Although jewelry making is fun, creative and engaging, it can also be an isolating endeavor. Metalwerx, a school and community studio in Massachusetts, has solved that problem by creating a space where artists can collaborate and learn from each other. The nonprofit’s Executive Director, metalsmith Lindsay Minihan, joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to share how she manages an organization of artists while keeping her own creative juices flowing. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everybody, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today my guest is Lindsay Minihan, Executive Director of Metalwerx, an innovative school and community studio for jewelry making and metal arts located in Waltham, Massachusetts. Lindsay has a BFA in small metal arts, but for the past 10 years, she has been in charge of Metalwerx, or at least as much in charge as one can be when they are shepherding a group of creatives, each marching to their own drum. She’ll tell us how she manages that and everything else she is juggling, as well as how she keeps her own creative juices flowing. Lindsay, glad to have you here today.
Lindsay: I’m thrilled to be here. It’s so nice to be talking with you.
Sharon: Thanks very much. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? You’re a metalsmith as well as directing a studio with others. When did you become interested in jewelry?
Lindsay: I definitely became interested in jewelry as a child through my grandmother, who would go around to different yard sales and hunt for something that was gold or silver, completely tarnished, and she didn’t know the gem she was finding. I loved playing in her jewelry box. Later on, I really got into making clothing and I made necklaces out of hemp, and ultimately, I decided to pursue my passion in making art and found myself at Mass College of Art.
Sharon: You were studying metal arts, which doesn’t necessarily encompass jewelry.
Lindsay: I’m so lucky that I grew up in Massachusetts, because it’s the only state art school completely dedicated to the arts. There are a lot of metal programs in larger universities, but this one is only dedicated to the arts, and growing up in Massachusetts, I was able to get that wonderful in-state tuition. I was trying to decide what to do and realized this was an amazing opportunity. I originally thought I was going to go for fashion design but quickly realized that environment wasn’t quite where I wanted to be. I did a little bit of experimenting in the glass department, broke absolutely everything—it’s not that great when you fall or drop a piece. Then I took a class with a woman named Donna Veverka, who I’m still friends with to this day, and she just opened the doors. Not only that, when you drop a stone or piece of metal, it doesn’t break; you just have to find it, and it’s small. I’m really detail oriented and I really found myself, and Donna was a perfect introduction to this field. At Mass Art, the small metals department does encompass jewelry; it’s just that people also do sculpture there.
Sharon: That’s interesting that you say detail oriented, something that doesn’t come up often when we’re talking about jewelry. Having done a little bit of metalsmithing myself, you have to be detail oriented, which is probably why I don’t continue with it.
Lindsay: I have a passion for spreadsheets and measuring things carefully, which is why I think I ended up in the admin role at Metalwerx. My background lends itself because I like being organized and recording things carefully. I hadn’t had an administrative background, but it just came naturally.
Sharon: I don’t hear too many makers say that they’re that detail-oriented, but I guess you have to be.
Lindsay: There are many different realms of metals, too. Not everything has to be detail-oriented. If you’re making a hinge, yes, but you can be hammering something and forming a large vessel and you absolutely don’t have to go through as much measuring and careful fitting as you might for a hinge.
Sharon: I’m thinking maybe it’s stick-to-itiveness. Maybe it’s like, “Well, can I just go buy the bowl? It’s a lot easier.” So your detailed background sounds like it’s a real asset at Metalwerx. Can you tell us about the programs you have?
Lindsay: Metalwerx was originally started in 1998. I wasn’t part of the organization back then, but it was started with a vision that still holds true today. The idea was—and at that time, there weren’t many opportunities for this—to have community and education under one roof. When you get out of a university program, especially in the arts, you’re on your own; you were in your own studio by yourself at that time in the late 90s. So the cofounders at the time wanted to create a place for people to collaborate and work together and continue to grow as artists. That was the initial concept behind it and still is the driving force today.
Today, we have quadrupled in size from back then. We’re running about 130 classes a year, and that’s from little one-off workshops that are something like finishing or making a ring and letting people try out one thing in a short period of time, through five-day master class workshops where we fly someone in from out of town who goes really in-depth into a complicated technique.
That’s one half of the building, and on the other side of the building, we have a 29-member artist community. This is where community and education meet. It started out as just a few people, really four in a different location, and through being able to offer full- and part-time benches, we went from about 12 members seven years ago up to 29 today. That was through our part-time program, where people rent one day a week. We had such long wait lists and people were never leaving, so this was a way to give access to more people. We’ve got our studio mates, we’ve got our classes and as we’ve grown our staff over the years, we’ve been able to take on more events and more outreach.
A few years ago, we brought back an event that used to be a one-day event, and we turned it into a three-day event called Metalwerx Marketplace. It’s a hybrid between a trade show and a symposium, where we have a whole bunch of vendors coming from around the country to more local stone dealers and stone vendors from around the country.
We also have a thriving education component of that, where we have hour-long seminars and demonstrations from people talking about their artwork and their jewelry journey, to people demoing the complicated way we used to carve stones with a flex shaft. That was one of our generals last year. We also have industry demos and create opportunities for our students to go with teachers and get tours around for shopping, because it’s really hard to pick the right tool for what you need. This event has been growing and growing. We have a fundraiser on the kickoff night, and we’ve also been doing meet-ups. Last year we invited SNAG members and Women’s Jewelry Association members to come to the bar after the event and hang out and network. This year, we’ll be doing that with Metalsmith Society, which is really a popular Instagram handle that shares tips. We’ve been working with the woman who runs Metalsmith Society and we’re really excited about it. That’s been another program that’s growing. Additionally, we’re going out into the community and teaching classes, because we’re offering 138 here and we can’t fit anything else in our studio.
In order to give more people the opportunity to learn about this really wonderful skill—part of our mission is not just professional enrichment, it’s also personal enrichment. So we really want to expose people to this amazing craft. We’ve been going into assisted living facilities to do one-off classes with residents there and are also working with other local non-profit organizations. We just applied for a grant to work with children of Ugandan immigrants with a great organization that’s down the street from us, because we met them at different events. We give events in the community in other ways as well. So those are some of the programs that are going on right now, and there are more.
Sharon: That’s a lot.
Lindsay: It is a lot, and we do it with a pretty lean staff. We’re a staff of four, and we are all really passionate about what we do, so it makes it fun to be here and be part of the community. I have always been very grateful for my amazing team.
Sharon: Are you all artists, the four of you?
Lindsay: Mostly, not all of us, but our newest of the team is a ceramic artist.
Sharon: The Marketplace, which sounds really interesting, that’s coming up in October. The date is the 18th through the 20th in October?
Sharon: Is that at the premises? Is that in Waltham?
Lindsay: No, it’s actually at a hotel. We don’t have enough space in our current facility to do it. It’ll be taking place at the Newton Marriott and we’ve been there for a few years now. It’s really great. It’s on the Charles River during the Head of the Charles weekend. I don’t know how we got this hotel, but that’s a pretty well-known rowing competition that takes place in Boston annually.
Sharon: You can enjoy both.
Lindsay: Yeah, running around the hotel, there are a lot of young kids from universities who row. It’s pretty exciting.
Sharon: It sounds interesting to have teachers taking students around and pointing out the right tools. You can’t really find that.
Lindsay: Our mission and our values are around being supporters and encouraging and being really honest with students. I want them to understand the options. Some people want to choose to buy once and buy well, and some people might want to choose a more economical tool, and making that decision can be hard and knowing where to make that investment can be challenging. I came from not having a lot of tools when I started out and was really careful about what I purchased. There are a lot of fancy, exciting tools out there, and choosing where you make that investment is important.
Some of our local teachers—some of them are actually studio mates and some of our teachers have been here for 10 years—a lot of them have developed a following, and their students will want to walk around the vendor floor with them and talk about the things that are open to them or ask questions about stones. The vendors themselves are really helpful as well because we work with great vendors, but it’s always nice to have someone you have a relationship with and deeply trust to be able to walk around and get advice on what you’re purchasing.
Sharon: What is it that you like best about the work you do as Executive Director, separate from the creative artistic work? What do you like about the work you do as a teacher?
Lindsay: There are so many things I like about my job. I always feel so lucky to come to a place every day where everyone chooses to be here and they’re really passionate about it. When I first started the job I was pretty young and my eyes were so wide open, and I couldn’t believe that the people I had studied under, not to date myself, were people that were coming and teaching at Metalwerx. I mean, masters of the field. Getting the opportunity to interact with them as colleagues has always been something I value.
I have always learned about metal beyond my college education from those experiences and having the opportunity to help out in classes. I love watching someone complete something as a student or a studio mate and think about what they’re doing and have that sense of accomplishment, that spark in their eye, the sense of empowerment you get when you’ve actually made something with your hands from start to finish. You see something come alive, whether it’s by someone who does it professionally and tries something new or someone who might work a full-time job, and this is what they do on the side to bring them happiness. Watching that sense of accomplishment has always been something I get a lot of happiness out of. I love going into the classroom and spying on what people are doing. People always get excited about it. I like the critiquing that happens in the studio and watching people share ideas as to how to build something better or rethink the way they attach an earring hinge to make it easier to use.
We all get a lot of input and share ideas with each other openly, and that’s something we really pride ourselves on. We try to hire teachers who also share their skills openly. If you only keep information to yourself, more people can’t benefit, and it’s something that should be shared. We established an award last year that we give at Metalwerx Marketplace called the Pioneering Metals Award. We give it to someone who’s not only pushed the field forward through their own innovative practice, but also believes in giving back, because that’s what we stand for. It’s people who want to push the whole sale forward by sharing that knowledge and not just their own techniques. We gave it to Michael Good last year, who’s been really amazing with developing different anti-caustic forming techniques. This year we’ll be giving it to Joe Wood, who was a professor at Mass College of Art for many, many years. He recently retired and has touched so many lives.
Sharon: It sounds like quite an honor to receive something like that. Do you still get a chance to do metalsmithing yourself then?
Lindsay: I kept up with my practice for many years while working at Metalwerx, but I had my daughter a few years ago—she’s three now—and when I got pregnant, I chose to step back from working at the benches for health reasons. Then, I found something in raising a newborn that was really challenging because I work full-time hours, more than full-time hours, and for this moment, I haven’t been working as much in the studio. I also moved, so I didn’t get a chance to set up my studio while having a couple of kids at home. I will get back to that as soon as I can. I jump into classes now and again, but I started drawing again. I’ve been drawing these fun, little tool-based pun cards that are on my Instagram. They’re mostly about songs that relate to tools, and I’ve been having fun with them and people are excited about them. I’ve mostly been donating them to different auctions so that I can help other organizations raise money.
Sharon: A lot more portable, too, to do something like that.
Lindsay: I can do it on my kitchen table without having to set up a tank or turn anything on or deal with chemicals, so it’s been nice to get back to drawing again. It was something I hadn’t done in a while, and I’ve been having fun with it.
Sharon: It sounds great and it’s getting the creative juices flowing.
Lindsay: Yeah, I have to be creative. I’m creative with our curriculum and planning, and I’m always around jewelry, but this has been another way to get a little more hands-on.
Sharon: Tell us how you manage a business that’s full of artists, and that’s different than managing other kinds of people. How do you deal with that? What are the challenges?
Lindsay: Being an artist, I can relate to people. I don’t have a business degree. I learned on the job in the past 13 years, and I care. We go as far as we can to make things easy for people when they come. When students come here, they come because they want to, and they want a good experience. We make our decisions with that in mind.
When our teachers come here, they’re going to a studio they don’t know; they have to set up for a class and they want to please students, so the more we can do to set them up for success, the better things will go. I will write descriptions for teachers if they send me a bulleted list of what they’re doing. We’ll get on the phone to make sure they understand exactly what’s in the studio. I’m known to run in there and take a whole bunch of pictures of all the shapes we have, to make sure they understand what shape we have for forming. The more thoroughly I can plan things, the better everything goes. We spend a lot of time planning and preparing for all our classes to help them go successfully. It’s a lot of juggling, and we often joke about how much we’re on the cheap. We have numerous spreadsheets tracking all different types of things, and we tend to be overly organized to make sure we’re crossing all our t’s and dotting our i’s. I was just going through our material list for fall. It’s about 45 classes, and there are maybe 300 items on it that we need to make sure we have on our radar, but we prepared that early so that when the times comes, we’re not going to have to think about it.
That’s been the way we operate on the admin side. People are here not just for fun; they’re here for professional development. It’s something that they’re choosing to do, so we want to create a supportive, enthusiastic environment. We’re very lucky that the people on our staff and within the studio mate community are all really exciting, happy people that want to be here, and they promote that environment with us. People stepped in when we had some staff changes recently. Everyone was coming in saying, “What can I do to help you? You have to do this other thing or go to a meeting. I’ll sit here and answer the phone.” I know they care just as much about talking about classes to people who call in. We work as a team here, and it’s pretty cohesive. We have regular meetings and keep everyone in the loop. With four people, you’re really able to communicate effectively and make sure we’re all on the same page.
I guess that’s how I’ve been doing it. I try not to stir the pot when I don’t have to. If someone wants something special and it’s no sweat off of our back and we’re able to do it, we try to go the extra mile to do that, whether that’s filling a seat in a class that opens up or getting a special tool if we can afford it. We are a nonprofit with limited resources, so we work within our means, but I try to think of everything in the context of how I would feel if I were in their shoes. I think that tends to keep it all together and running lovely.
Sharon: I think the fact that you’re an artist really makes a difference. You have great administrative skills, but you also see it from an artist’s perspective. You’re a real asset for Metalwerx. Where do you want to take it from here?
Lindsay: We’ve been growing for so long, so a couple of years ago we decided to expand our staff to be able to do more, and with that came us being able to expand Metalwerx Marketplace. It was this little, one-day event, and it became something much greater than that. With our increased staff, I was able to do more development, and we embarked on doing a strategic plan and we came up with some clear goals for the future. We’re really working to implement our strategic plan, which is about expanding and diversifying our audience in new ways.
Marketplace has found a lot of traction and enthusiasm, so we’re hoping to grow the number of people that can participate in that. It has about 400 people now. We’re hoping to increase that to at least 500 and invest more in the education. We’re looking for grants to go out into the community more, and to partner with other organizations so we can share the skills and techniques we have with the greater group. We’re starting to explore online education as another avenue, because we’re trying to keep something affordable as an alternative to higher education or for people starting this as a second career who aren’t sure what they want to do. The more ways we can have people access this, the better. We are a physical location, so going online for some additional education could really be helpful for people to augment their in-person experience.
We’ll be doing some exhibitions. It’s something we were passionate about doing. We started to do them a little bit in Marketplace, but that’s going to become a much greater role. We’re looking to start an artist-in-residence program and find funding for that. We’re revamping our membership program. We’ve got a lot going right now. It’s an ambitious five-year plan, but we’ll be implementing a database on the technology side of things to make sure we can handle all this growth. We’re going slowly but surely and carefully forward. Ultimately, we’ll be looking to address some facilities improvements down the road and get more modern technology in.
We just had a class on laser engraving on enamel, and Arthur Hash brought up his laser cutter for the week so we could use something that was out-of-the-box of what we’re normally able to do. It was a great way to talk to people who are in this and understand technology I wasn’t familiar with to see if this is something we could manage. Potentially, over the course of five, six, seven years, we’re looking at getting more advanced equipment and offering classes on that or partnering with other organizations that have that equipment so we can expose students to what is available to them. I went on a tour of Formlabs recently, which makes 3D printers, and it was eye-opening and incredible. They’re actually located in Boston. We’re trying to work with them and bring technology into Marketplace and to our studio. We’re thinking about how we can improve our facilities for the long term, but we still have waiting lists for studio mates and we can’t seem to keep up with the demand, so we’re trying to look at other models for doing that.
Sharon: Wow, a lot going on!
Lindsay: Sometimes it’s too much, but the days fly by here so we’re never bored. I don’t think I could sit and be in a place where I didn’t have something constantly happening. It keeps me on my toes.
Sharon: It sounds like it, and we really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. Thank you so much for being here. To those listening, we’ll have links to Metalwerx in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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