Artisan’s Asylum: Building dreams, one business at a time

[The We are the Creative Industries series: The Creative Industries – video game companies, design, marketing and architecture firms, and talented people who write books, design houses, shoot movies, make art and record music, just to name a few examples – are an important part of Massachusetts’ economy, with $1 billion statewide impact and over 100,000 workers. Click here to learn more.]

By K. Gretchen Greene

A stranger offers me a ride, late one night by the railroad tracks, a few blocks from the Asylum. But he knows who I am. He calls me by name.

He introduces himself. Puppy.

I want to ask Puppy who he is, how the Asylum has changed him, helped him. I’ve spent two days asking that question, and the question is changing me.

It turns out I know things Puppy wants to know, things he didn’t know I knew. We spend an hour talking. That’s what Puppy loves about the Asylum. People know so much and are so open. He tells me he can’t count how many times he has had a question and 20 people have each known a different part of the answer and been happy to tell him.

Again and again in my interviews, I hear similar stories.

Members walk down the hall and discover an expert in the very thing they have a question about. A problem that might have held up a project for weeks or months or even forever is solved in minutes.

Casual conversations lead to technical breakthroughs and to an expanding network of professional relationships and friendships.

Work moves forward even when outside businesses are closed. When a member has an immediate need for a sheet of 10ga steel, a very particular electronic component or a large piece of machinery, someone in the building has one to spare. When a job requires an extra set of hands to hold a piece in place or to lift a load, other members step in to help.

Something exciting is happening at the Artisan’s Asylum, a four year old fabrication, coworking and educational facility operating in the old Ames Envelope factory building in Somerville, MA.

Engineers and designers are creating new products. Partnerships are forming. Businesses are being created and existing businesses are growing. Members are getting jobs using the new skills and confidence they’ve acquired. Outside companies are using the Asylum as a training and fabrication resource. Hobbies are becoming professions.

Bob Field, a former advertising prop maker, found the tool training, tool access and industry information he needed to create a new business, Atomic Earrings, designing and fabricating 3D printed jewelry. After a year in business, his earrings are in 18 museum stores across the country, including the MIT Museum and the DeCordova.

James Arthur and Colin Galbraith met at the Asylum and founded Creosphere, a web design and small business solutions consulting company. James couldn’t think of a client that didn’t come to them through their Asylum connections.

Josh Beckman left an office job in public health to start his own CNC fabrication business, Somerville Made. He said being at the Asylum let him see how to make that transition. He regularly works with other members – alternately hiring them or being hired by them.

Seth Avecilla, a former sign fabricator, used the skills and confidence he got as a member and teacher at the Asylum to get “a really cool job” running a student fabrication lab for MIT’s Program in Art, Culture and Technology.

Dave Goncalves and his engineering coworkers took a class at the Asylum when they needed to learn about hydraulics for a work project. At the same time, with his connection to the Asylum providing new clients, skills, technical ideas and motivation, Dave’s hobby of restoring vintage radios and televisions became a serious second job.

Looking at the Artisan’s Asylum as an entrepreneurial tech business incubator, the Massachusetts governor and other state and local officials, representatives of foreign governments, business schools and the press, including The Economist, have come to visit. This week, it was students from MIT Sloan and Turkey’s Sabanci University. Last month, it was Kosovo’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Development.

But what’s happening at the Asylum isn’t only about business.

The Asylum is a very interesting mix of engineers and artists, professionals and hobbyists, of anyone who might like the idea of 40,000 square feet and a few hundred friends learning to build whatever they can dream up in the shared shop facilities: welding, metal, wood, machine, electronics, robotics, glass and jewelry, plus 3D printing, laser cutting and CNC fabrication.

It is a place of dreams and inspiration, a place of discovery and passion.

Seven, a pilot in the bike club SKUL, had no idea she would like teaching, but there was a need and she was asked. Now she says, when everything else is bad, teaching bicycle maintenance and building is the one spot of joy she can count on. Her day job is a paycheck she said, but teaching is her real purpose and contribution in the world.

Dmitri Litin, the former controller of the Asylum, characterized his role in building the organization as a period of “really intense personal and professional growth.” He said that looking back at what he and the other early members were able to accomplish at the Asylum changed the way he looks at himself and what he’s capable of. He discovered a passion and a mission he didn’t expect – “to enable and empower people to bring change into their lives.” Dmitri’s next move is to the West Coast, to build organizations in other communities that can be catalysts for personal change as the Asylum has been for many. His work at the Asylum gave him the business skills and the national visibility and reputation he needs. In the span of a week on a recent trip to Oakland, CA, he laid the groundwork for what he envisions as the first of many more organizations he will help found – developing a business plan, securing donors and developing partnerships.

Several members spoke of the Asylum community in almost utopian terms. As I talked to them, I started to understand why.

It’s a place that makes the impossible seem achievable.

It isn’t perfect. Nothing is. But it’s a vision worth fighting for.

K. Gretchen Greene is a Member and former Chairman of the Board of Artisan’s Asylum. Artisan’s Asylum is open to the public this weekend, May 3-4, from noon-6pm for Somerville Open Studios. Public tours are also available at designated times on other days.

[We are thankful for Global Business Hub’s support of the Creative Industries. Please note: This article does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development or its Creative Economy Industry Director for the Commonwealth, nor is it an endorsement of any views, products, or opinions contained therein. The author is solely responsible for the content.]