As Haystack Mountain School of Crafts celebrates its 50th anniversary nestled in the forest of Deer Isle, it dives into technology that is predicted to be commonplace 20 years from now. But as of now, their new futuristic hub, the Fab Lab, seems to be straight out of a science fiction novel.
“Traditionally, industrial education is distinct from invention, which is distinct from artistic expression. This links them,” said Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Bits and Atoms and founder of the Fab Lab program.
Standing outside the lab, you’re surrounded by evergreens and the salty scent of the nearby ocean. The cedar-shingled building blends in with rest of the rustic campus. But through the heavy sliding door, computer screens are aglow.
On Tuesday afternoon, a machine hummed in the corner as it etched an intricate floral pattern into a copper sheet, unattended. The computer screen beside it displayed an image uploaded by the printmaker who designed the pattern. Her creativity was traveling through wires to the precision building machine, the same machine used to create circuit boards.
Haystack’s Fab Lab is part of a network of digital fabrication labs filled with high-tech machinery paired with MIT software to “turn codes into things,” said Gershenfeld. It takes digital designs and turns them into physical objects made of rubber, plastic, wood, metal and more.
Last summer, artists studying at Haystack tested some of the technology by building a rowboat using a 4-by-8-foot cutting tool that MIT staff brought to the campus — a machine that is now a permanent installation in the Fab Lab. Using the same machine, another artist crafted a mold for a sculpture of ocean waves using a photograph she took of the cove and combining the digital image with MIT’s custom software.
“The technology is about human beings being creative,” said Haystack Director Stuart Kestenbaum.
MIT started the Fab Lab network in 2001. With millions of dollars of machinery and 20 years of research, they set out to spread knowledge, technology and creativity, starting with inner city Boston. Today there are 100 Fab Labs worldwide, in places such as Columbia, Germany, Ghana, Iceland, India, Kenya, Netherlands, South Africa and Spain.
In Africa, a group of people used their Fab Lab to create a security system that can be accessed remotely by cellphone; in Ohio, Fab Lab users crafted pieces for bioreactors.
“They establish themselves. The desire to make things is broad,” said Gershenfeld, adding that people from all walks of life have excelled, invented and created in these labs.
Gershenfeld likens the labs to town libraries, a resource for the community. There are things a person can learn to do in a day, a week, a month or a year. The possibilities of the technology expand with the ambition of those using it.
Haystack, the first craft school to partner with MIT in this project, was awarded $145,000 by an anonymous foundation in 2010 to establish the lab, which includes a CNC (computer numerical control) router, laser cutter, milling machines, sign center and computer terminals, and is controlled with custom software for integrated design, manufacturing and project management.
“The Haystack Fab Lab is special for multiple reasons,” said Gershenfeld. “For one, creatively, this is such an interesting place full of artists that push the equipment in unusual ways.”
Last year, the artists wanted to use the machines for purposes that MIT hadn’t anticipated, so they set to work and rewrote the software to expand to more creative uses of the technology.
On Tuesday, MIT graduate student Jonathan Ward of Arkansas sat in front of a machine he invented called MTM (Machines That Make) Snap as it drilled away bits of plastic to form a mold for a Lego-like block — the chosen shape for that day. If his trial runs go well, he plans to give the machine to the lab.
MIT graduate students such as Ward are training Haystack faculty to use the technology so instructors and students from all arts and crafts workshops can use it to supplement their studies. Just as the lab is an addition to the network of art studios on campus, the technological practices are an extension of the school’s creative continuum.
A group of artisans founded Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in 1950 in Montville, by the mountain it was named after. It wasn’t until 1961 that the school moved to its award-winning campus on Deer Isle, which now sees approximately 600 students annually for summer workshops.
“The scale [of the campus] is really important,” said Kestenbaum, who has led the school for 23 years. “It doesn’t have to be big to be excellent.”
“You think you know what you’ll find here, but that’s usually derailed by the energy of the community. Everyone puts their ego aside. It starts with the wardrobe,” said metalworker Myra Mimlitsch-Gray of New Paltz, N.Y., motioning to her baggy “Haystack” sweatshirt as she sat with her husband and workshop assistant during lunch.
The architecture of the campus is as much a part of the Haystack experience as the expert crafters and artists who are teaching the workshops, the down-to-earth director and the delectable homemade food.
When architect Edward Larrabee Barnes was planning campus construction in Deer Isle, it was suggested that he build away from the shore, on the flat land that is now the campus parking lot. Other people suggested that the campus be built right on the shore. But Barnes (1913-2004), inspired by the layout of Greek fishing villages, wanted to build the campus on the slope overlooking Jericho Bay and the Deer Isle Thoroughfare.
So he did. Each cedar-shingled building, faded gray over the years, is built into a hill that climbs about four stories and is connected by enormous wooden decks and walkways. A wide staircase runs down the center of campus, connecting spacious studios for printmaking, painting, glassblowing, metalworking, carpentry and ceramics, ending at the edge of the water.
“At all the places on campus, you’re kind of hovering,” Kestenbaum said as he stood on a deck built halfway up the surrounding evergreens, held up off the lichen- and moss-covered ground cover on tall posts like every other deck and building on campus. “They’re like ‘green buildings’ before there were green buildings. If they vanished, you wouldn’t know they were [ever] here.”
The quaint dorms and cabins, camouflaged by foliage, were built for “basic living and high thinking,” said Kestenbaum, quoting Barnes.
In 1994, the campus was recognized as an outstanding example of Modernist architecture by the American Institute of Architects. Only 41 buildings in the country, including the Rockefeller Center and the Guggenheim Museum, have achieved this distinction.
In 2006, the campus was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a building of national significance.
Since the architecture is so integral to the school’s atmosphere, the school has planned a seasonlong exhibition, “Haystack Architecture: Vision and Legacy,” to commemorate its 50th anniversary. The exhibit — opening July 3 at the school’s off-campus Center for Community Programs in Deer Isle village — will focus on how Haystack’s architecture has influenced leading architects in the U.S. Ten architects will present building models and narratives.
A new publication, “Vision & Legacy: Celebrating the Architecture of Haystack,” featuring essays about Haystack’s buildings, historical and contemporary photographs, and architectural images, also will be available in July.
“Campaign for Haystack: Campus 50th Anniversary” was launched this spring to raise funds for campus renovation projects and to initiate a study to create a greener campus. For information about the campaign or the school, visit www.haystack-mtn.org or call 348-2306. Tours are available at 1 p.m. every Wednesday through Aug. 31. The school also offers a broad series of community programs for Maine resident through its Center for Community Programs at 22 Church St. in Deer Isle.