Maker Faire Bay Area: The Magic Is Back by the Bay

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Maker Faire Bay Area: The Magic Is Back by the Bay
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“Fantastic,” I heard someone call out, on the sixth and final day of Maker Faire Bay Area, as makers were packing up, ready to take their creations back home. Keith Johnson was climbing on Jon Sarriugarte’s Project Empire, the enormous, bright green space vehicle, and as I got closer, Keith hollered out: “Maker Faire was fantastic.” I was happy to hear that. I was happy to see the relaunch of Maker Faire Bay Area at Mare Island and hear that everybody loved the new waterfront venue. I was happy that so many makers returned who had been at Maker Faire before as well as a whole group of first-time makers.

Keith Johnson and Merrilee Proffitt, who brought their Cupcake Cars to earlier Maker Faires in San Mateo, brought Electric Wrecker, a large, four-wheel vehicle they had built. At the first Maker Faire, Jon and his wife Kyrsten Mate brought the SS Alpha Fox, a NASA-inspired rover, and in later years The Golden Mean, a giant snail. Now they brought Project Empire, which had a crew of 25 people working on it for eight years (see Make: Volume 87, page 128). At the first Maker Faire, Kyrsten was pregnant with their daughter Zolie — who’s now a teenager and performed as a crew member of Project Empire alongside Keith and Merrilee’s daughter.

After a four-year hiatus, Maker Faire Bay Area returned in October 2023 for two weekends along the waterfront at a historic naval shipyard, Mare Island in Vallejo, California. 

I didn’t really know what to expect by bringing back Maker Faire Bay Area. It was something of a risk. Would enough makers show up with projects?  Would enough people come out — those who had been to Maker Faire in the past and those who didn’t quite know what to expect? Would it feel as wide open and full of creativity and brilliance as it once had? Maker Faire was coming back to a world that was very different from when it first launched.

Perhaps I need not have worried at all. 

Makers at the Heart

The magic of Maker Faire returned along with a fascinating collection of makers and eager attendees who were glad to see it back. You could feel it in the air. You could see it in the smiles on faces. People on buses coming from the parking lot to the entrance were buzzing with anticipation, and they were buzzing again with excitement for what they had experienced when they boarded the buses to go back to their cars. 

The crowd that gathered for EepyBird’s Diet Coke & Mentos show, a popular spectacle in past years, was buzzing too, like it was their first time — and it might have been because the crowd was so young. So much of Maker Faire is encountering the unexpected, like the robotic humanoid bird ValkyIrma by Irma Harris or the new Computed Axial Lithography (CAL) instant resin 3D printer demonstrated by UC Berkeley researcher Taylor Waddell.

Each day we had a parade — a rather impromptu event that makers joined with anything that moved — led by Russell the Electric Giraffe, followed by colorful, ridable electric muffins, hand-held kite puppets, a shark-shaped motorcycle, the pedal-powered Trashlantis kinetic sculpture, the rumbling Holy Bike, a variety of mobile creations from Obtainium Works such as a magic lamp spouting fire with a genie inside, a marching band in red, white, and black uniforms, a red robotic cart with big speakers, and finally on the last day, even Kinetic Steam’s giant steam engine rumbled down the wide Esplanade. People stood on both sides of the parade, lining up as you would on a street to watch, take photos, and wave. It was glorious. 

This Maker Faire was something that only this community can do, and only at Maker Faire could you experience it for yourself. This new edition might have been smaller than previous editions of Maker Faire Bay Area, except maybe the very first one, but it had all the essentials, such as learn-to-solder and many more hands-on activities. It had more than enough heart and soul to fill a vacant shipyard. The energy and enthusiasm felt new — it was not something we’ve been feeling during Covid, when many of us were isolated, or even since then. Over the last 10 years, our culture has changed and become darker and more dire, but Maker Faire was like a string of LEDs offering hope, shining on the many creative interests of so many people and suggesting what is possible. It was great being together again. 

Who knows what impact Maker Faire has on people’s lives? I do hear from attendees — and from makers returning year after year — what it means to them. The kid who now works as an engineer and was first inspired by Maker Faire to tinker. The now-grown son of a maker who has his own custom vinyl record business because he figured out how to make records in small batches. The students from Berbawy Makerspace at Irvington High School who managed the Nerdy Derby activity for six days, one of whom told me she had no idea what Maker Faire was when she came but this had been the best experience of her life. 

Sure, there were plenty of robots and rockets, drones and LEDs, welding, soldering, knitting, glass blowing, and metal working at Maker Faire. There was a Dark Room, which featured MakeFashion Collective putting on Hack the Runway shows the first weekend. Erin St. Blaine walked down the runway in an LED dress, passing underneath her glowing jellyfish sculptures. Craig Newswanger’s RayLights, mounted on a wall, generated mandala-like color patterns based on ambient sounds. The following weekend, there was a host of light-up creations including Sepia Lux — the animatronic cuttlefish art car. In the cavernous Foundry, an angular three-story building at the opposite end of the Esplanade, was Celestial Mechanica, a large-scale, motorized orrery.

Adam Savage gives his Sunday sermon. Photo by Mark Madeo

By Making Things, We Create Ourselves

On the first Sunday, Adam Savage gave his Sunday sermon, a tradition resumed. He arrived atop Russell the electric giraffe, coming up behind the crowd who were already sitting in rows waiting for him. They all turned to see his familiar face again. Adam began by saying that he had filmed dozens and dozens of episodes of Mythbusters on Mare Island.  

Adam said that he wanted to talk about “making as self-improvement.” What he wanted to say would be “weirdly, deeply personal” so he advised his listeners to “strap in.” After a short pause to look at his notes, he said: “The first thing I want you to know is that I was a lonely kid. I didn’t make friends easily and I didn’t know how to act around other kids. I was really lonely. And, of course, it doesn’t make me unique or special.”

Seeking a way out, he made things — endless, elaborate things with Lego, with papercraft — as a way of building a castle wall between his conscious self and his loneliness:

YouTube player

“The amazing thing about being a person is that every one of our coping mechanisms carries with it not just the tragedy that necessitated it but also a superpower. Small me, self-soothed by concentrating on tiny things carefully, specifically paying minute attention to endless details and getting lost in them and the stories that were created around them. I was using that practice to drown out the fact that I didn’t know how to have friends but at the same time, that practice, that iterative process of ideation, creation, and play was building something vitally important in me. My very self was forming around the thoughts and ideas that I couldn’t get out of my head. As my creations improved, so did my confidence and self-esteem. …

“This is for me the central reason that I make. It’s because when I make, and I pay attention to
the things I’m making, I learn important things about myself, and about being a better person. That’s why, I believe in the end, we all make.”

–Adam Savage, speaking at Maker Faire Bay Area 2023

That lonely child is still with Adam every day, he said, no matter how busy he is, no matter how popular he is. He’s become a better person who makes things, who loses himself for hours at a workbench, who is able to connect to people intimately in large crowds and tell his story. It’s a story most makers can identify with. His struggle, our struggle continues, and we keep going; we keep making and becoming better humans.  

With large rusted cranes looming above our heads, we knew that big things had been built at the Mare Island naval shipyard. With all of the makers gathered here, Maker Faire Bay Area was a big thing too. All who participated in Maker Faire were happy to feel the creative vibe again, realizing how necessary it is to make things for yourself and with others. On the Make: YouTube channel, user @rikaika4178 commented on Adam’s Sunday sermon: “Maker Faire motivates me like nothing else to learn a new skill, tackle a new task, and to find a way to give life to that little spark that’s been rattling around in my imagination.” That’s the magic. That’s fantastic.

This article first appeared in Make: Volume 88.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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