BAINBRIDGE ISLAND – Jeremy Loerch gives a push to a Mini Cooper parked in his shop and rolls it backwards to show it off. It’s been the focus of youths working at his industrial arts school, and their work shows. The vehicle has been beaten up, lifted, cut on, added to, poked and prodded.
Loerch describes it this way: “It’s kind of a beautiful abomination of no thinking, just doing, just building.”
His educational nonprofit, Alchemy Industrial Arts, offers a place to learn, fail and grow for youths interested in picking up skills in the trades that they might not otherwise learn. Under Loerch’s supervision, kids, primarily ages 10 to 17, can get a taste of working in areas like welding, blacksmithing, casting, electronics and construction.
Loerch recalls a pair of projects in which one student crafted a full-size English broadsword that he could barely pick up and another in which a student made two katanas and a wooden box to hold them.
“You learn through doing, and if you were successful and great at it the first time, it would be, I imagine, boring,” he said. “It’s fun to watch kids learn that process. A lot of the kids are on this island with schooling and stuff, it’s very intense. There’s this sense of, ‘If I don’t do this right the first time, my world’s going to end.’ That’s unfortunate. You don’t really see a lot of enjoyment there in the learning process, so giving kids that ability to enjoy learning really makes me happy.”
Home from college over winter break earlier this month, Bainbridge Island’s Alex McCulloch dropped by Loerch’s shop and tinkered on the Mini Cooper. He ticked off a list of skills he’s learned in the space: welding, metalwork, automotive work and more.
“Jeremy has taught me how to do literally everything relating to metal,” he said. “I learned how to use the plasma CNC over there, he taught me how to use the lathe, the mill, how to make shapes out of metal that I really couldn’t conceptualize before.”
“He’s just a super generous guy,” McCulloch said. “He’ll do anything for kids, he loves teaching.”
Loerch has a background in elementary and middle school education, but burned out on the politics of the educational system, he left teaching and became a stay-at-home dad. At one point though, when he had the chance to demonstrate blacksmithing to a group of students on the island, he lit up.
“I don’t know who had more fun, me or the kids,” they said. This was what he’d been missing. It was a chance to combine teaching and his passion for working in the trades.
His own educational institution was founded in 2014 and has operated out of a Workspace at his home off Wardwell Road, which also hosts Monkey Wrench Fabrication, his metal fabrication shop and welding studio that pays the bills and helps to keep Alchemy going. Appropriately, the large shop space that Loerch and a friend built on the site is an amalgamation of used shipping containers.
Now, the educational side of Loerch’s work is moving to a larger space off Day Road, which will offer more room and allow students to leave their projects to pick up right where they left off. The new site will have a large work area and designated Classroom space, and Loerch also hopes to have shows and live music there too. The new space is expected to be opened at the beginning of February.
“At this point, I’m really excited about it, because we’re going to have welding over there, designated space for Bronze casting, which we haven’t been able to have here, blacksmithing, fabrication and all sorts of stuff without worrying about noise ordinances or anything like that,” he said.
Eventually he hopes to move away from Monkey Wrench to focus on Alchemy, to move back to teaching again on his own terms.
“I’ve joked with a couple parents, it makes me happy being on Bainbridge Island, because I’ve had kids whose parents were whatever exec, and that was parents driving kid to do that, and kid ended up going and becoming a welder . It’s kind of pissing in the gene pool a little bit here,” he says with a chuckle. “It gives me a little bit of happiness for whatever reason, I don’t know why. I should just be happy that the kid’s successful and enjoying what he does, but at the same time, there’s that little bit of … ha ha see!“
For more information about the school, visit alchemyindustrialarts.org.