The Crazy Wisdom of a Community Manufacturing Facility

On November 12, 2010, in Latest News, by The News Staff

By Jesa Damora and Bill Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

“Somerville has a lot of thoughtful organizations but not a lot of crazy people. We want to be the crazy inspiration that gets people asking what they can do creatively, for themselves and for their community.”

This is Gui Cavalcanti giving his take on how Artisan’s Asylum sees itself. Artisans Asylum is Somerville’s new and rapidly mushrooming non-profit community workspace. 

Dreamt up in May of this year, it already has over 10,000 square feet of dedicated workspace in two locations off Union Square. Founders Gui and Jenn Martinez installed industrial grade machinery and bought a wide range of tools for metalworking, woodworking, fabric arts, and crafts. “This let everyone know we were serious.”

These acquisitions included a full suite of woodworking shop tools, a CNC milling machine, a serger, sewing machines and metalworking equipment. The list kept expanding and currently features a computer controlled router being built in the Joy Street space.

Both a workshop and a training facility, at Artisan’s Asylum (AA) folks can share expertise and take a range of classes. In just three months, over 30 instructors have taught TIG welding, bicycle building, knitting, how to make whiskey, and an introduction to robotics.

Learning is also serendipitous. A member noodling around with the circuitry of an old keyboard might share discoveries with an interested onlooker. One AA project included raft building: part of the structure for a fleet of giant ducks that a group made from scratch and launched on the Charles River. Union Square’s SomerStreets Festival parade stopped in its tracks to ogle Asylum members carving giant pumpkins with chain saws. This is the “crazy inspiration” Gui is talking about.

AA is a community, physically and in cyberspace. On FaceBook, 600 people count themselves members. heard of it through a Burning Man listserv that she subscribes to. News is also spread through Makers’ Faires.

Perhaps most important, AA members meet regularly to build their collective vision and discuss how to manifest it. They conceive new projects and then learn how to fabricate them. In so doing, they draw in businesses, organizations, and other individuals. Among these are skilled professionals, such as architects and engineers; suppliers, such as Central Steel; knowledge centers, such as MIT or the North Bennet Street School; and Somerville’s city programs such as Somerville  Main Streets, Somerville Arts Council,  and the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development.

Somerville is thick with artists, artisans, and craftspeople. They came here in the 1970s for two reasons: low rents, and big, adaptable, post-industrial studio space that could be used for all kinds of endeavors that wouldn’t get the landlord pissed off or burn down the building. They stayed for a third reason: Artists drew people with complimentary skills and interests.

AA represents the germ of a similar process. It is pulling in a larger community of university participants, volunteers, founding groups and donors. The Asylum operates as a non-profit through Sprout, the community education and research organization. It gets tools and computers from friends. As Gui explains, “they have a great machine in their basement and they don’t want it to just rot there.”

It has also formed alliances with independent organizations.  SCUL, the out-there bike riding collective has moved its workshop into AA’s facility. School of the Museum of Fine Arts graduates who no longer have equipment with which they can fabricate art projects now do so at AA. Just as in Somerville’s manufacturing heyday, AA activates a cascade of people sharing interests, building expertise, and developing skills across a wide range of disciplines.

This process adds momentum to Somerville’s emerging architectural and engineering industrial cluster (http://www.thesomervillenews.com/archives/6634), producing new enterprises and jobs.

Some artists and hackers, however, worry about what the Green Line will bring. History suggests that gentrification and escalating rents will squeeze them out. Indeed, city officials have been all too willing to bless the conversion of former industrial space to condos, worsening the city’s structural fiscal deficit while increasing its density.

What does Gui have to say about that?  “We’re only at the beginning, the sink-or-swim stage…but if it gets to the point where enough people are interested in being a part of this, then they’ll make a lot of noise if it’s threatened.

“You see art. You think you’re not a part of it. Then somebody says, ‘Here’s the specs and tools and paint: Go build a giant duck.’ Turns out, once someone invests a week making a giant duck they have all sorts of ideas of how it should be put together and painted. I say, give someone a seed and watch them grow it. Show people just enough to get them excited and wanting more. Then watch them take it from there.”

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