Portal to the Soul

By Roberto Vazquez

It was a balmy afternoon when Cheryl Swade’s guest arrived at her Long Beach shop, Urban Eden, located at 200 La Verne Ave., on the first floor of a Spanish-style building.

“It’s a boutique with curated artists,” according to Swade, presently featuring the work of 23 individuals ranging in age from 11 to 87, and includes her mother, Judy Swade.

“She’s an award-winning artist,” adding, “She was juried into the Institute of Milan when my dad was in Italy, coaching American football.”

Her late father, George, was a longtime, legendary South Bay high school and college football coach, at Bishop Montgomery and Harbor College, respectively.

Wayfarers Chapel

Soon, the guest finds what he’s come for, a variety of lamps made out of repurposed items, often industrial grade, including a Geiger counter, a microscope, a film projector, a fireman’s hose, and so on. The collection includes other pieces, too, like opera binoculars, an old bugle and a camera, all now functional lamps.

It’s the handiwork of Mike Piper, a San Pedro resident and former wedding photographer. Piper, who retired after 25 years in the aerospace industry, co-owned Harrison-Piper Photography with his wife, Cathy Piper.

Together, they were once part of the premier circle of photography studios in the South Bay, working the best venues.

“Mark Griffith and Jim Weintraub are gone. Cornell Wheeler is gone. He was a very good portrait photographer.”

One such venue was Wayfarers Chapel, an internationally known venue within the wedding industry.

Harrison-Piper Photography was part of an exclusive company at Wayfarers Chapel. From his home in San Pedro, Piper recalled those days. “Sometimes, it was double weddings in a day. One time at Wayfarers, we did six weddings in a weekend!”

Tinkerer and Jokester

He’s a jolly type, full of one-liners and jabs.

“My brother was a fireman. Every time I tell him a joke, he already knows the punchline. I guess they just sat around a lot of the time and told jokes in the firehouse.”

Piper glances away and starts talking about his pet squirrel. “There’s my squirrel buddy.” Piper has created mini bars, made just for squirrels. “It’s got little bar stools, an ice bucket and beer mugs and he already ate half the peanuts,” adding, “I named him Glutton.”

Then, Piper revealed something personal. “I’m done with shooting. I haven’t touched my cameras since COVID,” adding, “I made more in two hours (doing photography) than I’ll make in two weeks making the lamps, but I’m having fun. No stress.”

Cathy and Elle, their daughter, described Piper’s creativity as “A genetic drive,” with Cathy adding, “His mother and father were like that. His sister, his brother, his nieces are like that. He’s always been a hustler, always selling things.”

Health and COVID-19 Aftereffects

The COVID also affected Cheryl Swade. During the Covid lockdown, Cheryl Swade struggled mightily. “Because I wasn’t two years old, I didn’t get a penny. I applied for everything, and I got nothing, not a penny, and I didn’t get a break on my rent.”

What saved her was her natural skincare line and her lavender aromatherapy pillows.

“I created this natural skincare line when I was a buyer for an apothecary pharmacy about 11 years ago,” adding, “I was mailing it, delivering it, or letting them pick it up at the shop.”

According to Swade, the aftereffects of the post-COVID economy have actually fueled sales. “It certainly has increased the sales of my diffusers and essential oils because people want their homes to be inspiring, soothing and wonderful. People are spending a lot more time at home because they’re not in the workforce anymore and are working from home.”

Growing Up with Discipline

It’s an issue that Swade knows well.

“I’m one of seven kids, I’m number five. It was a no nonsense upbringing. You applied yourself. We had to do push-ups growing up,” recalled Swade, with a smile. Her parents, George and Judy Swade raised their children emphasizing virtues like courage, perseverance, discipline, hard work and personal responsibility.

“Children learn what they live, if you’re told, ‘You can do it’, and ‘You can find a way’ and you’re encouraged, ‘Get back up’ if you fall.”

Their father, a legendary football coach at Bishop Montgomery High School and Harbor College, had a particular impact. “My dad had a saying that was brilliant, ‘The helping hand is at the end of your arm’. You build character by applying yourself, it’s the only way, it can’t be bought,” adding, “Discipline is imperative for success.”

Applying Life’s Lessons

Swade shared, “Unless you have application of self, you cannot have a good sense of your soul, unless you’re applying yourself, you just can’t. How can you? You can’t earn confidence if you’re not doing anything!”

In art, that’s especially true.

“You must have the confidence and conviction to believe in yourself. As an artist, you must be able to stand back and say, ‘I like that,’ which requires you to be strong enough within yourself.”

A Circle: Women, Art and Enterprise

Kathy and Elle Piper sit in the cozy living room on the second floor of their home in San Pedro. Their five-year-old golden retriever, Parker, greets a guest with attention and an invitation to play fetch.

“We met at a party.” Cathy is recalling how she met Mike.

The discussion turns to Urban Eden and Cheryl Swade’s efforts.

“I’ve gotta tell you, there’s a weird connection here,” adding, “My grandmother was from Long Beach.”

Cathy Piper continued. “It happened after she divorced, left by her husband, around 1920. She went and did framing and ran a gift store on Pine, when my mother was just a young girl, so it’s funny,” adding, “Women, taking care of themselves in business and arts, all connecting. It’s a circle. It really is a circle.”

Indeed, this place is a circle of women, art and enterprise, a circle of life, a portal to expression of the soul.

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