It's hard to decide if Ted Bleecker is the happiest guy in Carrboro, or the crankiest. Or both.
If you spend much time in Carrboro, you've probably seen Bleecker, walking with his shaggy black dog between the Weaver Street Market lawn and his building. You've probably wondered about his building. Bleecker is constructing a two-story block art studio on the corner where Franklin and Rosemary streets merge. He's been at it about three years, and it's not nearly finished. Which isn't so slow, if you consider that he's doing it almost all by himself.
"I needed a place to work in," Bleecker says, by way of explanation for a project that seems to make little, if any, financial sense. "Other than that, who knows what it'll become. A place you can be absolutely free in, that was my idea." Bleecker is a furniture maker and ceramics artist. But the Bleecker St. Studios, as he calls it, is a bit on the large size for a one-man shop. He's paying for it all with his own money, too. "Any time you deal with a bank, you become a slave to the bank," he says. "Who wants to be a slave?"
Bleecker estimates that he's done about 90 percent of the construction on his own. Why by himself? "Who else would put up with me?" He has a point there. Not that he's not a likable guy. But he's an opinionated guy, who's happy to go on about his opinions at ample length. He nurses a steady contempt for consumer society and views any business transaction with deep suspicion. He won't buy tomatoes in a store, he makes his own bread and will cheerfully tell you you're eating garbage if you buy yours. He rails against yuppies and predicts the imminent fall of civilization and the Los Angelization of the Triangle. "What I don't understand is why people buy into all this consumerism still. Why people don't say, 'Hey, I'm a slave to possessions.'"
Bleecker's a shortish guy in his 50s, with a long platinum ponytail that dangles from under a bandanna most of the time. His work clothes are as ratty as clothes can get without actually falling off his body. Originally from California, he showed up in Burlington at the end of a cross-country trip and decided to stay a while. "It was a temporary thing. That was 20 years ago. But it's still a temporary thing." He lives now on a couple of acres out by Elon College, with his dog and a horse and a flock of chickens. At one time, he grew sprouts and distributed them all over the Southeast. He was a pilot in the Air Force for a while; somewhere along the way he picked up a bachelor's and a master's in art, and a bachelor's and a master's in engineering. Six or seven years ago, when he was wondering what to do next, he started designing this building.
The studio is shaped like an arrowhead to fit the corner lot it covers. Since Bleecker began the project with virtually no rough construction skills, a curious effect has come about in the process. It's as if an engineer and a furniture maker set out to make a structure. The walls are cinderblock. Bleecker had help with those, but laid about two-thirds of the block himself. Generally, in the building trades, there's a distinction between rough work, which you try to do right within a reasonable tolerance, and say, cabinet work, which you try to make perfect. Bleecker's block-laying, tough, heavy labor done off of scaffolding, looks like cabinet work. The lines are whistle-straight, the joints tooled absurdly smooth.
This kind of attention to detail is all over the studio. The work is all meticulous, the materials only the best. The large awning roof over the front entrance is sheathed in copper shingles. Redwood siding decorates the facade, with handmade copper flashing caps at every joint. Inside, Bleecker is crafting windowsills from straight-grained, clear redwood, some of the most beautiful, and most expensive, wood you can buy. The doors are mahogany, redwood and cherry, not nailed, but pegged together with handmade black walnut spikes. Why such fancy stock? "I feel good working with it. It's all about the whole interrelationship of you and the material, working within the parameters of the material." With cheaper material, he says, "It's gonna look like junk the minute you put it in. My main priority was the interaction of the human and the space. There's nothing worse than going into a place you hate, space-wise."
Quality is one of Bleecker's favorite soapbox topics. Like a lot of craftsmen, he gets emotional about wood and tools. He is devoted to Japanese chisels, and insists no other kind is fit to use. The world, according to Bleecker, is awash in products that are pure garbage. "People say, 'How come you drive a fancy car?'" he muses. (It's a Porsche.) "Hell, that car is 16 years old. And I'll drive it another 16 years. It makes sense to buy the best quality item you can get and keep it forever."
The interior is mostly open, with only one partition wall downstairs, creating what may become a small gallery in front. The upstairs opens onto the gallery, one big balcony. "We confine ourselves with walls," Bleecker says, "What little box you don't put yourself in physically by building walls we do emotionally and mentally." He glances around the upstairs, critiquing his own drywall finishing. "Yeah, everyone's advice was: Get a professional to do it, then come back and fix the mistakes." He points to a tiny triangular window in an inaccessible place. "That ended up being probably the most expensive window in the state of North Carolina," he says proudly.
After three years of this kind of obsessively focused work, the end is only sort of in sight. Still to come are floors, railings, trim, stairs, maybe an outside balcony with a kiln underneath it. "The finish date is one year from now," he says, "But that's just what I say so I won't give up and kill myself." He is equally vague about what sort of business Bleecker St. Studios will be. He plans to have space for heavy work, like ceramics and sculpture downstairs. Upstairs could be for painting. "It'd be great to have a little blues club up there," he says. "I'm not going to do it. But you know, someone could." On this note, Bleecker almost sounds like a starry-eyed idealist. "The space could be whatever anyone wants it to be. It's about complete freedom. Freedom from censorship, all kinds of freedom."
Bleecker acknowledges that he'll probably rent space to other artists. But he doesn't seem to have anything resembling a business plan. Will he ever make his money back on the project? "All I need is enough money to live on," he says. "You gotta have money. But there's a difference between making money and making money, you understand. When is enough enough?" How can he afford to do this? "Because I set it up that way," he says. To Bleecker's mind, most people waste their money on things they don't need, and then never get to do what they really want to do. "I'm a building artist, that's what I am now," he says, nodding toward his neglected pottery wheel in a corner. "For my own personal satisfaction, it's already paid me back tenfold."
Long before its completion, the studio has already played host to local arts. A couple of summers ago, before the roof was even on, local sculptor Rik Hermanson organized a day-long extravaganza of visual art, music, gourmet food, belly-dancers and miscellaneous free entertainment. Hermanson said he had been watching the building go up, and when it reached a phase where he could use it, he approached Bleecker and introduced himself. Right off the bat, Bleecker agreed to let him borrow the space for what Hermanson calls "an old-fashioned happening."
"He gave me a wide-open hand to do whatever I wanted," Hermanson says. "It was just amazing that he would let something like that happen." Hermanson describes Bleecker as "a very intense man doing it his way. I guess he allows people to do it their way when they're not in his way. He's sincere and really wants to contribute to the community. Right now he's so involved in this project that he's become the building."'
Annie Pambaguian, who catered the event, met Bleecker there for the first time. She says Bleecker is a gentler soul than he might first appear. "He can sound very cynical, but I think deep down he is not," she says. "He's a romantic. I think he's got really high standards and doesn't understand why people take shortcuts in life. Ted has great integrity. He teaches by showing an example."
What's most striking about Ted Bleecker and his interminable building project, in the end, is the almost unheard-of consistency in what he's doing. His views on modern culture were a lot more fashionable 30 years ago, but fewer folks espouse them now. Even fewer try to live by them. Bleecker works 10-hour days, five days a week--because he wants to. He answers to nobody. He does exactly what he likes to do, he does it as well as he possibly can, and he gets to take his dog to work. His studio is a kind of urban cultural homestead, a claim he's staking in an upwardly mobile wilderness for art and quality and vague exciting ideas. Will it ever be finished? Who knows. But hey, it's about complete freedom.