Object lesson in creativity: the maker movement

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will.” – George Bernard Shaw

We are, by nature, creators. Some of the most accomplished people in history are self-taught. They tapped into their own innate creativity, often outside conventional models of education, because they had a passion to invent, change, improve or transform something. In his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson argues that at the threshold of the digital age, we are standing on the cusp of realizing our greatest creative potential in the history of humankind. This happens through using digital tools that save and, therefore, create time.

I have always loved handmade objects. My first professional writing job was writing for the League of New Hampshire, the oldest professional crafts organization in the country, and one of the first American “cottage industries” spawned from the Great Depression in the 1930s. I interviewed glassblowers, woodcarvers, blacksmiths, basketmakers, metalsmiths, printmakers and potters. What I love most about craft is the merging of art and science. The craftsman must learn scientific parameters of specific media and the physics of movement and function in order to design something successful and beautiful within those boundaries.

My second book, American Luthier (ForeEdge, 2016), came about because of my fascination with the hand-hewn object, the violin, and the pioneering woman who carved nearly 500 stringed instruments by hand. I also learned about the dishonest violin market still ruled by the elite–a few dealers and makers who determine supply and demand and craft not only wood but perception about violin value to benefit the elite who have cornered the violin market.

No more. To my shock, a few months ago, I stumbled upon a product by Hova Labs, a 3D acoustic violin that is computer-printed for a cost of about $70. As I tried to get my head around this paradox, I began to see the entire world of objects, including something as high-end as a violin, is being turned upside down by digital tools. I soon discovered that I had to rethink nearly everything I thought I knew about production in the digital age.

Anderson is a great guide to help one understand not only just how much has changed, but the nature of that change–a way to take a slow-motion look at the bullet train of technology. Before deciding one is not a “maker,” he or she should reconsider. Looking at creativity through a wide lens, we are all makers, running the gamut from hobbyists, tinkerers, bakers and chefs to gardeners, beaders, scrapbookers and cross-stitchers. Follow the bliss and one might be surprised with where it might lead – in a very short time. And because of the internet, we are all connected in ways we are just beginning to imagine, must less utilize.

That printed violin, an acoustical marvel, was made possible because in the digital world, computers can reduce physical objects to a series of algorithms, thereby revolutionizing the way we create. Digital tools allow global manufacturing to work on any scale, in a wide range from a few to million units and in moments, rather than weeks or months. “Small Batch” production can be as lucrative and certainly infinitely more local, yet local can also be global. We have to rethink communication, collaboration and company. Anderson: “This ability _ to manufacture ‘local or global’ at will – is a huge advantage. That simple menu option compresses three centuries of industrial revolution into a single mouse click…Think of a digital product not as a picture of what it should be, but instead as a mathematical equation of how to make it.”

Whereas, we have spent the last decade discovering how to invent, create and collaborate through the Web, a kind of “weightless” economy trading intangible information rather than physical goods, the next decade will be spent learning how digital tools can transform the physical world by simplifying and customizing manufacturing.

This is all brand new. Anderson marks the beginning of the “Maker Movement” with the 2005 launch of Make Magazine and the first Maker Fair gatherings in Silicon Valley, and the 2007 launch of the first open-source desktop 3D printer. Anderson: “Projects, shared, become group projects and more ambitious than any one person would attempt alone. And those projects can become the seeds of products, movements, even industries.”

Digital has become universal and is transforming do-it-yourself with a cultural “norm” based upon online sharing and common digital design standards that allow anyone to access commercial manufacturing processes and then take a product to market from the desktop.

Enter the “Maker Spaces” movement. MakeIt Labs, located at 25 Crown St., is New Hampshire’s first Maker Space–an all-volunteer non-profit company open 24/7 to its membership. I applaud Mayor Jim Donchess and the city of Nashua for offering this 12,000 square foot building to the Nashua community of “makers” and the volunteers who turned building, which was likely destined for demolition, into an amazing conglomeration of maker spaces. Workstations include an electronic/computer lab, wood shop, machine shop, welding and metal fabrication shop, automotive garage bay, rapid prototyping areas, extensive 3D printing and laser cutting shop, textile station, and plans for a pottery station complete with kilns. It’s all free, and available, with a little training.

What began in 2010 as a community of 50 has grown to 250 members. MakeIt Labs, as the largest and most comprehensive maker space in New Hampshire, has since spawned other maker spaces in Portsmouth and Manchester. Anyone can join. Members are taught how to use all the equipment and can sign up for classes in rapid prototyping; woodworking; metal fabrication – you name it.

When I visited MakeIt Labs last week, Adam Shrey and Mike Sullivan gave me a tour, and echoed the MakeIt philosophy: “We’re more than a place to work on projects; we’re a community. We’re a 100 percent volunteer organization, run by people passionate about helping others learn and create. Need help with your idea? Just like discovering new things? Come and be a part of our community of students, hobbyists, engineers, artists and more.”

Imagine, as Anderson said, “a market where customers help you develop your products and then pay you for them?”

Visiting MakeIt Labs was an object lesson for me. While I still cherish the object made by hand, from scratch, most of us cannot afford to buy such an object. The fact that someone invented a great-sounding $70 violin means that suddenly many more children can learn to play the violin. Digital tools transform possibilities–for the hobbyist, the inventor and the customer.

Now is the toughest step of all: to give yourself permission to create. The motto of MakeIt Labs is: “Dream it. Learn it. Make it.” What do you want to make?

Van Gogh said: “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

MakeIt Labs hosts an open house every Thursday – tonight – from 6-9 p.m. Stop by and introduce yourself – no appointment needed. www.makeitlabs.com.

Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, biographer and poet. Contact her at quincysquill@nashuatelegraph.com or quincy@quincywhitney.com.