Open Works- one local artist's impression of Baltimore's biggest Makerspace

Last Saturday I visited Open Works Baltimore, a 34,000 sq. ft. makerspace located in the Greenmount neighborhood. The mission of this non-profit facility is

                "to make tools, technology, the knowledge to use them accessible to all. We do this through low cost studio space, memberships, and classes." 

In the one year since it's been open, I've heard great things about Open Works from everyone in my local art community, but hadn't yet made it there to see for myself. Since the closing of the Baltimore Clayworks left me without a studio, I thought now might be the perfect time to check it out. However,  I have to admit that what really got me moving was a picture on Open Works' Instagram account. Someone had made a 3d printed bust of Ben Franklin, my hometown hero, in lightweight acrylic glory!  I had to see, (and feel) for myself.

 Exterior, taken from parking lot

Exterior, taken from parking lot

I called late on a Friday night and spoke with Deb, who spent lots of time answering my questions about Open Works. She encouraged me to take a tour and listed about 5 times during the week or weekend that I could come by- I really got the message that they want people to come and visit! I arrived at 11:30 the next morning and was delighted to find that Deb would be our tour guide. Also greeting me was the very bust of Ben himself. Set out upon the front desk was the notable maker and inventor, rendered in extraordinary detail. Deb saw me studying the intricate grain on Franklin's face. “I'll show you where that was made.” she said.

 Ben's bust!

Ben's bust!

With a small group of 5, Deb started the tour in the spacious lobby, filled with comfy chairs, game tables and loungers.  All of the stylish (and comfortable) furnishings were made at Open Works' wood, metal, and digital fabrication shops! Deb explained that anything they need they can make with the Open Works facilities. She cited an example as recent as yesterday, where a speaker requested a podium for their presentation. Poof! - A stylish steel lectern was produced for the event.

 The lobby- to the right is Greenmount Coffee

The lobby- to the right is Greenmount Coffee

Deb asked each person in the group to introduce themselves and to say what they were interested in making. There was a young man interested in working in the metal shop so that he could gain experience for a welding career. A woman interested in the wood shop. A retired pipe fitter looking for a space to create. A high school administrator who had just stopped by for coffee at the newly opened Greenmount Coffee Lab, but decided to stay for the tour when Deb mentioned all the opportunities for students to learn at Open Works. And lastly, me – a clay sculptor set adrift, searching for new ways to keep creating.

Adjacent to the lobby is the stylish Greenmount Coffee Lab- a 100% employee owned coffee, tea and nosh shop run by the folks from Red Emma's. This space has large tables ( also made at OW, natch) to accommodate not only studio members, but anyone who wants to enjoy fair trade beverages, vegetarian and vegan treats, and free wi-fi.

Deb led us through the hall to 2 light filled and spacious classrooms. She explained that the classrooms serve a vital purpose in achieving Open Works' mission: to make tools, technology and the knowledge to use them accessible to all. Among the many classes offered are welding, woodworking, digital fabrication and sewing. The experienced teachers, who are makers themselves, can show you how to create your dream project. The classrooms, as well as the lobby, are also available to rent, and have thus far hosted community groups, a high school robotics competition, and a black tie fund raiser.

Next was the computer lab, where you can design to your heart's content on no less that 16 Dell precision work stations with ample 27 inch monitors. These computer stations are the first step in the design process for any maker wanting to create with the 3d printers, but can be used to facilitate all parts of the creation process. Open Works offers affordable “crash courses” on a variety of computer aided design programs, such as Rhino 3D and Adobe Illustrator.

Around the corner from the computer lab is the textile studio. During our tour we briefly interrupted a safety class on how to use the industrial sewing machines, but the teacher was happy to explain the project for the day. The class was full of adult students, each constructing a small pouch with a zipper. Deb explained what each of the machines did, from making the seam on the bottom of our t-shirts, to stitching leather and heavy fabrics, to fine embroidery. While I am a complete stranger to sewing machines, I left the studio with a new appreciation for the complexities of clothing construction. Deb also mentioned that several sculptors have used the textile studio to make large inflatable soft sculptures out of parachute-like material.

The digital media studio had me thinking about taking some Ansel Adams style photos of my very own. Those beautiful archival quality photos you see in galleries? You can print them here. Ever want to edit your own film? You can learn all about it at the Premier Pro class, and create at one of the well appointed work stations. Did I mention the vinyl cutter? You can print your own images or signs on vinyl- even that sticky kind that you can slap on the wall! Get ready to peel and stick, friends!

The electronics room was a bit of a mystery to me, but Deb explained that many of the components that the students use to make robots are made here. You might also build your own computer or 3d printer, repair an appliance, or make a kinetic sculpture for the next great Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race!

 The wall of 3d printers!

The wall of 3d printers!

I was really excited to see the 3d printing studio. Part of me was expecting to see something like “the replicator” from Star Trek, and indeed, the 3d printers are nothing short of amazing. Intricate sculptures, parts for mechanical prototypes, and even a human skull can be reproduced in lightweight acrylic. I was primarily interested in using the 3d printers for their sculptural possibilities, but their applications are endless. Builders of any kind can use the printers to make exact prototypes. Scientists can create models for experiments. Bio-medical professionals can make natural and comfortable prosthetics. Deb said that Open Works had recently hosted a lecture from a company that uses 3d printers to service clients from all of these areas, as well as in the the movie industry. To demonstrate, the speaker used a special camera to scan Deb's body from top to bottom, and created a 5 inch “mini-Deb” in perfect detail. While our group loved her “mini-me”, Deb did say it was a little weird to see yourself from the “outside.”

 3d printed skull- the red shape in the back is actually a "Martian ray gun" standing on its barrel

3d printed skull- the red shape in the back is actually a "Martian ray gun" standing on its barrel

One of the core principles of Open Works is that it is “open.” This idea is exemplified in the the studio spaces, which, while private, have 3 walls that rise to only about 4 ft, and look more like the stalls you might see in an open-air marketplace. This arrangement is meant to encourage community interaction, exchange of ideas, and innovation. The upstairs studio area is filled with light from large windows on 3 sides, and houses about 70 cubicles. Electric outlets are supplied to each 7 ft by 7 ft studio by a clever overhead drop down cord. Each of the studios comes with a locker at the end of the row. We saw evidence of work in progress from painters and sculptors of course, but also the work of craftspeople and small businesses. One small business had merged together a few studios, and were constructing super efficient, clean burning fire places. One craftsman's studio was filled with handmade wooden bowls and platters. Deb mentioned that, after attending the American Craft Fair that was held in Baltimore this past winter, his sales have skyrocketed.

 A squadron of squirrels... Open Works has adopted the squirrel as its unofficial mascot!

A squadron of squirrels... Open Works has adopted the squirrel as its unofficial mascot!

The downstairs space hosts more studios, the wood shop, metal shop, spray painting room, and additional storage space. While the downstairs studio area didn't have as much natural light as the upstairs, it well lit and airy nonetheless. Proximity to the adjacent wood and metal shops are a real benefit here. Both the metal and wood shops had plenty of space, excellent dust collectors, and all the equipment one might expect. Of special note, however, were the plasma cutters in the metal shop, and laser cutters and CNC routers in the wood shop. These were the tools used to construct the aforementioned podium, along with the furniture in the lobby. There are computer stations by each of the cutters, where you can simply upload your design, and the cutters will set about executing all the parts with hair-splitting accuracy. It was mesmerizing to watch the CNC router “sculpting” a shape out of a large piece of resin. The artist, who was standing nearby wearing safety glasses and making an odd note or two in his sketchbook, had only to “supervise” the process.

 The upstairs studio room- the yellow cords to the left are the drop down electric outlets

The upstairs studio room- the yellow cords to the left are the drop down electric outlets

Currently there are about 250 members at Open Works. Members can use the upstairs facilities for $70 a month, downstairs for $90, or both for $125 a month. Have a special project or just want to check out the facilities for yourself? Get a day pass (12 hours) for $25. Studio spaces are $125- so, for a studio space and access to everything OW has to offer, it's $250 a month. Got a creative family? Get a $40 youth membership for your 16-18 year old, or spring for household membership and get discounts on multiple members. Discounted memberships are also available for those who display a financial need , and are part of Open Works' commitment to providing affordable access to all.

 A studio

A studio

Now that Open Works has been up and running for a year, and with all of the amazing facilities available, I asked Deb if the space was crowded. Deb said that there is plenty of space for everyone, and that currently there are studios available. Open Works is open from 9 am to 9 pm, so there is lots of time to work on your project. I was also curious to know if there would be a wait to use the 3d printers, since larger projects can take a few hours to complete. I was relieved to hear Deb say that you can reserve time on the printers. Wonderful! I know it doesn't seem like a big deal to be able to reserve time on a machine that you would like to use- but most places I've worked at have been first come- first served. In the past, this insanity invoking practice has turned usually calm creators into nail-biting machine stalkers. Every 30 seconds, like cuckoos from a clock powered by cocaine, wide-eyed, yet painfully pleasant studio mates chirp “Are... are you done yet?” This inevitably results in lost time and productivity.

 Our happy tour group!

Our happy tour group!

The overall impression I got after leaving Open Works was extremely positive. The entire space was clean, calm, and peaceful. The makers we saw seemed happy to be there. There is a space for everything- including space to have a coffee, socialize, and relax. No one was wasting precious time circling crowded work stations like turkey vultures. No one was squabbling over tools, or safety gear. One notable drawback for me was the lack of any kilns or utility sinks for clay sculptors. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find a better equipped or well managed makerspace.

It was truly inspiring to see all of the things one can make,do and learn at Open Works. It reminded me of my time at art school, except for the fact that there was plenty of space, and all the equipment one might need. If Open Works had been around when it was time for me to go to college, I may have even skipped art school entirely.

 

This article was based upon my tour of Open Works with the incredibly knowledgeable and delightful Deb Jansen, member services associate, whose passion for creating is infectious. Thank you Deb!

 

Find out more about Open Works, as well as a full list of their facilities and classes, click here   

Don't miss these cool pics of projects made at Open Works  - click here to check out their Instagram page