DUNEDIN — Dave Buick looks like a natural as he bends close to a piece of metal. Airborne sparks and the white glow of a welding torch reflect on the face of his black helmet.
But the 50-year-old St. Petersburg native is only two weeks into welding classes at the Institute for Creative Arts.
The focus he puts into his craftmanship is more than pride. Buick hopes it's his ticket out of the Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter and off to a better life for himself and his wife.
"I'm doing this part-time to try to bring us up out of this," said Buick, the most recent recipient of an institute scholarship aimed at giving a hand up and a way out for people facing hardship. "I'm trying to give myself more occupational skills and maybe some artistic skills. Maybe discover some hidden talents."
The institute in Dunedin is doing its part to reinvigorate the workforce by starting up a scholarship program for its welding classes.
Open since November 2010, the studio features work space and gallery space for local artists. It also offers classes including old-world blacksmithing, knifemaking and metal sculpting to the general public. Past students have included a NASA engineer, a local doctor, a tugboat captain, people interested in restoring old cars, and vacationing tourists.
Institute director Bill Coleman — a well-known metal fabricator whose decorative bike racks are on display at the Dunedin Public Library and elsewhere in the city — said the idea for the scholarship program developed by chance when two of those happy students randomly donated money so that others who can't afford it might enjoy a similar experience.
One young woman who got a scholarship has already graduated, and Buick is the second recipient.
"We're looking to find people that have some sort of hardship, where they don't know how to start the process of enhancing their lives," Coleman said. "If we can teach them a trade they can use the rest of their lives, that's what we want to do."
Twice a week, Buick makes his way to Dunedin by bus from Pinellas Safe Harbor in Largo, where he shares a room with 80 other homeless men.
For a long time, the 50-year-old said, he cooked for various restaurants and did odd jobs.
But about a year ago, family problems triggered a downward spiral into alcoholism and homelessness. Buick completed rehabilitation and moved into Safe Harbor three months ago.
His quest to improve his life for himself and his wife led him to the Institute for Creative Arts seeking an odd job.
Instead, Coleman presented him with an opportunity to learn a trade. The average welding class is four sessions, but Coleman said Buick and other scholarship recipients can stay as long as they need to become knowledgeable enough to secure employment.
"The classes go fast, but it's basic. It's going to take practice," Buick said. "I'm going to keep going and keep trying, and I won't give up."
For years, Coleman owned the Tarpon Springs-based Architectural Metal Works, which created bronze railings for Trump Palace in New York, as well as a bronze and wood cross that Coleman presented to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Coleman hopes to get more scholarship donors on board so the institute can help recipients with the transportation and registration costs associated with this specialized training.
Dunedin Vice Mayor Ron Barnette, making good on a campaign promise to return his $8,000 annual salary to the community, recently contributed $500 to the cause.
"Industrial arts is a whole other side of the arts community, and this is another way of spreading the good news about town," Barnette said.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.