To his students, Relay native Brad Sweet, 32, is a technology teacher at Lindale Middle School in Anne Arundel County.
But many in the Catonsville and Arbutus area know him for his talent sculpting replicas of homes and other objects into intricate birdhouses.
Sweet began building birdhouses at 14. When he didn't have any money to buy his mother a Mother's Day gift, he made her one instead, using recycled materials like soda cans and wood scraps.
The birdhouses took off from there. Family friends and neighbors began commissioning him to build them similar works of art.
Over time, he developed a process of personalizing the birdhouses to reflect each individual's taste and interests. That meant interviewing the person who commissioned the art to learn about them. Once he had a better understanding of his clients, he tailored the birdhouse to them.
Sweet has kept a binder containing photographs of dozens of birdhouses he has made over the years.
They range from colonial-style homes to Victorians, complete with interior details of the rooms of each home.
The works consider every last detail, down to the fabric of a living room armchair.
"He's a very detail oriented person," said Catonsville artist Edward Williams. "He has a very creative side to him and I think you can see that attention to detail in the birdhouses."
After Sweet graduated from Lansdowne High School in 1999, he earned a bachelor's degree in sculpture from Towson University in 2004.
After graduation, Sweet made a living selling birdhouses full-time for five years. Some of the sculptures sold for more than $8,000.
But they were becoming very time consuming too, which was unfulfilling, Sweet said.
"The quality of life was in question, because I was always working," Sweet said. "I was working 13 to 14 hours a day...So what I found with teaching was stability with it. Stability just gives you a little peace of mind."
He began teaching through the Maryland State Arts Council as a visiting artist, traveling to schools in Howard County and sharing his passion for the arts with kids by showing them how to make birdhouses of their own homes.
Eventually, he became a substitute teacher with Anne Arundel County Public Schools.
He has been at Lindale Middle School in Linthicum Heights for several years and is now the head of the school's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) department.
Although it may seem a far cry from art, Sweet said he sees similarities between art and technology.
"Some people are just born to do the things they do. For Brad, teaching is that thing," said his partner Jimmy Laughlin, "He's motivated, he's talented and as I've seen, he creates a life changing bond with his students."
Friends say his ability to allow kids to have fun, while they learn to be creative, is what makes him a great teacher.
"He just wants the kids to have fun and be creative and he's open to minded as to how they can do that," said Williams, who has worked with Sweet as a visiting artist at Kaleidoscope Arts Camp in Catonsville, where Sweet worked this past summer.
"They love him," said Maureen Sweeney Smith, a Catonsville resident and friend. "Brad just really gets in with those kids and lets them have fun."
Sweeney Smith, who used to live in Relay, said she met Sweet when he first began making the birdhouses.
"I used to hear about the kid who made amazing birdhouses," she said. Years later, they met again at the Kaleidoscope Arts Camp and became friends, she said.
"He's so bright and really has an eye for art," said Sweeney Smith, whose mother was an art teacher.
Balancing his profession with being an artist can be tough, but he continues to create one or two of the birdhouses a year.
Right now, he's working on building one based on his parents' home in Relay, which will incorporate their affinity for bee keeping, he said. It's something he doesn't foresee giving up any time soon.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun