Before they moved in, the house was operating as an illegal Vietnamese kitchen. When they moved in, there was wood paneling on the walls, exploded eggs in the freezer, and a lot of discarded Sriracha sauce. Since they moved in, there have been monthly gallery shows, storytelling nights, lectures, concerts, and cultural events. But that’s not all. The house on 3rd street in Harrisburg, PA, now called The MakeSpace, has become an undeniable pillar of Harrisburg’s art community. By creating eight private artist studios upstairs, holding monthly writing/art workshops with local highschools, and providing low-cost, high-quality community events, The MakeSpace has become a realization of a community’s dream.
We met founder Liz Laribee here to talk about art, writing, community, and the history of this inspiring space in Midtown. As anyone who has met Liz can tell you, meeting her for the first time feels like having known her for years. She willingly gave us a detailed tour and history of the house, letting us in on some of its special memories, secrets, and inside jokes. She made us tea, made us laugh, and made it easy to feel like we belonged in this house we had just stepped into.
Liz moved to Harrisburg in 2006 with the goal of starting an intentional community. Thanks to funding from St. Stephens Cathedral, Liz began working with the Sycamore House on Front Street. She describes this idea of an intentional community as “a space for thinking differently about an alternative economy. I wanted explore what it would look like if we were sharing space and resources. What would that, then, allow us to do?” She also worked at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, serving coffee as well as planning and organizing events. With the additional experiences of both living in and around the Occupy Harrisburg movement, and visiting the inspirational Union Project in Pittsburgh, she began to observe, gather ideas, and learn from the various communities around her.
“Harrisburg has had some very visibly awful financial problems…We had a terrible crime rate, our education system was one of the lowest…there are plenty of basic amenity gaps…things that become real problems when trying to have a sustainable, enjoyable life here…” she explains. Liz told us that the work of her and her cohorts at The MakeSpace would not exist without the foundation of other positive community and arts activists before them. She says, “Things were happening, but things were so splintered that people didn’t know all the good things that were happening… People hated Harrisburg a lot….I was like, ‘Harrisburg cannot catch a break’. And then I ended up getting involved with other people who wanted to help Harrisburg catch a break.”
This break came when Liz found a house around the corner from the apartment she rents. There was plenty of work to be done, but with the help of other determined and community-minded individuals, the space came together. The MakeSpace became artist studios but also immediately began giving back to its founding community. For example, donated paints were brought in, sampled, and renamed by neighborhood children. A simple yellow is “Beachball”; a bright purple, “Joker.” Liz showed us artwork by local kids (hung on the walls for the most recent gallery show—Big Things, Small Things) as she exclaimed, “Isn’t that great? Doesn’t that just make you want to die?” We’re pretty sure she means that in the best possible way.
The MakeSpace came together in 2012, as Liz’s vision of what she wanted to do in Harrisburg was becoming clearer. “I wanted a shared art space,” she says, “I want a space where I can be messy when I need to be messy. I don’t want that to be my bedroom because I don’t want to associate my bedroom with a workspace.”
Liz’s creative background is based in poetry and creative nonfiction (her senior project at Messiah College was a 40-poem chapbook). However, she found herself immersed in visual art after having used a discarded dresser drawer as the canvas for a painting she would give as a birthday gift. “I thought: Yes, I’m going to use that drawer and paint the taco truck in it. And I did, and everyone was like, ‘This is awesome,’ and I was like ‘Yeah, it is kind of awesome.'”
Since then, Laribee has continued to find inspiration in recycled material; she’s been using it almost exclusively for her current work in portraiture. With unused cardboard from the Midtown Scholar, she began drawing people’s faces. Her style for these works was heavily influenced by wood block prints and the work of Barry Mosier. The cardboard and napkin portrait series has since become her trademark, although she plans to move into new mediums soon.
So what does The MakeSpace have to offer for local and regional writers (besides the fact that an entire wall of the second floor has become a giant, collaborative blackout poem)? The events they host, both monthly and one-off, are different than other venues in the Harrisburg area.
For example, every first Thursday you can find the “Untitled” Storytelling series, a Moth-like night of true, theme-based stories told by anyone who chooses to sign up. Each storyteller has five to eight minute to tell their story. Crowd-sourced judges score participants on a scale of ten to help decide who takes home the prize. Last Thursday we were in attendance to watch Liz’s sister (Sarah Laribee) take home a gift card to the local coffee haven, Little Amps. The theme was “Scars” and the night was about much more than mere competition. Attendees, storytellers, and the series organizers themselves are incredibly friendly and talkative, making the space feel like a comfortable and communal gathering. Stories ranged from anywhere from hilarious to truly moving.
Other writing events include last month’s free Non-fiction Writing Workshop hosted by Paul Barker, senior writer for TheBurg. Coming up on April 3rd, The MakeSpace is featuring poet James Berger. You can keep tabs about what The MakeSpace is up to by liking them on Facebook, or by checking their online events calendar.
So much could be said about this space, it’s artists, and the people who come out to their shows, readings, and galleries. So much more could be said about its overall effect on the artistic community in Harrisburg. But as founder Liz Laribee humbly says, “It’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s greater than the length of time it’s been here.”