By Ellen Mayer
Somerville has long been known as a hub for artists and artisans. Combine this community with the wealth of engineering graduates in the Boston area who want to continue working on their own projects after college, and you get a huge demand for workspace and machinery. Enter Artisan’s Asylum, a non-profit community craft space near Union Square.
The Asylum resides in a 25,000 square foot warehouse and rents studio space to over 100 tinkers, artists, and artisans. The site also has communal machinery for welding, woodwork, metal machining, fiber arts, robotics, and bicycle building. It’s a veritable playground for the creative mind.
Artisan’s Asylum is one of many community workshop spaces that are popping up across the country. These are often known as hackerspaces. The term “hacker” refers to someone who takes a product or technology, sees beyond its intended purpose, and refashions it to do something completely different.
Director of Operations at the Asylum, Molly Rubinstein, is not sure the term accurately applies to the Asylum’s members. “Hackers have a connotation that tends to more heavily suggest electronics, so it feels less natural to call ourselves a hackerspace,” she said. “We have this focus on fabrication and manufacturing and art which often are not really included in the hackerspace model.” Instead, Rubinstein prefers the term “makerspace.”
Some of the Asylum’s “makers” operate businesses out of their studios in the warehouse. These businesses range from jewelry design to organic home restoration. Others are just there to play—to pursue hobbies and projects they can’t easily take up at home. For example, the asylum plays host to SCUL, a loose organization of imaginative sci-fi bikers who build their own “mutant” bikes and ride them out on missions that “explore the Greater Boston Starsystems.”
The Asylum’s particular combination of professional and amateur members, of expertise and enthusiasm, makes for a vibrant and collaborative community. The warehouse is open plan, so members can walk between studios and learn from each other. The asylum also engages in official projects as a community, often in collaboration with the Somerville Arts Council. Last winter, it helped organize a Snow Art Flashmob in Union Square. During SomerStreets’ Halloween celebration, Monster Mash, the asylum’s artists carved giant pumpkins with chainsaws.
To encourage general DIY craftiness in the Somerville community, the Asylum offers monthly and daily memberships that grant public access to the warehouse’s workspace and machinery. The Asylum also offers courses every month, ranging from the fundamental, like “Intro to Woodworking: Build a Box,” to the esoteric, like “Fire Eating and Fleshing.” In between, there are classes about bookbinding, beer brewing, robotics, and bicycle maintenance, to name a few.
The Asylum just officially opened to the public in December, but it has already become a central institution within the Somerville community. Rubinstein feels there is definitely a cultural explanation for the growth and popularity of spaces like Artisan’s Asylum.
“We are the over-extracurriculared generation,” she explains. Having been encouraged all our lives to engage in a plethora of hands-on, team-oriented activities during and after school, us Americans crave the kind of collaborative community that the Asylum offers.