Through industrial style windows on Mishawaka Avenue, passersby can peek in and see any number of creations coming to life.
Some nights, the hum of kilns spinning, steadied by hands of varying skill levels, reverberates through the walls. Other nights, gaggles of girlfriends chatter and giggle as they try their hand at jewelry making or paper crafts.
At all hours, dedicated artists can be found honing a range of crafts in space they have rented out and made their own.
This mecca of creativity is the brainchild of South Bend resident Michelle Fitzgerald, who for more than four years has inspired thousands of Michiana residents to channel their artistic prowess.
“I think we provide a space for people who are interested in doing an art and find a community for them,” Michelle says. “I think it’s really important to have more and more of those spaces where people are allowed to create and keep exploring.”
A former middle school English teacher, Michelle left the education world some years ago looking for a job better suited to her interests.
“I wanted to do something else — I didn’t know what,” she says. “I ended up doing all these creative things at the house. I still wanted to do more. I thought, ‘I just wish there was a place where I could try a hobby before I committed to it and tried to buy everything for myself.’”
And so, Make South Bend was born.
In February 2015, Michelle opened the co-working space and invited makers of all kinds to join in creating a hub for all types of visual arts.
“South Bend made it easy because there were a lot of things and people that were seeing the value our town has,” Michelle says, recalling the evolution South Bend was just beginning to experience when she opened Make South Bend. “We got to be part of those early years of cleaning up the town. There’s a lot more music and a lot more dance and artists have had a chance to grow.”
In just over four years, the makerspace has hosted more than 1,500 classes with topics ranging all over the map.
“We’ve had people come in each of our classes who have never done that project, and we’ve had people with some knowledge of that project, and either way, they create something new or expand their skill,” Michelle says. “I love saying, ‘See? That’s something you’ve never done before, and you did fine! It’s not scary.’”
Free to take risks
Situated strategically in South Bend’s River Park, Make South Bend is off the beaten path that is downtown South Bend, and centered in a uniquely artistic corner of South Bend’s east side.
In a blog on her website, Michelle aptly described the neighborhood in which her makerspace thrives.
“River Park is a weird and wonderful little neighborhood,” she wrote. “We don’t have a Starbucks; we have The Well, a nonprofit coffee shop that moonlights as a punk venue. Our river walk is littered with unauthorized artwork from our resident sculptor. We’re home to Merriman’s Play House and the Farmers Market — amazing, important spaces with a decidedly non-mainstream appeal.”
With this in mind, Michelle takes pride in offering a place where people can feel confident enough to make mistakes and think outside the box with their art.
“We’re not expecting perfection,” she says. “This is a safe place to try new things.”
Although there are lots of other avenues throughout South Bend and the surround area for the “finer” arts, Make South Bend invites artists to create more “low brow” — artists who, as Michelle describes it, “might not ever be featured in a juried fine art show, but whose work deserves a larger audience.”
Recognizing that makers need space to showcase their work outside of the makerspace, Make South Bend offers a number of events throughout the community each year, giving the community a taste of what Make South Bend offers while also inviting members to showcase their wares.
“We’ve hosted a lot of pop-up makers’ markets,” she says. “We have Rebel Art Fest coming up this year. It’s a music and art fest we do.”
The summer festival, which was originally hosted in a tent in Make South Bend’s parking lot, moved last year to Potawatomi Park, where it will return this year with an art show, live entertainment and hands-on activities.
“My husband is a music guy. We have more than a dozen music acts presenting during the festival,” she says. “There’s always a DIY station where people can try out a craft.”
During last year’s festival, most of the bands lived within a mile of the venue. Guests could hear a variety of punk, pop and alternative performers and view all sorts of out-of-the-box art pieces.
A creative community
In the last four years, Make South Bend has expanded to allow more space for artists and equipment, and Michelle has continued to learn new crafts to share with fellow artists and find other experts to teach as well.
“A lot of [the art she teaches] is kind of self-taught,” she says. “If I see something and we want to try it, I find it online and see if we learn how to make it right along with the video. … We find a little bit of instruction there and then we take a little bit of it and run with it.”
Michelle also likes to find skills that she can learn and apply to other crafts.
“For example, with stained glass, I just taught myself. I learned that one with a YouTube video once I bought all the supplies and tools,” she says. “But then I realized all the skills I use to build a stain glass piece, we can use those to build a terrarium.”
Michelle has enjoyed seeing artists blossom and excel with certain art forms, so much so that they have created their own businesses selling their art.
“One of my favorites is our friend Kayla Skopec,” Michelle says. “She came into a class — I think she brought her son — and she came back and did a jewelry class. She only did the one and really liked it a lot and knew what she wanted to make beyond what we started with, and so she ended up doing a lot of jewelry making, and then she got into something called electro forming.”
Fast forward to today, and Kayla has an active Etsy page called The Crystal Arcana, on which she sells unique earthy rings and necklaces made with all sorts of materials like quartz, opal, amethyst and crystal.
As people stroll through the artistic epicenter that is River Park this summer, Michelle encourages them to stop in and look around, whether or not they want to take advantage of the space.
“We’re open five days a week and we have a gift shop in front, and you’re always welcome to pop in,” she says.