Learning the tricks of Baltimore's 'Tradesmen'

Richard Yeagley fueled his punchy new film, "The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work," with a fierce hometown nostalgia.

This first-time documentary maker grew up near Loch Raven High School — he's a 2002 graduate — and went to Stevenson University when it was still called Villa Julie College. Film degree in hand, he took off for Los Angeles, where he found ready employment; during one stint at Toyota, he helped craft the multi-DVD history of the car manufacturer's first half-century in America.

But Yeagley longed for the unassuming camaraderie of his blue-collar hometown. Two years ago, in the Southern California sun, he got the nub of an idea for a real Baltimore movie. It came from a frustrating epiphany.

"I can't build anything myself — and most of the people around me couldn't use their hands and minds to build anything, either," he said. "[We] have no manual competence! My dad wasn't even blue-collar, but he could still construct a deck. I saw this division between my dad's friends and mine. I wanted to look into it."

The result is "The Tradesmen," one fact-based film that mixes flesh and blood with nuts and bolts. (It screens Thursday, June 2, at Johns Hopkins' Mountcastle Auditorium.)

Yeagley recognized early that this manual-competence generation gap went hand in hand with a deeper behavioral divide.

"My uncle, who is a plumber, gave me the sense that you can be diligent and responsible and still have fun with the men you worked with; you could be productive without following a rigid set of rules. But when I started working in corporate, white-collar environments, I found myself having to obey protocols and standard operating procedures."

Yeagley thought there was a sharp film to be made about Americans' bias against traditional blue-collar skills and values. And he reckoned that, for this documentary, "no city could top Baltimore."

With its weathered terrain — "and the people, and the eccentricities of its people" — Yeagley figured Baltimore was the place to isolate and celebrate a feisty "blue-collar nature." Beginning with his uncle, plumber Chris Jensen, he assembled a cast of characters who sum up the noble heritage and hard-knocks bonhomie behind learning and plying a trade. He sought to capture all the pride, love and intelligence that go into building a house, repairing an engine or servicing a toilet.

He started shooting in October 2009, with tradesmen he had scouted out already. Over the next year and a half, whenever he came back to visit his family, he stole time away to shoot, and finished up in August 2010. Rather than flesh out his preconceptions, he hoped to increase his understanding of America's blue-collar/middle-class legacy, and the roles education and unions can play in advancing and protecting it.

One paradox straight-out jolted him: that "plumbers or stone masons can experience immense gratification from their work, and still be frustrated by its physical aspect — the toll it takes on the body." In the movie, even a carpenter who revels in the visceral pleasures of his work notes how hard it is on muscle and bone.

Another surprise for Yeagley was "this almost esoteric" phenomenon of artists and craftspeople merging two pursuits. Kelly Walker, a painter, imbues even her house painting with a complete decorative aesthetic; she also brings unusual materials from her house jobs into her personal artwork.

"My uncle was the one who told me, 'You've got to meet this woman! She's a great artist, her paintings are fantastic' — and that's how I had this revelation of people practicing art within their trade," he said.

Part of Yeagley's Baltimore odyssey was documenting sections of the city he rarely thought about when he was hanging out on Loch Raven Boulevard.

"Where I grew up, it was suburban; I never traveled into areas of boarded-up houses in West Baltimore," he said.

But that's where he stumbled on another paradox. Baltimore's remodeling experts view abandoned properties as sources of renewal for the city and their trade. Baltimore's expert, practical builders and burgeoning "green" craftsmen could bring fallen neighborhoods back to the future.

Yeagley includes a clip from an old informational film that tells its 1940s or 1950s audiences that "there are no frontiers left in America."

"Skeptics at any time can say there are no frontiers," Yeagley said. "Some people in the trades now are saying the same thing. But you can see new stuff everywhere, like in the green companies. We all have options to go forward. The necessity is education — and people in the trades know that the need for education doesn't stop at two years or four years. It's continuous."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

'The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work" screens at 7:15 p.m., Thursday, June 2, at the Mountcastle Auditorium, 725 N. Wolfe St. Director Richard Yeagley and Judith Lombardi will discuss the film after the screening.

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