PITTSFIELD >> Shire City Sanctuary is seeking people who want to make their mark on downtown Pittsfield.
Whether you grow things, sew things, print things or bake things, the former Notre Dame Church, located at 40 Melville St., is the place you can do it with other artists and makers collectively, in a central place.
Couple Crispina ffrench and Chris Swindlehurst bought the church and the rectory buildings and campus property from the Diocese of Springfield in 2006. After years of development and restoration, the owners and various partners officially established in 2014 the multi-use community hub they dubbed Shire City Sanctuary.
Shire City print shop manager, Kristen Parker, said that since it's become recognized as an events venue for popular functions like the Holiday Shindy — a market of handmade holiday gifts, plus food and drink — and the parking lot that corrals the annual Food Truck Rodeo, organized by How We Roll.
But inside, daily, the Shire City Sanctuary offers so much more.
"Our hope is to really engage the community to see this space as an open door space, to grow entrepreneurs as artists and become a community driver in the area," Parker said.
The creative collective calls itself "The Berkshires' first makerspace," a term that's globally come into vogue within the past decade. It sort of re-imagines and redefines the days of community woodshops and kitchens, and goes beyond your typical knitting or quilting circle. Today's makerspaces tend to offer the shared use of high-quality tools and equipment for hand-built design projects and production of goods, combined with on-site experts and instruction, and collaborations and idea-sharing through the organic process of connecting with other like minds using the space.
Today's makerspaces are essentially "a shared space where people come to work on creative projects," says ffrench, in a video about the space. It was created to launch on April 1 a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign (http://kck.st/1RFXDcU), to purchase new equipment and tools for Shire City's print shop, sewing shop, technology lab and commercial kitchen.
The group has a goal to raise at least $12,000 by May 8 to purchase the following: a high-quality, large build-volume 3D printer, like the Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer, a digital CNC wood carving router, a carousel screen printing system, Wolf Form dress forms for the sewing lab, a large format vinyl cutter, and tools for the shared commercial kitchen space.
"People know our events, but it would be great to see more people in our makerspace," said Parker, who collaborated on the Kickstarter campaign with Joseph Method, Russell Leggett, and other members of the Berkshire Technology Group, which shares residence in the sanctuary.
Method said makerspaces can not only offer resources to communities, but also support the development of a community of innovative thinkers and doers. He's a programmer who works remotely for a company in Boston, but noted that, "Working from home can be isolating," especially when you move to a new area like he did.
He started the Berkshire Technology Group four years ago with Leggett as a way to meet people and collaborate on technology projects, but the group was limited by their meeting space — the cafe at Barnes & Noble in Pittsfield.
He attended a March 12, 2014, meeting in downtown Pittsfield where people were talking about creating a formal makerspace, when Method said that ffrench chimed in that Pittsfield had one — Shire City Sanctuary. Not too long after, Berkshire Technology Group established a home there, where collaborators continue to develop robots and other prototypes. Eventually, they're planning to offer a game programming course to the public.
"Part of the philosophical basis behind the "makerspace" movement is the idea that people need to develop a more active relationship to technology and material objects, in opposition to being a mere passive consumer or "user,"" Method said in an email.
Accessing open source tools and learning technical skills "is meant to inspire an attitude of critical engagement with technological and commercial products. Somewhere in this jumble of ideas there is the suggestion of a path forward for postindustrial cities like Pittsfield. For example, maybe people stop throwing devices out and learn to repair them instead."
In addition to the makerspace shops, Shire City is also offering new events and educational opportunities through its community garden and 5,000-square-foot event space, formerly where the church's congregation met.
Leading that effort are community outreach manager, Karen Cellini, and events and promotions manager, Joe Corcoran. They hope to bring people together again in the sanctuary, be it to celebrate a wedding in an alternative venue, or enjoy theater and musical performances.
Cellini said the group has also applied for grant funding, including an Art Place America grant, to offer more skills development opportunities for the immediate neighborhood, around areas such as a permaculture and preservation, and also connecting younger people with practicing artists and experts in the form of internships. Workshops for artists will also continue to be held.
Some of the upcoming collaborations include continuing to offer a performance series with Kickwheel Ensemble Theatre, holding monthly swing dance nights through the Shire City Rhythm Club, and serving as a venue for the new Living the Change Climate Action & Sustainability Fair, which will be held indoors Saturday, May 7, in tandem with the third annual outdoor Food Truck Rodeo.
Other long-term goals include offering speaker series and improving the shared parking area with the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires to offer more green space and gardening opportunities for everyone.
The members of Shire City Sanctuary admit that developing a makerspace is highly experimental, and based on a sort of "if you build it, they will come" process.
But ffrench says she envisions the space becoming a co-op, and Joseph Method cited some regionally successful makerspaces that Shire City could aspire to, including Artisan's Asylum in Somerville and Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, N.Y. He also gave a nod to the new and growing North Adams Makers' Mill, which offers materials and classes mostly geared to the visual and fiber arts.
"When people come into a makerspace, they should feel like they have ownership of the equipment and the projects they create with it," said Lauren Cover, who manages Shire City's industrial sewing shop, kitchen and communications. "We want you to come here and put yourself in the shoes of this space and let us show you how to integrate these things into your lives. If you want to print T-shirts for your basketball team, we can show you how to do it. With a new 3D printer, we can help you print the trophies too."
If you go
For more information about Shire City Sanctuary, the Kickstarter campaign, or other upcoming events, visit www.shirecitysanctuary.com or call 413-236-9600, and check out the campaign at http://kck.st/1RFXDcU. You can also stop by the space at 40 Melville St., in Pittsfield, next to the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires.