design-orientated business,” explained Roberts. “and what attracted me to this was the technical and creative aspect. I still get to work with wood.”

Roberts designs his pieces digitally, converts the files into a format the laser can process, and then allows the laser to cut out the pieces. Each art piece consists of 12 layers built from mahogany, and the laser can take up to 9.5 hours to complete all of the layers. The design work itself can take countless hours to plan and execute. And it took some months to figure out. “You hope when it’s all done and you spent hours doing it that it looks okay,” said Roberts.

Roberts sold his first piece in July 2017. “I’d forgotten how much work it took to build a company from scratch,” Roberts shared. “You remember it’s exciting and difficult, but the amount of work is crazy.”

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Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

Even before marketing, Roberts invested the time in building his process for building the pieces. “It took a couple months alone to master the actual construction of these complicated pieces,” Roberts explained. “Obviously the designs are essential to the art but if the physical piece in your hands doesn’t feel right, it ruins the experience. Emmor Works was the opposite. I believe we created a great product but it came at the cost of sleepless nights and unmanageable hours. The shop was peddle-to-metal at all times to keep up with orders. If we had slowed down to improve our production design, we could have produced just as much with so much less stress.”

Then there was the difficulty of building trust with his customers. “There is no shortcut,” Roberts said, “and the only way to build a strong reputation is putting in the work to prove that trust and reliability. However, it is amazing what customers will do once that trust is established.”

The beginning of October brought a wave of orders, and the reviews and feedback have been positive. “This was an opportunity to jump in and make it work because I have no choice but to make it work,” Roberts said. “That stress and anxiety is a good motivator.”

Even as the business continues to build, Roberts is hesitant to call himself an artist. To build tables was to make a functional piece of furniture, and now, he is making something completely different. He explained, “It’s a very weird thing to be like, ‘I make art.’ It’s so pretentious, and not something I aspired to do. I’m more comfortable saying I produce home decor.”

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Photo courtesy of Phil Roberts

It’s the respect for the craft that makes Roberts hesitant to define himself as an artist. “I went to school with talented artists,” Roberts added. “I know what talent looks like. I would never put myself in the same caliber as those guys.”

That discomfort is also a draw for Roberts. “You should be doing something uncomfortable every day,” he said. “I enjoy doing it. And I think there’s a place for it. When you’re selling art, you’re selling yourself. If I could sell all day and not tell anyone I’m doing it, that would be great.”

And of course, there’s the challenge. “If you pick a really big challenge, it will entertain you for a long time,” Roberts shared. “I can’t escape now. I’m too far in now. I either have to make it work or bail. The challenge is I’m attracted to challenge. It’s satisfying — you had an idea and now it’s real life. Taking it from your head to real life is really cool. It’s difficult, too. It’s not like I have cold feet, but if I were to look for a ‘real’ job now, I don’t think I’d be an attractive candidate to HR. How does starting three different weird companies convert to finding some desk job? I have no idea so, yeah, we have to make this work.”

As the word gets out and Roberts continues to design, he just wants to improve. “I hope that three months from now I look at what I’m doing now and think it’s terrible,” Roberts said. “As soon as you stop progressing, what’s the point? Why keep doing stuff if you’re not getting better? I feel the things I made that I love the most were things I never sold. It would be great to sell something someday that I absolutely think is the best. I need to develop a style. Seeing other people doing amazing stuff is inspiring but also frightening. Again, good motivation to keep going.”

Visit Phil’s website, Instagram, and Facebook to see what else he is working on and to nab one of his pieces.

Mark S. Doss: Performing Opera, the Culmination of All the Arts

Mark S. Doss grew up next to a church rectory and was able to observe the kindness of the priests who lived there firsthand. He combined his childhood love of baseball with his desire to enter the ministry, and settled on being a baseball-playing priest.

But another interest crept into view when he was young–he watched a movie that featured an operatic feat of breaking a glass singing a high note. He asked his chorus teacher, Mrs. Hilton, how he could find the music the baritone was singing. She directed him to the library, and then arranged an opportunity for Doss to have a non-singing part in Aida, a Metropolitan Opera touring production.

That day in April 1976 was Doss’s first exposure to a live opera performance.

He then took drama and chorus classes in high school, and performed in Godspell. That led to a city-sponsored arts training program, where Doss performed in The Wiz That Is as Daniel Galein. After that, he acted in The Man of La Mancha.

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Photo from www.marksdoss.com.

Finishing a summer of performing, he entered the seminary program at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, IN, still intent on the priesthood. He ended up ministering through a different means. “My goal was to become a priest, and declaring my minor to be music was certainly a way (I thought) to continue my study of voice and to use that to the best of my ability in my ministry,” said Doss. “The comments I received early on did give me something to consider, but ultimately I knew that I wanted to use my singing to inspire others in a way that I, myself, am inspired, knowing that when one sings one does indeed pray twice. Certainly when I sing the words of Zaccaria in Nabucco, Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in Salome, or even Méphiso in Faust–the devil was once an angel–I am celebrating the gifts I have been given from God, and I am presenting back to God the fruits of those gifts, borne out through my hard work and dedication.”

At age 21, he won the second competition he had ever entered, mere months after the first competition, where he tried to sing after coming down with a cold. He placed in the District Competition of the Metropolitan Opera held at Valparaiso University in Indiana.

Still, Doss took his GRE exams in sociology and not music. Then things began to shift. “I auditioned at the University of Illinois and I was offered a full scholarship, and then I auditioned at Indiana University’s School of Music and received extremely enthusiastic responses from the faculty that heard me,” shared Doss. “I expected to be told I should just line up behind the other one hundred nice voices they had heard that day, but that did not happen.  Something just seemed to ‘click’ when I would sing, and this came to me profoundly at one of St. Joe’s glee club concerts, when I found myself feeling extremely ‘at home’ while on stage singing ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ from Fiddler on the Roof.”

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Photo from www.marksdoss.com.

Doss left seminary after his second year, graduating with a Bachelor’s of Arts from Saint Joseph’s. He earned his Master degree at Indiana University, during which he sang in his first opera role as Khan Konchak in Borodin’s Prince Igor. This is also where he first performed his signature role, as Méphistophélès in Faust.

As much as the world of opera pulled Doss in, it has not been without its struggles. Without a large amount of musical training, Doss has had to be creative. “I have worked to develop many different techniques to compensate for what I consider a musical handicap,” said Doss. “My brain seems to initially put words and music on two different tracks, so I am constantly trying analyze each of them separately and then to bring them back together.”

In the years since he experienced his first live opera, Doss has performed all over the world in over 120 roles with more than 60 major opera companies, singing in 10 languages. He refers to opera as a “culmination of all the arts”, and has found that the art form fits his desire to have a hand in everything. “The word ‘opus’ means work,” explained Doss, “and the plural of that word is ‘opera’ (works). You have singing, acting, languages, dancing (ballet), scenery, makeup, wardrobe, the orchestra, and a number of other visual arts that are now incorporated into what we call opera. If you just want to sing, then you can do that with a piano or even a cappella, but it’s not opera because you are always going to be missing five or six elements of the art form that can only happen when you bring all of them together. ‘It takes a village.’ When you bring so many people together and have them working together on a single operatic project it can be a thing of great beauty!”

Doss won a Grammy in 1993, on the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Handel’s Semele, conducted by John Nelson. He was also honored with the Entertainment Award from Planet Africa for his artistic achievements while being a positive role model. He presents a Role Preparation Masterclass and continues to fundraise through Opera Susquehanna and the Bozeman Symphony. “Through my Role Preparation Masterclass I have presented as many elements of opera as I possibly can,” explained Doss who splits his time between Erie, PA and Toronto, ON when not performing. “I offer them a smorgasbord of what opera encompasses, and so I encourage people to study every aspect of history, culture, literature, music, languages that let them be encouraged to let the art more choose them, if they have the gifts that should be showcased for the world to see.”

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Photo from www.marksdoss.com.

Doss also willingly and eagerly provides advice to those who ask. “Whenever I am asked to offer suggestions on singing, starting a career or my thoughts on a certain character, I am very enthusiastic,” Doss said. “Some of the conversations after performances have been very enlightening, when I get a chance to hear people telling me how many times they’ve seen me perform in other operas, or how many performances they’ve attended of the opera I am doing at the time. Some fans don’t like certain productions, and I often share their feelings or I try to explain the director’s concept in a way that might help them become more comfortable with different ideas. Primarily I want them to know that I am always more interested in playing a character on stage, than just being Mark S. Doss singing a few lines of music.”

The efforts Doss puts into fundraising are to not only raise awareness and encourage attendance, but also reach those who don’t have easy access to the art form. “I think there should always be private funding for opera, but also a balance of public funding because it really does allow so many people to be involved and employed, giving them a sense of worth and high self esteem,” shared Doss. “I think the funding issues are difficult, but not impossible to overcome with more innovative ideas. When the economic times are difficult, I think it’s very hard for people to attend performances of any type. My fundraising efforts have been to primarily help that situation and to constantly reach out to those in communities who might not be exposed to opera, inspiring them to see the possibilities the art form can offer them in its need to have a village to keep it going. Through the HD performances of opera, people have gone to theaters to enjoy the art form, when getting to the actual Opera House might be more difficult. This could be taking some people out of the seats, but it can also be inspiring more people to get their chance in the Opera House for the first time, and many times afterwards.”

Mark Doss performed as Méphistophélès at the The Coade Theatre during the Dorset Opera Festival until July 29, and graciously took the time to answer my questions between staging and videotaping sessions. His next performance, starting on October 7, will be as a soloist at the Wyoming Symphony in Casper, Wyoming. Doss will also perform as a soloist October 28 & 29 in Bozeman, Montana at the Bozeman Symphony.

Learn more about Doss, see what he’s performed previously and learn what’s upcoming at his website or Facebook page.

This is the third and final article about appreciating, studying, and performing opera.