Vancouver-based artist, maker, and educator Emily Smith is a woman on a mission to unite the makers in her community. Four years ago, she took it upon herself to get folks together to create the first Vancouver Mini Maker Faire. This past June, they held their third Faire, and every year it gets bigger and better. Emily invited me to come check it out, and I was really impressed with both the Faire and the vibrant community.
Here at MAKE, we organized the first Maker Faire ever in the Bay Area in 2006 with the intent of uniting the local maker community and celebrating all things maker-made. After the first couple of years, we started hearing from folks near and far, telling us about how they too had great maker communities and how we should bring the Faire to their town. In the true spirit of MAKE, we created the Mini Maker Faire program to empower folks to organize their own Minis, independently produced celebrations of local maker culture. This year there were close to 100 Faires across the globe, everywhere from Rome, Italy, to Anchorage, Alaska. You can organize your own!
We spoke with Emily to find out what inspired her to get that first Vancouver Mini Maker Faire going, and what effect it’s had on the local community.
1. What was the first Maker Faire you attended? Tell us about your experience. The first Maker Faire I attended was in the Bay Area back in 2011 at the San Mateo Fairgrounds. I travelled to San Francisco from Vancouver by train around a month before our first Mini here in Vancouver. I had been following the event on MAKE and CRAFT for years online so I knew vaguely what to expect. But once I stepped foot onto the fairgrounds, it was clear that this event is more than an awe-inspiring feat of making and participation — it was an opportunity to be a part of an empowering community of doers.
While at the event, I had the opportunity to meet up with Sabrina Merlo and other Mini Maker Faire producers so that I could learn how to make our own Mini Maker Faire in Vancouver the best it could be — and to help others in the same way. I find it’s this open transfer of knowledge, sharing, and participation that makes Maker Faires so unique. Not only was I attending a Maker Faire, but I could learn how to make my own Maker Faire. Overall, Maker Faires, to me, are an invitation to make. They’re like a big, supportive hug saying, “You can do it!”
2. What made you decide to organize a Mini in Vancouver? Luckily, that same culture of support, sharing, and participation that exists at Maker Faire exists at our local hackerspace, Vancouver Hack Space (VHS) here in Vancouver. In the same way that I could attend a Maker Faire and learn how to make my own, I could visit the hackerspace and participate in projects that I would’ve never dreamed to have in the past.
I’m not really your traditional hacker, but after visiting VHS I realized that I think like one. I was an avid reader of CRAFT magazine, and it was CRAFT that inspired me to knit, years after my grandmother described to me that it was much easier to purchase pre-knit goods than make your own. When I went to VHS, I realized that this place, filled to the brim with electronic components, could really use some doilies or yarn-bombed elements to “soften the place up” a bit. (There was a bit of bejeweling involved as well). I wasn’t sure how members would react to this but after one member described that “Everything in the physical space was a wiki,” I didn’t hold back.
Even though I was one of probably two or three female members at the time and interested in crafting (which wasn’t a common activity there), I was enthralled by the culture of acceptance. One member, Goldfish, arranged for me to get a set of lockers. Those lockers became more than just a place to stash my stuff. I painted them brightly and added an illustrated “Craft Lockers” sign to them, which served as a totem for me, so that other crafters could come in and realize that this place wasn’t just for computer geeks.
At a Super Happy Hacker House, a few members had gone down to San Mateo and chatted with Sherry [Huss] and Dale [Dougherty] about hosting a Mini Maker Faire in Vancouver. One member, Joe Bowser, announced this at one of his lightening talks. I nodded and supported this. Yes, a Maker Faire in Vancouver would be magical! And then I forgot about it for a few weeks. Or months. While reading through a local newspaper, I came across an ad for a “Community Neighbourhood Arts and Development” grant offered by the City of Vancouver. I googled it, and found it described as a festivity that brings together divergent groups in the city to cross-pollinate and share ideas. I liked the basis for this grant. So I pitched the idea of a “Robot Parade” to the hackerspace mailing list. It was then that Dallas Luther, a member and future co-organizer, pointed out that this application was practically written to describe a Maker Faire. He encouraged me to apply. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “OK!”
3. What was the process like? The best learning experience of my life. The only events I had hosted before this were a few craft-related nights at VHS, which ranged from 10 to 20 people — oh, and a few parties in high school and university. Thankfully, the grant application asked all of the necessary questions and provided a basic framework for how to host an event in the city. For example: “Do you have event permits?” “What’s your budget?” I knew the questions to ask, and every time I had a question I found an answer. I resorted to social media and blogging and attended lots of community events to get a sense of what existed in the community. I honed my listening skills. I learned a lot about what was being created in Vancouver.
Around the same time, Vancouver was being portrayed in the media as one of the loneliest cities. I refused to accept this as a reality, and committed to providing a venue to house all of these lonely projects. Hosting a Maker Faire was an opportunity to contribute and become more active in my own city. I found it very empowering, and I know a lot of other makers felt the same way.
The reason I took the project on was because it was clear to me that the maker community was strong in Vancouver. That, and I had identified so much with being a maker that I just wanted that community here in a bigger and better way so that I could be a part of it. I had been struggling with the design community in Vancouver and I found the open embrace of the maker community to be a breath of fresh air, so it was motivating for me. It gave me an opportunity to make the changes I wanted to see in the city where I live — in a way that was empowering for myself and for others. I am so grateful for this experience and for the opportunity to work with all the folks at Maker Media in this supportive way.
4. How do you describe Maker Faire to folks who have never been to one? The biggest show and tell on Earth!
5. How was the Vancouver Mini Maker Faire received by the community the first year? The feedback was phenomenal. Everyone was red in the face from sharing all day. The visibility of Maker Faire meant that our hackerspace experienced serious growth. Another thing that Vancouver is known for is the high cost of living and low wages, relative to most other cities. Hosting a Maker Faire meant that our little hackerspace — housed in a heritage building only accessible by a rat-infested alleyway in the downtown east side — would double in membership. This meant that we could eventually afford a space that we could actually work in, that was more accessible to a wider demographic, including children and more females.
But Maker Faire wasn’t just about VHS. There were burners, crafters, eco-artists, glass blowers, and many other colorful groups that benefited from the inclusive and empowering spirit of Maker Faire. From my perspective, hosting a Maker Faire meant creating a new community that didn’t otherwise exist, by bringing together many groups. It was like getting your first LED to blink — like one big “Hello, World!” It’s been so inspiring to see new friendships, partnerships, and projects born out of connecting at maker events.
6. Describe how it’s grown. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that projects are getting more and more interesting, and now that the Faire is becoming a more regular thing, there are people growing their businesses and projects. We’ve been lucky enough to partner with Got Craft?, a local craft event, so last year we had a specially curated craft section, which was kind of neat. I’ve seen projects like Jonathan Tippets’ Prosthesis become more and more real. In year one, he had a leg that could jump in a supported way. This year, the suit was more developed. Also, seeing Charlie Brinson’s Titanoboa grow from a few cut-out parts and a few joints that could move to a full-on, 50-foot electrokinetic snake slithering throughout the venue was mind-blowing. I’m really excited to see the Maker Mobile continue to develop. Makers are taking their projects more seriously. It’s life-changing, and it’s empowering.
Our Mini is interesting because it seems to me that it’s a much more intimate conversation with local makers that you get to know from year to year and catch up with their progress. I’ve been absolutely floored by the dedication and commitment to projects, and every year there are new ideas, new organizations, and brand new passion projects. Makers are getting up and speaking about their projects at more public venues.
We have since registered a non-profit, Vancouver Maker Foundation, and are working through the overall vision and mandate. My hope is that makers will become more instrumental in our city and contribute to making it more alive.
7. What affect has the Faire had on the community? An understanding of what it means to make. Growth. A means to contribute and shape things, instead of complaining. A shared value of making. More interaction with one another. Bigger Super Happy Hacker Houses. More focused projects. New groups emerging. Teachers and librarians and school board officials are excited. More regular maker-oriented events in the city.
8. What advice do you have for folks who are interested in starting their own Mini Maker Faire? Do it! Don’t be scared. Get well-versed at finding everyone’s inner maker and passion project. Everyone’s a maker and it’s your job to provide a forum for them to share what they do. Listen. Be excellent, and don’t be afraid to ask for things.