A person can’t simply stop by The Crucible, an almost mystical place of heat and muscle that many in the Bay Area credit with sparking the maker movement. It’s too large and too interesting and once the staff sucks you into their enthusiasm, you’ve whiled away an afternoon amidst glass furnaces, arc welders, molten iron, and drill presses; drenched in the intoxicating buzz of creativity.
The Crucible is essentially a gym for making things. People buy memberships, attend classes, and use equipment in a giant open space. But instead of machines devoted to cardio, abs, and chest, the Crucible’s studios focus on craft: glass making, wood working, plastics, and metals.
Kristy Alfieri, Education Director, and Carla Hall, Youth Program Director, explained The Crucible’s history and mission. Michael Sturtz, maker movement champion and showman of the first degree, founded The Crucible in Berkeley sixteen years ago. Three years later, he acquired the 50,000 square foot former factory in West Oakland. Michael’s fond of working with fire. He produced Fire Fashion Shows and Fire Operas in conjunction with local art groups. The events drew attention – and money. A few years ago Michael moved on to other endeavors, but his brainchild still captivates over 5,000 craftsmen, young and old, every year.
The Crucible is located near the West Oakland BART Station in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. The location enables The Crucible to be both a regional asset, providing workshop space for artists, inventors, and hobbyists; as well as a neighborhood resource that offers special training and shop access to local residents.
Carla and Kristy turned me over to Kier Lugo, general floor manager and glass blowing studio head. Kier volunteered at the Crucible, became an intern, and has been on staff for ten years. He toured me through all eighteen studios and explained the safety sessions members must pass before working with any equipment. We spent the most time in the glass blowing and foundry studios; there’s something magic about how heat transforms things. When Kier opened the thick glass kiln door and 2600-degree air rushed at me, I felt blown back to the industrial revolution. That connection between basic manufacturing and current technology is The Crucible’s lure. “We get tech people here. They get enthused by doing things with their hands, develop it into an avocation, then a career, and they bring their computer background with them. These things are not obsolete. They are actually more relevant than ever.”
Kier introduced me to several other studio heads. Sudhu Tewari, the blue-haired guy who runs the bike studio, explained how the Earn-a-bike program is often the neighborhood kids’ first experience at the Crucible. “It’s a six-week program where we strip a bike, build it back up, and learn how to fix everything. Kids who complete the program get a bike. After that they can come in after school and work on other bikes for trade.” The Crucible is more than just a bike repair place. They literally build bicycles from component parts, design frames, and weld them together.
Beyond glass blowing and iron, Kier’s tour started to blur studio boundaries: glass polishing, TIG welding, MIG welding, neon, ceramics, leather, textiles, kinesthetic, stone carving, etc. That’s by design. “We bring materials handling knowledge together rather than keeping each discipline separate.” Collaboration among people and projects is fundamental to The Crucible ethos.
Kristy sees The Crucible as the intersection of art, technology and community. “Our culture moved away from creating. The Crucible’s vital because kids make something, and in the process they make community while they gain skills. This encourages them to make something else, more refined and more relevant. Vo-tech used to be a bad term. Michael elevated it and made it cool.”
Carla puts it more succinctly, “What you buy is no longer cool. It’s what’s you make.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“We are in the rebirth of the maker culture, the intersection of creating and making with improved technology for design and fabrication. We will reintroduce the tactile aspects of learning. It is confidence building to see the individual growth.” – Carla Hall, Youth Program Director
“One of the tag lines of The Crucible is, ‘Inspiring creativity in everyone.’ I want to see art as an everyday necessity. The more we connect to our creativity, the more people gain.” – Kristy Alfieri, Education Director