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Kansas City Artists Forge Creative Collaborations While Co-Working

Co-working is a growing trend for freelancers, small businesses, and startups. It provides a place to work, interact with others and share expenses. But artists, and makers of all kinds, often have specialized needs, when it comes to light, space, or tools. 

At Hammerspace Community Workshop on East 63rd Street, it's just about 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday night. A robotic voice over the loudspeaker says, "Open House has now begun. Members should clean up their projects and put away tools. Go be social for an hour or two. Then you can go back to making a mess."

"That's Iris, she's our robotic evil intelligence," says Dave Dalton, who stands behind a counter wearing a yellow apron. Dalton, and his wife, Beck, opened Hammerspace in 2011. 

Before starting this community workshop in a former AT&T switching station, Dalton worked as a blacksmith and a bladesmith, as well as a megatronics technician, developing robots. 

Walking through the facility, Hammerspace is like shop class on steroids.

"This is the main fabrication workshop with the power tools, art art room over there," says Dalton as he points out some of the amenities. "Over here in the big room, big tables to work on, and digital fabrication tools from embroidery machines to leather sewing machines, 3-D printers, and other fantastic digital tools." 

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Prop artist Alex Carter stands next to some of his replicas and props inspired by video games, films, or TV, at Hammerspace in Brookside.

Alex Carter got his start as a prop artist after gearing up for cosplay at Kansas City's Comicon — and having to make adjustments to things he'd purchased. 

Now he makes and sells his own replicas and props from video games, movies and TV shows. Some of his masks and swords, mostly made out of foam, are on display. "This is the Kokiri Sword from 'Legend of Zelda.' This iron helmet is from 'Skyrim,'" he says. 

For Carter, Hammerspace is not only about access to tools, it’s also about access to creative thinkers. 

"For some of the stuff I make, I need to incorporate lights and electronics and sound effects. I know nothing about that," he says. "But Dave and Craig and Jordy and Tom [other members of Hammerspace] know all kinds of stuff about that."

At Hammerspace in Brookside, people pay for a monthly membership, classes, and staff support.

But across town in Overland Park, Kansas, the MakerSpace at the Johnson County Public Library is free for patrons. (Note: the facility received support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Black & Veatch). It opened in 2013 and re-opened in 2016 after an expansion. There's a bank of windows and tools such as 3-D printers, a recording studio and a green room. There's also staff on hand to show you how to use it. 

But that means there’s more competition for tools, which are often too costly to have at home, and reservations are recommended

"I kind of just check the week before, sometimes, and a lot of times people will cancel, and I'll be able to snag a spot or two," says Sally Thompson, who graduated from the University of Kansas in 2015 in graphic design.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Lan Strickland says she discovers new things by talking to other artists at the MakerSpace in Overland Park, Kansas. One suggested she try working with leather, and now, she's making bracelets.

After decades in international business, Lan Strickland recently switched her focus to making jewelry. She's taking metalsmithing and leatherworking classes, and she's a regular at the MakerSpace, scheduling two-hour blocks up to six times a week. 

"I think this is a great resource. I call this my office away from home," Strickland says with a laugh. 

Thompson has a studio in a community printmakers' space in the West Bottoms, but she visits the MakerSpace at least once a week to access the laser cutter, cutting designs for her wood blocks for letter press printing. 

"I feel like a lot of times artists are working by themselves all the time, and kind of seclude themselves," Thompson says. "And it’s really nice to kind of have a community that all relies on each other and helps each other out."

For some artists, it’s not really about the tools; it’s more about finding a co-working space with like-minded people.

The Cherry Pit Collective opened in 2016 near the corner of 31st and Cherry in midtown Kansas City. The communal space offers artist studios, classes to the public and community. They're located in an area that now has a cluster of creative businesses.

On a recent Sunday night, artists sit and talk while they work at a long table. One artist sifts through a stack of receipts for her taxes, another sews the words ‘Girl Power’ in pink and black on a jean jacket.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Artist Coco Rico, pictured at left, is a printmaker. She stops by the Cherry Pit Collective in Midtown to work on some of her projects.

Printmaker Coco Rico says she doesn’t need a lot of space right now, so this table, and the company around it, works for her small watercolors and wood carvings.

"Being here helps me be more organized with my ideas," Rico says. "At home, I could get distracted by anything, anything, but here, it helps me be more focused."

Cherry Pit Collective associate director Adri Luna says, since she and director Kelsey Pike opened the space, they've been able to recruit a diverse group of resident artists, from painters to soap makers. The studios have walls, but they’re open to encourage collaboration.

"It’s like beta testing for people’s first studios," says Luna. "You come in, you realize you need more space, or less space."

Photographers Rusty Wright and Jason Domingues started looking for a studio for their businesses a few years ago. A storefront in downtown Mission, Kansas, next to a longtime ski and snowboard shop, was available. Wright says they liked the location, but it was just a little bigger than they needed.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
One of the studio spaces inside Bonfire in Mission, Kansas.

"So that's when we kind of got to thinking, okay, well, what if we bring the community into the picture," Wright says.

"We built a few spare desks, you know, and we thought surely there were other folks who were similar to us, who would otherwise be working from coffee shops, or their homes, or that type of deal."  

The collective workspace Bonfire opened in 2014, with shared areas for meetings and taking photos. Seven independent businesses are now in residence. Silversmith Kelly Connor of MeritMade says she was a bit of a loner in her last studio.

"It’s just nice to feel like there are other people you can bounce ideas off of," Connor says. "When you’re a creative, I think it’s important that you have the time to get down and dirty and put your headphones on and not let anyone bother you. But you question yourself and you need other creatives to bounce that off of."

It’s likely there will always be artists, or makers, who want a room, or a studio, of their own — to think, to create, or simply to be alone. But there’s a growing number of places where artists can find community without going very far. 

Find out more about resources, and other collaborative and co-working spaces in the metro area: 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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