Story by Greg Lane
In 2008 a small group of friends came together to make band touring possible and affordable, and their creation was Make.Shift Project.
“Make.Shift wants to be the answer to boring orca and lighthouse art—we want to do something different,” said Make.Shift director Cat Sieh.
Bellingham’s Make.Shift Project is a non-profit organization that seeks to help developing alternative musicians and artists by providing an open and all-ages venue, an art gallery, music and art studios, and supporting programs, Sieh said.
When Make.Shift started out, their first project was the “magic van,” Sieh said. The van, which bands could use free of charge, allowed musicians the opportunity to go on tours, a chance that many small or early groups might not have normally had, she said.
Recently, Make.Shift has hit some obstacles. Sieh said the Make.Shift building, located at 306 Flora St., had some fire code issues with the city due to a lack of proper exits downstairs where shows are held. She said the current construction costs for installing two new exits was a big setback.
Sieh said Make.Shift cannot hold all-ages shows at their venue until they meet city fire-code standards.
One of the required upgrades was the renovation of a garage door. The door has been transformed into a normal wall with a regular door exit, Sieh said.
The second exit is another project currently in progress which involves putting up a new staircase and hallway to provide another way out from the downstairs stage and studio areas, Sieh said.
Make.Shift has been working to meet the new construction costs with a fundraiser for the last six months. Sieh said that in those six months the fundraiser has raised $17,000 of the $20,000 goal in donations through the Make.Shift website and from audiences at shows held at other venues.
Devin Champlin, an acoustic guitar craftsman and workshop tenant of Make.Shift, said that many small businesses, such as Toni & Guy Bellingham Academy and Salon, have been supporting Make.Shift with donations or specials where some proceeds go towards funding the new fire-escape exits.
Champlin’s workshop, where he builds string instruments out of planks of wood, has been located in the Make.Shift building for about a year and a half, he said.
Another workshop tenant at Make.Shift is the “guitar doctor,” Zack Van Houten. Van Houten specializes in repairing string instruments, both acoustic and electric models, he said.
Although Van Houten said he is just finishing up his first month as a tenant at Make.Shift, he has watched Sieh and others build up the project. To Van Houten, helping Make.Shift with its current construction and costs by renting his workshop “is a no brainer.”
“I have no other choice but to support them,” said Van Houten, adding that helping Make.Shift is a way for him to give back to the all-ages venues and programs that he knew and loved growing up in Bellingham.
“Make.Shift is doing a lot of work to keep the all-ages music scene alive,” Van Houten said.
In addition to building the new exits, the city requires Make.Shift to determine the real occupancy limit of the performance area.
Sieh said it was discovered that the previous sign stating that the occupancy limit was 99 people was not official, and they plan to correct it.
With the fire-code costs, Sieh said the “magic van” had to go.
“The ‘magic van’ is on hiatus for the time being,” Sieh said. “It had become a financial vacuum… [it’s] still on the agenda, though.”
She said the goal is to later revive the program with a newer and more typical band van.
Sieh described the old van as “like driving a hotel around.” Smaller but more accessible, she said a newer 16-seater will allow for more “plug-and-play” touring.
Many local bands including The Bad Tenants, Horse Knot, Dead Hookers, and Heligoats have used the van in the past. The van has traveled up and down the West Coast and throughout the Pacific Northwest to places such as to Idaho, California, Oregon, and Montana.
The “magic van” was sold in March 2013.
Although the downstairs stage is not currently in use, Make.Shift is still running the art gallery.
A free art walk, which began this October and will continue through November, is being held. Called “Mutants ‘R’ Us,” the gallery displays superhero and mutant themed art from local artists.
Whatcom student Violet Hougan, Make.Shift’s volunteer coordinator, said the October showing of “Mutants ‘R’ Us” was very successful.
“This was one of the biggest shows we’ve ever had. It had 91 pieces originally but the ones we’ve sold already are not up anymore,” Hougan said. “We had about 30 artists involved and we just loved it so much that we want to keep it up for another month.”
Hougan said she’s been volunteering at Make.Shift since the beginning of January 2013 and has been the coordinator for the last few months.
Being the Make.Shift volunteer coordinator has improved her public speaking abilities and given her experiences and connections that she’ll use for the rest of her life, Hougan said.
“I’ve had a positive experience with Make.Shift. All the volunteers are awesome people and they all care about what they’re doing and the community,” Hougan said. “It’s also a great way to get involved with the local artists and musicians.”
One project Hougan said she enjoyed was this summer’s all-ages block party, where local musicians played and games were held on Flora Street, just in front of Make.Shift.
“People volunteered for dunking games and there was pie throwing…It was really fun. That was one of the biggest events we’ve done so far,” Hougan said. “From the two stages we had live music going on all day.”
Hougan said that it was nice to have an all-ages event such as the block party since she and others under 21 can’t attend shows and events with age restrictions.
As the volunteer coordinator Hougan said her job is not without challenges.
“With volunteer work you can get a lot of people that think because you’re not getting paid you don’t have to show up all the time,” Hougan said. “You’re not getting payment but you’re giving back to the community, which is huge.”
For Whatcom students interested in getting involved at Make.Shift, Hougan said to visit the project’s website and email her at the volunteer email address.
“I lead volunteer orientations once or twice a month so I’ll send them a link to the next orientation,” Hougan said. “If they can’t make an orientation they are also welcome to call or email me to set up a one-on-one meeting and I will walk them through it.”
“When it comes to volunteer work, we have something for everyone,” said Hougan.
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