At Brick Coworkshop, Iron Sharpens Iron … and Much More
Space to Create
Dan Battat is a glassblower, and that can be a solitary art. But he prefers company.
“As someone who has worked in a solo shop setting, it’s awesome to look up from the bench and see someone pouring concrete into molds, or these guys in the machine shop cutting metal, all in my view from my workspace. Seeing them, it’s hard not to think of new ideas.”
That iron-sharpening-iron philosophy is one of the driving forces behind Brick Coworkshop in Holyoke, a co-working space that currently houses eight artists of varying disciplines — from glass, metal, concrete, and wood art and fabrication to ceramics, painting, and product design and engineering — who themselves represent six small businesses.
Battat said several of the players knew each other and were looking for this kind of shared space when an opportunity arose — 15,000 square feet of opportunity, to be specific — in the Wauregan Building on Dwight Street, along the downtown canal network.
“A lot of us had talked about this concept of an arts center before the space suddenly became available,” he said, noting that many of them knew each other through the region’s broad ‘maker’ community.
“We were all in the right place at the right time,” said Mike Stone, one of three members of Cofab Design who moved their operations to Brick. “There were zero days of downtime. The previous tenant got out, and we moved right in.
“Everyone had some kind of shop before that,” he added. “We all moved a lot of equipment in. It looked nothing like it does now. But we were intrigued by the idea of being able to share resources and inspire one another to work together on projects.”
Brick’s founders describe it as a shared work environment for artists, fabricators, engineers, and designers, where members work individually, collaboratively, and for the community in a variety of disciplines and mediums.
Besides Battat Glass and Cofab Design, Brick currently houses the creative entrepreneurs behind Kamil Peters Metal, concrete specialist Karmody Worldwide, Cog Ceramics, and Paul Palmgren, a fine-art painter. Other members have come and gone in the nearly four years since Brick opened, but most of the current ones have been there since the beginning.
Stone said the various members pursue their own business goals but also contribute energy to the collective, whether that’s through grant applications to fund educational programs or working with community groups on artistic projects. “We’ve let it develop as organically as possible, but we continue to formalize it.”
He sees more collaboration in the future, believing Brick has potential as a different kind of workspace — one where members from different disciplines work together as much as they do separately. “One of the things that differentiates us from the traditional model of co-working space, what makes us different, is that we don’t fit neatly into any category — maker space, co-work, incubator … we’re halfway between all of those.”
Take, for example, a recent collaboration with Wistariahurst in Holyoke to create a traveling museum experience, comprised of installation space for interchangeable panels, protective cases for artifacts and objects, and a recording area where members of the community can document and share their memories. The idea, museum Director Kate Preissler noted last year, was to interact with people who’ve never heard of Wistariahurst and may never have visited the museum.
The traveling museum project involved many facets of what the artists at Brick do, Stone said, from preliminary research through design and fabrication of the actual exhibit infrastructure, and leveraging their collective expertise to benefit the community.
“Kate was looking for an intriguing way to take the rich collection of history at Wistariahurst collection over the years, get that out of the bounds of the museum itself,” Stone said. “How do we take this great content and make it more accessible and more relatable to people? It was a great example of taking a project from concept to design to implementation.”
Meanwhile, Stone and Battat both say educational and community programming will be an increasingly more significant aspect of Brick. Some members, like Battat, offer private lessons in their specific discipline, while group classes are occasionally scheduled as well, in addition to school-group tours.
By bringing kids into the sprawling, open space where glass, metal, concrete, and more gets manipulated into both conceptual art and products they may use every day, Stone said, “maybe we can spark something in a young person’s mind.”
The collective is still working out strategies for a more robust educational program, perhaps in collaboration with the Holyoke Creative Arts Center, located downstairs in the Wauregan Building. Whether it’s a six-week course or a one-weekend session, Stone said he hopes each member can find the right niche to make education a bigger part of the Brick ecosystem.
“I like being able to teach here, having the space to do that, pulling in all the multiple disciplines we have,” Battat added. “We knew that aspect would become an important part of the picture.”
There’s also an element of sharing resources between members that makes their operations less capital-intensive, Stone said, and not just the common areas like the woodworking shop available to all. “It acts as a resource multiplier — if Dan’s got something I need, instead of running to Home Depot, I can borrow it from him, or vice versa.
“And if I ever need a tool that doesn’t exist yet,” Battat added, “we can probably make it within the hour.”
But it’s the sharing of expertise and inspiration that makes a bigger difference, Stone told BusinessWest.
“It really comes down to the fact that it’s exciting and invigorating to share space with creative people. We all pick up knowledge with each other, have discussions, foster that crucible where ideas get bumped around — even just in passing each other in the hall. And when the time is right, we may work directly with each other. It’s a cool way to hone our individual disciplines and all work toward becoming a little more multi-disciplinary.”
In the end, Battat said, not every artist or artisan will benefit from such a collaborative environment, but those with the right personality for it will find they accomplish more than working alone.
Stone agreed, calling the arrangement a creative multiplier effect. “Having eight to 10 people in the space as collaborators, we’re able to speak in a louder voice than one individual in a shop. Not that there’s anything wrong with that model; for the right type of person, it definitely works. But we’ve lucked out with a great group of people, sharing a similar mindset, that keeps the momentum moving forward.”
With more event and educational programming on the horizon and a better sense of how Brick fits into the Holyoke community, the organization is ready to increase its profile alongside the canals and beyond.
“We want to leverage our energy and potential down here and play off things going on in the community,” Stone said, “and keep all this moving forward.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]