When Michael Brandt was arrested for drug trafficking in 2002, he decided to use his five-year sentence in federal prison to whittle away the parts of himself he didn't like, and change his life for the better.
Today, Brandt is an accomplished welding artist, respected mentor and the owner of custom fabrication and mobile welding studio Garage Bound LLC, which recently celebrated one year at its newly acquired East Chattanooga location. Though it didn't come easy, he says.
Brandt's journey began in the U.S Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., where he transformed his anger into something beautiful by channeling it into the arts. From behind bars, the 20-year-old began to write poetry and songs about how he felt his life was moving on without him due to his mistakes.
"[It helped me] come to terms with the fact that I was exactly where I was supposed to be and I was there because of the things I'd done. Then I asked myself, 'How am I going to turn this around?'" Brandt said.
He took his first step on that journey by teaching classes in the prison's education department to help other inmates get their GED diplomas. Having obtained his own GED certificate years before, Brandt used his past experience to break down complex principles, crafting drug weighing analogies to make fractions understandable.
"Being able to relate on their level to help them succeed was really rewarding for me," Brandt said. "I felt like I was doing something good for people."
Over the next four years, Brandt continued to write and teach, even after being transferred to a lower-security prison in Alabama in 2004. With the help of a residential drug treatment program, he was able to shave a year off his sentence and leave the correction facility in 2006 a new man.
After moving to Chattanooga to be closer to his sister, Brandt quickly began putting his new artistic skills to the test by selling handcrafted greeting cards. His intricately designed cards had been popular among inmates and prison staff while he was incarcerated, but he soon found he could not secure enough orders on the outside to make the enterprise viable.
Discouraged but not defeated, Brandt turned his talents to welding, which he'd dabbled in as a child under the watchful eye of his grandfather, who was a welder. Night after night, Brandt collected stray scraps of metal and practiced fusing them together, hoping to build a pair of chopper bicycles for himself and his son, Arron.
"I had no formal training; just a desire and drive to learn," Brandt said.
As his skills progressed, he was surprised to discover that people were willing to pay him to repair items like lawn mower blades, and he soon started working on orders from within a two-car garage behind his East Brainerd home.
It wasn't long before the way Brandt shaped metal caught the attention of local organizations. In 2011, he got a chance to build a trellis for Rock City, and though he admits it was "way over my head" at the time, the end result was impressive enough to make him the go-to for several other projects at the Lookout Mountain attraction.
For his trellis, titled "Invitation," Brandt also received the Artist of the Year award from the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga - though his biggest reward can't sit on a shelf.
As the owner of Garage Bound, Brandt seizes every opportunity he can to pay it forward. With the help of the American Welding Society, Holston Gases, Miller Welders and others, he hosts a yearly welding merit badge session for local Boy Scouts. The sessions have given Brandt a chance to become a mentor to local teens like Ethan Cavanaugh, 14, who continued to work with Brandt even after his badge was acquired.
"He opened up the window that I really needed to take in order to get into the career of welding," said Ethan, whom Brandt remembers as the most engaged of the 12 members in his group.
Brandt is also willing to share his experience with local students through summer internships.
"He's a good manager, but he comes off as a friend, too," said Sequoyah High School student Austin Waldo, 16, who has been training at the studio for about two months. "This will get you in the real work world and teach you how things work - it's not just like playing around in high school. You've got to get in here and stuff's got to get put out."
With support from local partners and groups like Baileigh Industrial, which has supplied Brandt's business with needed tools and machinery, he hopes to expand to the property next door and build a building capable of handling large projects.
He also hopes to continue sharing his story and the message that life rewards those who are willing to put in the work.
"I'm not ashamed of my past because it makes me who I am today, and I like who I am today. I have something to offer," Brandt said. "Sky's the limit and I ain't looking back."