(From left to right) The Austin Project display their completed chairs: Abri Bey, “We are Cousins;” Monica Smith, “Joy;” Barbara Stewart, “Freedom;” King Kiba, “For the Community;” Frances Simmons-Ellis, “Prosperity;” Lushawn Rainer, “Hope;” and Anna Hernandez, “Community Garden.” | Shanel Romain

Abri Bey, 33, said she’s always been into the idea of reupholstering furniture, but was never able to find a way into the practice. That changed when she entered A Better Tomorrow for Today’s Teens, a youth empowerment nonprofit at 3441 W. Chicago Ave. in Austin.

Earlier this year, Bey, an Austin native who lives in West Garfield Park, was among a group of about seven women who, over seven weeks, transformed six discarded chairs into works of art.

They were at West Side nonprofit as a result of Jamika Smith, the founder of Teena’s Legacy, an organization that seeks to create safe spaces for girls and women to explore their authentic selves through the upholstery trade.

Smith, a trained upholster, said she named the organization after her late grandmother, Alberteen (Teena) Stredrick, a self-taught seamstress.

“One day I was walking down the street and there was a chaise lounge in the alley,” Smith recalled. “I walked past it a couple of times, but my grandmother stopped me cold in my tracks. Her spirit told me to get that chaise lounge.

“That was the first time that I ever reupholstered anything and ever touched a tool, yet it just came so natural to me. At that point, I felt like this was tedious work. I wouldn’t want to do this as a career, but I can definitely teach it to young women as a tool for healing.”

So she started teaching upholstery to four girls in her dining room before transitioning to the living room. She currently operates in the basement of her home.

“I started working with the girls and what I noticed is that when they were doing the work, I felt a sense of calm and peace come over them,” Smith said.

“As they were pulling back the layer of the chair, they didn’t want to leave,” she said. “They were so engaged. I felt like stress was lifted off of them. It’s kind of like a metaphor for life.” 

Bey, who after seven weeks reupholstered her own chair for the first time, said the chair she reupholstered was focused on things that matter to her, such as family.

“I knew I wanted to do something focused on family and the loss of family, but then it ended up being a situation where all of us in a class created a bond with each other so I’m like this is kind of perfect,” she said. “And I remember saying to them, ‘Y’all know we cousins now.’  And so that’s what inspired the name of my chair (the “We Are Cousins Chair”).

Each participant traced an outline of her hand onto fabric to make a family tree that was etched into Bey’s chair.

“The chair signifies how family bonds are not only created by blood,” Bey said. “They’re also created in time, space and energy. It also signifies how Black culture uses family status as a form of endearment.”

Ana Hernandez, whose chair was entitled the “Community Garden Chair,” said the experience of reupholstering her chair was therapeutic — just like the gardens that her chair is meant to praise.

“Community gardens make a difference,” she said. “When people care about their neighborhood, it makes the neighborhood better.”

CONTACT: shanel@growingcommunitymedia.org

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