"Last summer, after a successful career as a fashion jewelry designer that includes a recent revival of her ’80s-era acrylic designs as retro chic accoutrement, Judith Hendler figured it was time to ease into retirement. That would mean purging some of the art materials she’d accumulated over more than three decades.
Hendler, 75, had no idea how her decision to do some letting go would morph into a charitable mission on behalf of a nonprofit that she’s willing to replicate for others.
So much for slowing down.
Recently, some 200 collages — created under Hendler’s guidance by about 150 people with varying levels of artistic ability, from school children to senior citizens — were on display as a fundraiser to benefit the nonprofit Build Futures, an organization that serves homeless young adults.
With every room in her house painted a different color and decorated with art pieces she has made or collected, Hendler’s Orange County home reflects her artistic passions. So does all the “stuff” for future art projects socked away in the studio she converted from a garage and the packed storage unit next to it.
Given her love of the environment and the creative potential she sees even in a scrap of aluminum packaging, used postage stamps and tea bag packets, Hendler didn’t want to just start dumping items in a recycling bin. Instead, she embarked on a project to engage the people around her in creating collages using her scrap material — art that anybody can do, Hendler figured.
What started with a small group of neighbors and friends grew to include community gatherings at the local art center. Then came the idea to raise money with the collages. Hendler calls it “Collage for a Cause.”
“This is about participation on many different levels by many different people from many different walks of life,” Hendler said.
She explained that many of the people who created the collages had no art training. They started out unsure of what they would end up with as she showed them the steps of building a collage and such techniques as how to tear pictures they wanted to use from magazines for a more artistic effect. But there’s something else besides money that was raised: Awareness.
“There’s 150 people who know about this organization who didn’t know before,” Hendler said of Build Futures, which relies strictly on donations to assist homeless young adults ages 18 to 24 to achieve self-sufficiency, including finding work, housing and other life-changing resources.
“That’s 150 people who are more aware and can tell their friends.”
Kathy Tillotson, who started Build Futures in 2009 after she retired and moved from the East Coast to Orange County, sees increased awareness as being as important as whatever amount of money Collage for a Cause might raise.
“Anything that can raise awareness — we certainly need as much of that as we can get,” said Tillotson.
Susan Mondragon, 70, a retired secretary from Huntington Beach parks and recreation, attended two collage-making sessions with 17-year-old Hannah Hallinan, of Lakewood, whom she began babysitting more than 10 years ago and considers to be like a granddaughter. Mondragon, who has her own line of greeting cards and teaches classes once a month on card making, said she enjoyed Hendler’s instruction.
“She’s very encouraging. First time we took it I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we gotten into?’ But she puts all sorts of stuff out and it’s up to you,” said Mondragon. “You just took off and did whatever you wanted to.”
Mondragon hadn’t heard of Build Futures before the collage session, but liked the idea of helping homeless youth. She and Hallinan donated five of the eight collages they made: “You kind of want to do a little better because you realize somebody might buy this.”
An all-volunteer organization that Tillotson continues to oversee, Build Futures does not get government funding. But with community support, the nonprofit manages to stabilize the lives of young people who have been kicked out of their homes, were just released from jail or juvenile hall, or struggle with mental health issues or substance abuse. They are held accountable to take responsibility and follow rules.
“Build Futures is a wonderful organization,” Hendler said. “They don’t hand out the money; they make the kids show up on time, they make them go to school, they have curfews. They learn about life.”
Last year, Build Futures housed 125 young adults and, so far this year, 85, Tillotson said. It does so with the support of people like Hendler.
“Judith’s a sweetheart. She always is trying to help us.”
Hendler prefers to spotlight the art project rather than discuss her own background. But she shared that she grew up in Los Angeles and dealt with her own struggles as a young adult, which included a few years scraping by on the streets before her life took a better turn.
“I know how these kids feel,” she said of homeless youth. “There’s a lot of stigma attached to it.”
Hendler was inspired and supported by people she met along the way to becoming a grade school teacher, a graphic artist, an art director and finally someone whose fashion jewelry sold in places such as Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end stores, graced models for such magazines as Vogue and Elle, and was worn by actress Joan Collins on TV’s 1980s nighttime soap hit “Dynasty.”
In December, Hendler’s work appeared on the cover of Teen Vogue, a fitting bookend, she said, to a long career that saw a renaissance in the late ’90s when her iconic acrylic jewelry began selling as secondhand vintage pieces on the internet. Hendler had moved to Orange County expecting to retire by then, but rode the wave of that revival and continued to be involved in the world of fashion jewelry.
Now, with her second attempt at retirement, Hendler hopes to focus on boosting the work of charities through projects such as Collage for a Cause. She said she is willing to offer her advice and guidance for free to any interested nonprofit.
Earlier this week, Juana Torres, the Sierra Club’s associate regional director, drove from her Los Angeles-area office to Hendler’s studio to discuss the possibility of a charitable art project for the environmental group. Hendler wanted to pitch an idea she called “Cigar Box Artists for the Environment” that would use donated cigar boxes as the vessel for creating three-dimensional collages.
“I’d love to see it,” Torres said of the suggestion, after viewing samples of the Collage for a Cause artwork spread out on Hendler’s glass coffee table.
Some of the collage artwork Torres saw was created by fourth-graders at Luther Elementary of La Palma, a K-6 school in the Cypress School District. Teacher Adam Keuhn, whose mother Vicki Keuhn is an assistant to Hendler, said that his school, like many others, no longer offers art as a subject. He jumped at the chance to combine lessons he was teaching his students about themes with the chance to do art.
Hendler wasn’t able to visit Keuhn’s classroom, but provided supplies and offered him tips and guidance. About one-third of his 32 students, ages 8 to 10, donated their creations to the fundraiser for Build Futures.
“It really reflects their personality,” Keuhn said of those students, “selfless and always willing to help others before themselves in the classroom.”