Amid a Pandemic, Open Works Makes a Case for the Makers

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From March to June, a giant box sat on the deck outside of Open Works, filling up each day with face shield components dropped off or mailed in by hundreds of people volunteering their time, energy, and 3D printers to help make personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic. The parts were gathered and taken inside of the 3 1/2-year-old, 34,000-square-foot Greenmount West maker space where a squad of once-furloughed part-time employees assembled them into face shields that were then sent out to workers in desperate need.

“The first day that the box was out there and we were receiving parts, it got about halfway filled up,” said April Lewis, Open Works’ Membership Manager. “But a week later we were having to come out two or three times a day to empty the bin. There were just that many parts coming in.”

After Maryland’s stay-at-home orders went into place in mid-March, Open Works had to close its doors to its members and the community and furloughed its 21 part-time employees. The world felt weird and hopeless. But Executive Director Will Holman soon found a path forward. After reading about PPE supply concerns and how people in countries that had already endured the pandemic fabricated equipment with open-source designs, Holman realized that Open Works was in a unique position to help provide life-saving gear, specifically face shields, during the pandemic.

Holman found a Czech company, Prusa Printers, that had designed a 3D-printed headband face shield that was approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he used Facebook to put out a call for volunteers with access to 3D printers. “The Facebook post—and excuse the pun—went viral on social media,” Holman said. “By the end of the weekend we had signed up around 250 folks willing to contribute.”

Open Works Lobby and Common Areas open to the public
Greenmount Tile and other studios at OW's Micro Studio Area
We were all feeling very helpless and we were able to quickly pivot and do something meaningful. We’ve literally put PPE in the hands of frontline workers.
April Lewis

We The Builders, an organization that takes files for 3D printing and splits them up into smaller parts so that a team of printers can work in tandem, broke down the design. That way each volunteer could print one piece of the face shield—the little piece of plastic that allows the shield to keep its curved shape, for example—and send it to Open Works for assembly.

Something resembling the collaborative nature that Open Works was founded to facilitate had returned. Innovation Works, an Open Works member that helps fledgling businesses, provided an e-commerce platform so hospitals could easily order face shields. Open Works sold the face shields at cost, creating “a financial lifeline that allowed us to hire our furloughed people back,” Holman said.

It was also significant aid for healthcare workers and others on the pandemic’s front line. On average, Open Works produced 500 face shields a day, from the end of March to June, resulting in 28,000 face shields manufactured by a network of more than 350 volunteers. “We were all feeling very helpless and we were able to quickly pivot and do something meaningful,” Lewis said. “We’ve literally put PPE in the hands of frontline workers.”

CEO LeatherArt Studio at Open Works
For returning citizens who may not be eligible for a regular job, it’s a skill they learn. And it is therapeutic if you’ve come through the traumatic experience of serving your time.
M. Ron Worthy

This might seem like an inspirational story, where hundreds of digitally connected people used 3D printing to save lives, but it’s only because the United States government could not handle the COVID-19 crisis, or acknowledge that there was a crisis, or even, it seems, just refused to handle the crisis. “It felt like the government at every level was hapless in the face of this, and that was super discouraging. I mean, that was expected at the federal level but everything, everywhere seemed so quickly overwhelmed,” Holman said. “This was a way to push back against the chaos and powerlessness.”

Just a month before the pandemic, Open Works was humming along as usual when I visited in February for this story. Folks from around the way, Open Works members, and others gathered at Thread Coffee, the queer and women-owned coffee collective that had both a cafe and its roasting operation inside the building.

M. Ron Worthy paced around tables on the phone, with a leather holster he made to hold his phone and leatherworking tools dangling from his side. Worthy is an Open Works member with a micro studio space for his company, CEO LeatherArt, which uses laser cutters to etch and cut handmade leather products. Worthy’s company is also a workforce development program for formerly incarcerated people.

“I wanted to create an academy for people who really want to learn the craft, and I wanted to do it in a community that really needed it like Baltimore—not only for art therapy, but to bring back the movement of artmakers and people who like leatherwork,” he said. “For returning citizens who may not be eligible for a regular job, it’s a skill they learn. And it is therapeutic if you’ve come through the traumatic experience of serving your time.”

Dominique Hellgeth stood in her studio surrounded by wild tessellations of ornate tiles butterflying together, pondering claywork and ceramics and the wooly joys of math. Her company, Greenmount Tile, resurrects a certain kind of increasingly rare American manufacturing style and uses Open Works’ digitally enabled tools, such as the 3D printer, to do it. “The potential was here to explore ceramics in a new way. There’s no kiln here,” Hellgeth said. “The digital processes are around and there are people to teach them.”

Greenmount Tile Studio at Open Works

Dozens of other businesses and practices populate the space: an architecture firm, fashion designers, people who build drones and use them for STEM education. There are fruitful and singular ideas such as My Furs Guitar, which makes color- and shape-coordinated guitars for children before they learn proper chords, and Groundbird Gear, which designs heavy-duty hiking equipment for dogs.

Not long ago, Marie Sellenrick of Groundbird Gear was trying to develop a new product, a sleeping bag for dogs. Another member, Ian Barron, was designing sleeping bags for his kids in preparation for an Appalachian Trail hike. The two noticed they were essentially doing the same thing. They troubleshot some of the issues together and each ended up developing a device that could evenly distribute down filling throughout the sleeping bags.

The creative energy and entrepreneurial deep-thinking scattered across the city comes together in this massive space. That’s the whole idea behind a “maker space” like Open Works. That phrase, of course, carries a certain sort of baggage. As John Patrick Leary quipped in his book, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, “a maker is an artisan without the history of class consciousness.” As Open Works’ Membership Manager, Lewis is well aware of the murkiness around the term.

Thread Coffee at OW

“When I found out there would be a maker space here, I was skeptical,” she said. Lewis, a Black artist who had started woodworking classes at the nearby Station North Tool Library, came onboard to Open Works in part because she’d witnessed firsthand the silo-ing and “for everyone” lip service of many arts organizations and she wanted to address it. “I felt called to be a part of this project with the intention of seeing if it is possible to be ‘for everyone,’ because there are barriers to actually doing something for everyone,” she said. “There is a lot of intention that has to go into that.”

Operating in a majority-Black, deindustrialized city, Open Works is intentional about outreach. It works closely with local students and residents, and the resources it offers address problems of access and equity. A 2019 report showed Open Works’ membership was significantly more diverse than that of other maker spaces around the country: 43 percent of its members are people of color, 54 percent are women.

Numerous smaller but still important things add up here, too. Thread Coffee founder and co-owner Casey McKeel noted that on top of the coffee collective’s dedication to the craft of coffee, fair trade, equity among workers, and radical politics (they offer an espresso blend called May ‘68), the cafe always made sure to have at least one affordable coffee option on the menu.

My Furs Guitar prototypes in the wood shop
Thread Coffee Roasters
The whole point of Open Works is that you can incredibly rapidly bring an idea to fruition and bring it to prototype and then scale it up all under one roof.
Will Holman

Quite a bit of that inclusive energy went away when Open Works closed for COVID-19. In early July, Thread announced it was permanently closing the cafe and moving into a new roasting facility. Members have not been able to go there for months and many have converted rooms at home into studios to continue their work. The future of the local creative businesses operating out of Open Works is tenuous, although the 3D-printing PPE project has maintained some sense of community continuity.

And when Baltimore responded to the police killing of George Floyd by taking to the streets in the thousands, Lewis handed out 500 face shields at one protest—they’re useful for both protecting people from COVID-19 in crowds and tear gas deployed by cops. The Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition received some face shields for free so they could continue their crucial outreach to people who use drugs, left even more vulnerable as they battle one crisis on top of another: the pandemic and the ongoing overdose crisis.

As the demand for face shields declines, Open Works is ramping down the PPE factory it improvised and crowdsourced into existence. An order from the United States Department of Agriculture for 9,000 masks for meatpacking plant inspectors—made entirely in-house on CNC routers—wrapped up in mid-June. “We just sent out our last shipment,” Holman said. “And we cross our fingers it isn’t needed again.”
The maker space that rose to the occasion and delivered on its potential has also made a case for the makers. People who can build and tinker and think super hard, who are malleable by nature, can be lifesavers.

If—or likely, when—the demand for PPE returns with another wave of disease, Open Works will know how to respond. They could reactivate this effort and the network of 3D printers, or once again think fast about how to apply their capabilities and help. “The whole point of Open Works is that you can incredibly rapidly bring an idea to fruition and bring it to prototype and then scale it up all under one roof,” Holman said. “Because flexible, digitally-enabled tools allow you to work in a way that was previously unimaginable.”


Disclosure: The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation is a significant funding partner of Open Works as well as BmoreArt.

This story is from Issue 09: Craft,

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