Written by Katie Turpen
Photography by Liesa Cole
At any given time, you’ll see sawdust chips whirling through the air, hear the melodic hum of guitar chords, or discover a potter bent over a project, gliding his or her fingers across spinning clay.
For MAKEbhm founders Bruce and Scottie Lanier, these sights and sounds provide tangible proof of their creative visions coming to life. “I like to think that we are working on creating the ‘ultimate workspace’: a really awesome space that supports and cultivates creativity and productivity, and one that accommodates a variety of modes of work, whether messy or clean, noisy or quiet,” says Bruce. Through facilities, workshops, and classes, MAKE celebrates and unites the creators of the Iron City: woodworkers, welders, potters, designers, builders, artists, musicians, and more. The website aptly reads, “We provide space, tools, power, wi-fi, and coffee. You provide the inspiration and perspiration.”
Bruce claims the idea for MAKE was “probably the lovechild of the Great Recession and a little bit of a midlife crisis.” He is an architect for Standard Creative, a small local practice that does residential and commercial light projects and says Birmingham was the first place he didn’t have his own shop. He wanted an environment that provided the tools and space to test innovative ideas and threw the concept out of a membership-based shop in 2011. Two years later, he opened the MAKE space at the Continental Gin Industrial Park. “We needed to figure out whether Birmingham really wanted or needed a place like this,” he says. “Our Continental Gin location was basically trial by fire, and we learned a lot about what this community needs, what seems to work, and a lot of useful things about what doesn’t work.”
Within the next few months, the facility will transition from their small, rustic space into a roomier home in the heart of Avondale. Bruce leads the charge while Scottie facilitates MAKE’s workshops and classes. Like Bruce, Scottie was inspired by the idea of housing different creative disciplines under one roof. “I think great things can happen when people doing different things can get together, learn from one another, hash out ideas, and generally just be inspired by one another,” she says. “What I did not know going into this is what I would come to love most of all is the education part of what we are now doing.”
MAKE occupants include BiCi Coop, Radio Free Alabama, Bruce’s firm Standard Creative, and Macknally Land Design, the local landscape architects responsible for spaces such as Railroad Park and Crestwood Park. Radio Free Alabama is a consortium of producers, musicians, dramatists, and artists who have created a new radio station, Monolith Radio, in the Birmingham area that will service Central and West Alabama. RFA’s goal is to be a platform for discussion for underserved communities through panel discussions, talk shows, comedy, audio drama, documentaries, and programming focusing on arts and literature. RFA plans to launch Monolith Radio on June 1.
The new digs will come with new amenities. The wood studio will double in size and have a dust collection system allowing sanding capacity and will also include a new work bench made by Richard Barrett. Barrett considers himself a “serious hobbyist” as he is a physician who started woodworking as a way of managing the stresses of medical school. He is self-taught and creates fine furniture and small objects using traditional tools. “It is incredibly satisfying to see something come into being through the work of your own hands,” he says. “Seeing someone responding to one of my pieces or making use of it and delighting in it is a powerful thing.”
Blake Ellis has been a member of MAKE for a little over a year now. He says his desire to build his own drums turned into a woodworking interest, and he eventually stumbled across an article that mentioned MAKE. He creates furniture, custom baseball bats, cutting boards, pens, and other items as part of his business Signal Woodworks and hopes to one day have his own drum company. “There’s a therapeutic element to it where I can focus on one task and forget about everything else that’s going on around me,” he says. “MAKE has been really supportive of me and what I want to do and I’ve met a lot of really cool people from it.”
Ceramics has become quite popular at the facility over the last year, and the new space will provide opportunities to add a slab roller, a slip casting table, a glazing booth, and a ventilated kiln room. “Everything from processing clay to making something useful to using a finished product, I find I cannot get enough of it,” says ceramics instructor Joel Shaw. Shaw draws inspiration from the people who surround him, a common theme for the MAKE community where the lines of work, community, and hobby are blurred. “I think the craftsmanship of those who work with wood inspire me to ensure I exude quality and make something that will last indefinitely. I love seeing someone enjoy something that I was able to make,” Shaw says.
Alicia Owens is a ceramics instructor for MAKE as well as at Jefferson State Community College. Owens also dabbles in painting and bookmaking. She uses red clay to make functional objects such as vases, covered jars, planters, and jewelry. “I have fallen in love with teaching people everything I know about ceramics,” she says. “It is wonderful to watch them grow as artists and be able to help guide them through the beginning steps of that process.”
Owens draws inspiration from local scenery as well as sights she witnessed during a trip out west. “I am constantly looking at the beautiful landscapes of Alabama and trying to find ways to incorporate that feeling into my art,” she says. “I’m lucky enough to constantly be around some of the most creative and motivating people.”
The metal studio will have its own space away from the wood studio, allowing workshops and classes to run simultaneously. Welding instructor Julie Carpenter creates life-sized metal dresses and jewelry from scrap metal. She finds deep enjoyment teaching people of all ages her “dirty” craft. “We do eye-opening creative things with steel in an open shop space together,” she says. “At the risk of sounding seriously sentimental about it all, I take loads of pride in teaching anyone who wants to know about a skill that is dirty and difficult and somewhat intimidating.”
Adding to the creative atmosphere, local psychedelic/folk rock band Through the Sparks practices in the MAKE space. “I love writing, and I love that this avenue allows me to write poetry in a low-brow way that keeps it honest,” says lead singer and guitarist Jody Nelson. “And speaking of honesty, most of all, I like roaring, towering loud noises that you can control, literally, with the one finger. It’s invigorating.”
Magic City native Lindsey Christina is the director of community outreach and public relations at MAKE and stays busy working on cultivating a spirit of collaboration with the Birmingham community. After attending the University of Alabama, Christina worked for the local commercial furniture industry, becoming increasingly interested in textiles, modern classic furniture designs, and color, which led to her interest in art school. “I was ready for a change and felt like expressing myself visually was the best way to go. It was a decision that would forever reshape my future and my enthusiasm for art, and later, a growing interest in our neighborhoods,” she says.
Humbled to be surrounded by the inventive minds of local artists, Christina envisions Birmingham as the future hub of design and creative excellence. “Birmingham is very capable of expanding our art scene by way of instruction, reasonable studio spaces, community hosted events, and other inspiring projects,” she says. “I believe myself, MAKEbhm, and other like-minded organizations can undoubtedly place Birmingham in the same league as larger, highly creative, and progressive cities such as Portland or Austin.”
Bruce echoes Christina’s vision on moving Birmingham forward through the efforts of MAKE. “Good things happen when people play well with each other, and that is the real reason for Birmingham’s upward trajectory,” he says. “When you move away from self-interest and really work on being a good neighbor and a good citizen, the needle moves a little.”
For more, visit MAKEbhm.com.