A Cathedral for Crafts Barn Sharpens Its Sights

By Alorie Gilbert

Four young teens have just finished sawing through large sheets of plywood at Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network and things are about to get messy. It’s the second day of a two-week boat building class, one of two dozen youth classes BARN offered over the summer on everything from around-the-world cooking to welding. By the end, each participant will leave with a seaworthy vessel along with enhanced woodworking skills and creative confidence.

The boys are in the early stages of making puddle duck racers, the sailboat equivalent of a soapbox car. Getting down on hands and knees, they help each other hold, glue and nail wood framing to the curved side of each boat. One of the boys, Thomas, squirts and spreads glue by hand along the 8-foot-long frame. Looking at his sticky, gloved fingers, he proclaims happily, “This is satisfying.”

Barn, under the leadership of new executive director Denise Dumouchel—and fully settled into its spectacular building on Three Tree Lane—is embarking on a new chapter. The organization is boosting its youth programming to create a vibrant, intergenerational learning environment.

It is also planning advanced classes and certifications that will give hobbyists paths to new careers. Whether one is crafty or not, BARN is a sight to behold. What began over six years ago as a glimmer in the eye of a some island woodworkers is now a stylish, architect-designed, two-story building buzzing with activity. It houses 12 studios, from book arts and jewelry to metal fabrication and electronic arts.

Tucked away at the end of a gravel lane, the 25,000 square-foot metal-clad structure is spare and modern. Inside, spacious studios are arranged around an airy, light-filled commons with soaring ceilings and handcrafted furnishings that encourage interaction and gathering. Concrete, glass, plywood and white walls provide a neutral backdrop for heavy-duty equipment like kilns and table saws. It is a cathedral for the crafts but with the relaxed hum and mess of a workshop.

The building—and all that happens inside—is a labor of love funded by more than $8.5 million in donations and thousands of volunteer hours. Architect Johnpaul Jones worked pro bono on the design, consulting each studio on its particular needs. The jewelry studio, for instance, is situated to provide maximum natural light to aid the intricate handwork.

Volunteers donated approximately 6,000 man-hours making all the studio cabinetry. Michael Gunderson, the woodworking studio lead, is a retired educator who was new to the island when his wife urged him to get involved. He got “sucked in” to building the cabinets, working as much as six hours a day.

“A lot of people came in and got hooked. We all became invested,” Gunderson said. “What’s really wonderful about this is that no one is a professional woodworker. There’s a nuclear scientist, architects, psychologists, project managers—we all have wood as our interest and passion.

”Post construction, BARN still runs largely on volunteer power—about 800 hours of it per week. Dumouchel, a veteran to nonprofit administration, came to BARN last winter after 18 years at IslandWood. She calls the level of volunteerism “mindboggling.”

The organization also relies on fundraising, as well as revenue from nearly 850 paying members and a full schedule of classes that are open to members and non-members alike. Almost one quarter of BARN students now come from off-island, mostly from Seattle and around Kitsap. BARN has even drawn some people to move to Bainbridge.

“There’s really nothing else like it in the region that’s completely open to the public,” said marketing director Carolyn Goodwin. “We believed if we built it, people would come. And they did.”

A new challenge is getting people to stay. Member numbers have dipped as some let annual memberships lapse, according to Dumouchel. Her goal is to stabilize and grow membership by offering vocational training that could lead to certification in fields such as copyediting and bookbinding.

The idea is to serve people in various life transitions, be it retirement, a gap year before college, or a move from military to civilian life. “Up until a year ago, it has been about creating the place,” Dumouchel said. “So we’ve been gradually learning about what people want and how to meet the community’s needs.

”One need that BARN strives to meet is supporting young people, teens in particular. BARN’s youth program expanded this past summer with six full weeks of classes, up from the previous year. Madrona School, the Odyssey multiage program and Hyla Middle School have bio, labeling her work and reaching a long-term goal.

“I had to work toward making more art, to finish a piece in two hours instead of taking months or a year to finish anything,” Franklin said. “I also had to learn how to communicate with people, email them, discuss dates. It was actually something quite useful to learn.”

This fall BARN is introducing monthly teen nights in partnership with Bainbridge Youth Services and a grant from the Bainbridge Community Foundation. For a small fee, two or three studios will offer guided projects along with snacks and games.

The idea was born in the BARN Youth Council, made up of about a dozen teens. Senior members who are eager to share their skills and passion for craft with the next generation strengthen BARN’s commitment to adolescents. Beyond its youth programs, BARN is involved in myriad service projects aiming to create a virtuous circle with the community that brought it to life.

Current endeavors include: repurposing and donating jewelry to women’s shelters; building benches for the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial; and refurbishing the telescope at Ritchie Observatory at Battle Point Park with a $20,000 grant from the City of Bainbridge Island and help from the Battle Point Astronomical Association. BARN has also done work with the Wounded Warrior Project and the Suquamish Tribe. Many of the collaborative efforts have involved building skills in addition to providing needed items.

The greatest thing BARN provides is the simple pleasure of creating by hand. It’s an antidote for an increasingly distracted, multi-tasking, consumer-oriented culture, and for schools stripped of once standard curricula like shop and art.

Gunderson notices an elderly fellow in the studio who seems particularly at peace with woodworking tools in hand. “We’re here to aid in the epiphany,” Gunderson muses. “When you meet your making need, it’s like a mental cup of tea.”