Susan Gordon makes pottery. She’s been a ceramicist since she graduated from Auburn University in 2004, though she didn’t focus on pottery full-time until 2013, when she decided to start a business. Now she has eight employees and sells her pottery to 54 wholesale accounts in four different countries, including Australia, Canada and Saudi Arabia. She sells an additional 50 pieces a month, roughly, through her online Etsy store.
As of a few weeks ago, Gordon’s entire business — including the ceramics’ design, formation, glazing, drying and shipping — exists on a 486-square-foot patch of bare concrete in a newly renovated Avondale warehouse.
“This is such an inspiring space,” Gordon says, looking around the open room that serves as her operation’s new home. “This is 10 times better than anything we could have put together [by ourselves]. We’re surrounded by other creatives all the other time. If we ever need help, [we have it]. And we’re here to help, too. It’s just good to have community.”
On the opposite side of the warehouse, in an adjacent, sawdust-strewn room, Michael Mattox is putting the finishing touches on a chef’s knife that he has made by hand. Like Gordon, Mattox started working on his craft over a decade ago — he made his first knife 17 years ago — but it was only two years ago that he decided to build a business around it.
His specialty is mainly kitchen cutlery — paring knives, miniature cleavers, chef’s knives and the like — though he also makes sporting knives, all with a decidedly rustic look. “I wanted kitchen knives and I couldn’t afford them, so I started making them myself,” says Mattox, who sells his wares through his website and Instagram.
Now, he makes knives for professional chefs. He’s currently finishing up a set commissioned by a chef in Colorado; he’s making more for newly opened Avondale restaurant Wooden Goat, located just a few blocks away. “I prefer working with chefs,” he says, “[but] I don’t say no to anybody who wants a knife.”
“I like this place because I’m usually introverted,” says Mattox of the warehouse. “I just get into a hole [when I’m working], but here I can diversify. That’s what I like about this place. It’s a diverse group of people with generally the same [mindset].”
“It Wasn’t Obvious at First”
The warehouse, located at 4000 Third Ave. S., is the new home of MAKEbhm, a “makerspace” designed to serve as a hub for local creatives and an educational space for people looking to learn new crafts. “We provide space, tools, power, Wi-Fi and coffee,” its website states. “You provide the inspiration and the perspiration.”
The sprawling building plays host to a dizzying variety of Birmingham-based artists and artisans. There’s a metalworking shop, a woodworking shop and a pottery studio (separate from Susan Gordon’s business), all of which serve as settings for expert-taught classes. There’s a central, all-purpose floor space available for rent; a practice area for local bands, currently booked up by local psych-rock outfit Through the Sparks; and a studio that serves as the home of Monolith Radio, a multifaceted independent station that broadcasts exclusively online. There’s a screen-printing studio and an under-construction mercantile storefront; an unfinished co-working office space occupies the warehouse’s second story. And that’s not counting the building’s other tenants: architecture firm Standard Creative, the Bici Bicycle Cooperative and Macknally Land Design.
It’s going to be a packed house — and that’s just what Bruce Lanier is counting on.
“Part of what we’re shooting for is presence,” says Lanier, MAKEbhm’s founder and its executive director. “What’s going to make this work is people being here in community. It’s really less about space — anybody can find space. You can find space in your living room if you need to, or at a coffee shop. [But] it’s the notion of a shared experience that will make this work. It’s connectedness.”
Lanier, who is also the principal architect at Standard Creative, bought the warehouse in 2013, back when MAKEbhm “was still just a concept, basically.” Then, it was being used for storage by the neighboring Ram Tool Construction Supply Company, which hadn’t been planning to sell the building until Lanier made them an offer.
“We knew we needed something about this size,” Lanier says, though plans for the project were then still vague. “And then we drew it and priced it and realized that, if we were going to spend this much money, we should probably make sure that it was actually a viable business proposition first.”
Lanier found a space in Avondale’s Continental Gin Industrial Park which would serve as a “test drive” for MAKEbhm. That initial space featured a tightly packed assortment of woodworking, welding and screen-printing equipment, while also serving as home to the Bici Bicycle Cooperative and Yellowhammer Creative.
“It’s a really good thing we didn’t go into [the warehouse] first, because it would have been different,” says Lanier, describing the learning process as “a series of small fails.”
The space presented some logistical problems. It was relatively small, which prevented very many people from comfortably working at any one time — a problem that affected the scheduling of classes even more dramatically.
But the space also led Lanier to reassess his overall plan for MAKEbhm. “What we figured out was that our initial assumption, that people would just want to come in and pay a membership fee to use equipment, turned out not to be true,” he says. “But what we did have consistently is people who just needed workspace — which is obvious, I guess, but it wasn’t obvious at first.”
The Maker Movement
MAKEbhm is a part of a larger trend — referred to as “maker culture” or “the maker movement” by many sources — that emphasizes a community-based, D.I.Y. approach to craftsmanship and technology.
The movement has spawned a variety of “makerspaces,” or shared workspaces, although most — like the TechShop chain, which has been active since 2006 and has eight locations nationwide — provide memberships to those who wish to use their tools and equipment rather than renting out physical space.
Also unlike MAKEbhm, many of these spaces focus on digital technology and software. Red Mountain Makers, located in Woodlawn, offers paying members a variety of resources including 3-D printers, a circuitry lab and a biology lab. (Red Mountain Makers also features a sewing space and a workshop, with and its website says there are plans to add a ceramics lab and a metal lab.) Other Birmingham organizations, such as Space One Eleven or Paperworkers Local, also exhibit the community D.I.Y. characteristics that typify the maker movement.
The exact impact or breadth of the “maker movement” remains unclear. The Christian Science Monitor described it as a “new industrial revolution” in a 2014 article, while the White House has officially acknowledged and celebrated the maker movement through a yearly “National Week of Making,” which this year will take place on June 17–23.
“Just Being in the Space Made Sense”
MAKEbhm began moving into the new warehouse at the beginning of February, a process which lasted until mid-April. The move, says metalworking instructor Julie Carpenter, resulted in a new sense of direction and purpose.
“I started [at MAKEbhm] when it was really hard to define,” Carpenter says. “It used to be hard to talk to people about what we were doing. But getting into this building and seeing it, even when it was completely unfinished, talking to Bruce about it and hearing his concept and looking at his drawings, it all made sense. Just being in the space made sense. Everybody’s got their own spot.”
The MAKEbhm warehouse is centered around a central floor area, which is gridded off, either by tape or paint, into 9 foot by 9 foot squares, available for rent in either one- or six-month increments. Lanier says that 10 of the 14 squares have been made initially available to rent; Gordon’s pottery business occupies six of them; painter and calligrapher Amy Stone occupies a seventh.
Stone moved into her space on May 5, and she says that she noticed a difference in her approach to her art “almost immediately.”
“I’ve been doing my own thing for about two years now, just working in my own little sunroom in my house around the corner [from the warehouse],” Stone says. “I really enjoy what I do, but I’m really extroverted, and I have a hard time if I’m trying to paint or trying to work at all, in being inspired or even when I’m not around other people.
“Thursday, the day I moved into MAKE, was literally the most productive day I’ve had in a long time,” she laughs. “It’s just great to be in a space around people who love what they do and are refining their craft.”
“Getting Excited and Engaged”
Beyond providing resources and fostering a community among its tenants, MAKEbhm’s mission includes providing educational opportunities to the surrounding community. That educational aspect, headed up in part by Lanier’s wife Scottie, can come in the form of metalworking classes taught by Carpenter or pottery classes taught by ceramicist Joel Shaw.
It can also take the form of outreach to local schools; this year, Lanier and MAKE carpentry tenant Richard Barrett have taught a weekly shop class for high schoolers at the nearby Red Mountain Community School.
“The first day, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into,” says Barrett, who works in the warehouse’s wood shop during the alternating weeks in which he’s not working as a hospitalist. “They were kind of aloof teenagers. I don’t think they were sure they wanted to be here, either. But by the second class they were getting excited and engaged, and since then it’s been a lot of fun.”
One such class saw students designing and constructing wooden boxes — “the basic principles of woodworking,” Lanier says — but he hopes for MAKEbhm’s classes, for students and adults alike, to eventually become “cross-disciplinary.”
“For instance, we’re offering a steel-and-wood table-building workshop in a few weeks, where you are in the metal shop part of your time and the wood shop part of your time,” he says. “It is a goal of ours to make people aware that, ‘If you learn this, then you can do all this stuff over here.’ Like, if you learn some basic welding skills, you can do a lot of stuff with that.”
“People that take my class, I always show them around,” Carpenter adds. “I show them the ceramics room and the wood shop, and people are always getting involved in other things.”
One such opportunity will come in the form of something far less tactile than most of MAKEbhm’s offerings; Monolith Radio, a station organized by members of the group Radio Free Alabaa, plans to offer podcasting lessons at the new location as well.
The podcasting lessons, says Radio Free Alabama project manager and treasurer Bree Windham, are intended “to highlight Birmingham artists” and to facilitate the telling of stories that might not otherwise reach an audience.
“People don’t think that their stories are interesting or worthy enough for people to listen,” Windham says. “But if you’re passionate about something, somebody else is, too. And they might want to listen. You can’t give up on that opportunity, and we want to make sure that everyone in Birmingham has the opportunity to learn how to document their own stories.”
Brett Forsyth and Brandon Watkins, whose design company Yellowhammer Creative was incubated at MAKEbhm’s old space before moving to a new location near the new warehouse, will also teach screen-printing lessons.
“We’ve been doing classes in their shop for the last year or so, and now we’ll be able to do it over here,” Lanier says. “It won’t be [taking up] their production space, [so] we can start doing more sequential classes — not just overviews, but classes on making a transparency and burning a screen. We’ll get deeper and deeper, hopefully.”
“Sharing Is Okay”
“We’re all just getting into our spaces,” says Julie Carpenter, looking through the metal shop’s window toward the central warehouse. “But it really is cool to see people bustling and being creative. This is the first day I’ve been in here that it’s just been full of people.”
Even though it’s not yet at full capacity, the MAKEbhm warehouse does carry a sense of liveliness, of potential. Its community, while nascent, seems almost certain to grow; the upstairs co-working space is months from completion and Lanier is already talking about expanding the building.
“If you curate the community properly, where you’ve got team players and people who are of a common mindset — that sharing is okay — then you end up with a robust, interesting mix of things,” Lanier says. “It’s going to be volatile and change and take on different flavors. The goal is to try and manage that in a way that’s complementary.”
The makers who have set up shop in the warehouse, meanwhile, say they feel a link not only to each other, but to the surrounding community. “The girls who work for me all say that!” exclaims Susan Gordon. “They worked for me [at our old location], but now that we’re here, they’re like, ‘We feel so much more connected to Birmingham now.’”