MYS Oregon to Iberia

Renewed purpose for people and machines alike

Jennifer Rabin finds more than anticipated on a visit to the exhibition "A Call for Light" at the makerspace Past Lives in industrial Southeast Portland.

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The blacksmithing area at Past Lives

Last month, on a bitterly cold afternoon when the winds threatened to turn all of our bones to dust, I paid a visit to Past Lives, a makerspace in industrial Southeast Portland, to see an exhibition reflective of its mission to support currently and formerly incarcerated artists. Or more precisely, that’s what I thought I was doing.

Less than an hour later, I found myself lying on the floor of the founder’s office repeating, “I don’t want to leave, I don’t want to leave.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.


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When I arrived, the marketing and events director, Ryan McAbery, greeted me at the door to walk me through the show, A Call For Light, which she was putting the final touches on for the opening later that night. An eclectic mix of work representing a range of creative practices and disciplines—from sculpture to painting to works on paper—fill the exhibition space, which includes a dedicated stage along one wall where performers would be playing in a matter of hours. 

Stage area in the front room

The exhibition features work by Portland-area artists—sales from which Past lives takes 40% commission—as well as work by Past Lives’ member-artists and currently incarcerated artists. The commission rate for the latter two groups is 20%, and in the case of the sale of a work made by an incarcerated artist, funds go directly into their prison commissary account.

At some point during my walkthrough of the show, the founder of Past Lives, who goes mononymously by his last name Morlock, came over to introduce himself. Dressed in a long-sleeved waffle-knit shirt, Carhartt pants, and leather work boots—the de facto uniform of The Alpha Artsworker—his energy was contained, reserved, standoffish. (It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that I was wearing an N95 mask, a winter hat pulled down over my eyebrows so that only my eyes were visible, my black Dickies workpants, a black Dickies coat, and a pair of combat boots. So: pot, kettle.)

He asked if I wanted a tour of the rest of the place, which I assumed was self-contained and would therefore be a quick stint. It was neither of those things. But it left the kind of impression on me that made me decide to change the focus of this article from the exhibition itself to the organization that made it possible.

The spacious front room, currently serving as a gallery, gives way to a massive industrial workspace—think: pillars and concrete floors, high ceilings with exposed duct work, diamond plate lining the walls like steel wainscoting—which opens onto another massive industrial workspace, which opens onto another and another, and it begins to feel more like a fabrication shop I once visited that made parts for NASA than any artist makerspace I’ve ever been in.

Antique ironworker at Past Lives

Each area is clearly delineated for a specific type of work, and as we entered each one, I began naming everything I recognized: table saw, chop saw, band saw, an entire section of hand planes and chisels. I gushed, “You have a wood lathe!” “We just got a metal lathe, too,” he replied. As we rounded the corner and he pointed out the forges and blacksmithing area, a pair of vintage shears and a once-bright-green ironworker caught my eye. I may have said “Holy shit!” more than once. A few paces later, I shouted “You have a metal CNC?!?!?!” He beamed and pulled a perfect square of copper from his pocket, the first thing he had milled on it. We mooned over its perfect simplicity, exchanging looks of satisfaction and awe, any sense of reserve between us, gone.

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When I came across rows of gas tanks—standing tall and proud like soldiers in the makers’ army—I asked what kinds of welders they had. “All of them,” he replied. All told, I cataloged: hand tools, electric tools, pneumatics, objects that contain fire and molten liquid, a forklift that they scored for free, industrial machines I’d never seen before, and things I thought were urban myth. There’s an entire wall of safety equipment.

Then we went upstairs.

The beating heart of the two-story, 26,000-square-foot space is a common area in the center of the second floor that includes a newly installed custom kitchen, an enormous table around which artist-members can work or gather, and a klatch of couches. The perimeter is defined by an array of semi-private studio spaces that artists can rent for $3.75 per square foot in addition to the $160 monthly membership that gives them 24/7 access to all the facilities and equipment (though you have to take a class on each piece of equipment before you’re allowed to use it. These are included as part of membership benefits).

As we head away from the communal area, walking down corridors, meandering through the cavernous space, we take a turn into Morlock’s office. The first thing I notice in the light-filled room is a low table covered in treasures—rocks of different sizes, shapes, and colors; evergreen cones; seed pods; coins; metal ingots; crystals; shells; acorn caps (with and without their nuts); strips of bark; clumps of moss and lichen—a collection of things that feel like they were gathered and arranged with great care. I ask if I can pick something up that catches my eye. He says it’s all there for anyone to play with, without a trace of preciousness about it.

A table of curiosities in Morlock’s office

Work clothes and outdoor gear hang from a clothing rack that runs along one wall of his office. At the far end, something shiny glints in my direction. I walk over to find a gold sequined blazer and a pair of boldly printed iridescent velvet pants. “What are these?” I ask. “It turns out that they let you wear whatever you want when you’re released from prison,” he says. “That’s what I chose.” He’d planned to mark the past two anniversaries by wearing the outfit for a celebration, but it never came to pass. Helming Past Lives has been an all-consuming endeavor.

The sequined outfit worn on the occasion of Past Lives founder’s release from prison

He tells me that at one point during his incarceration, he was transported to a prison labor camp focused on reforestation and firefighting. He pushed hard to get there because he’d heard it was the only prison in the state with a library that inmates could freely go into and out of. He was disappointed when he arrived, though, because, as he remembers, “There were just piles of books and broken shelves and it stank and it was just a place to do drugs and fuck and fight and hide things.”

He did something, then, that I now understand to be a quintessentially Morlock thing to do: “I wrote a proposal to the officer that was in charge of the library…and I just explained to him my story, a little bit about my life, what my intentions were, why I wanted personally to have a good library, and he let me be the full-time librarian.” He goes on, “I made the most fucking awesome library I had ever seen in my life and started writing letters out to the community introducing myself…because I wanted to build an actual resource. I ended up getting thousands of books sent in educational materials, reference materials, encyclopedias, every kind of textbook and novel. And I convinced the woodshop people to fix all of our bookshelves.” It was there that he studied and wrote the business plan that he and I—and everyone working on projects in the various shops throughout the space—we’re currently inhabiting.

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The path between there and here was not without serious challenges—lest I give the romantic impression that it was straightforward—but it has also been dotted with nearly unbelievable serendipities that might make even the most cynical person believe in providence (though Morlock doesn’t seem to be one of them).

Shortly after his release, Morlock started renting a 10’ x 10’ semi-private studio in a makerspace in Portland. One day, a fellow maker asked Morlock what he was working on. “Well, we’re making picture frames, but all of us just got out of prison and we’re trying to make better than minimum wage,” he replied. “I’m starting an organization called Past Lives to create employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated and I’m trying to bootstrap a wood shop.”

As Morlock recounts, “He said, ‘That’s amazing. I tried to start a wood shop and I failed. I still have all the equipment.’ So we go over to the [common area], sit down and talk for 45 minutes, and he’s like ‘Hey this is the key to my storage unit. I have 30-something-thousand dollars worth of woodworking and industrial equipment in there. I’m tired of paying for storage, just take all of it and you can pay me back someday if you want to.’”

To accommodate the new equipment, Morlock needed to rent and build out a much larger studio so he could create a communal wood shop worthy of a membership model for the community. After cobbling together all the loans he could get his hands on from mentors, family, and friends, he was still $1200 short when the first month’s rent was due. The owner threatened to find someone else. Morlock promised that he would figure something out. He went home and found a $1200 stimulus check in the mailbox. And, so, Past Lives was born.

When it quickly outgrew that larger space and they needed to move out to survive, Morlock recalls, “The desperate hunt for a warehouse began.” He emailed Glenn Dahl, the co-founder of Dave’s Killer Bread, and told his story, just as he had done with the officer in charge of the prison library and the woodworker who offered him tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Morlock laid out the mission of Past Lives in the email and explained that the organization was already employing five formerly-incarcerated craftspeople. He said he thought it would be up Dahl’s alley and asked him to reach out if he had any capacity to help. “He called me one hour later and agreed to meet with me that day for a tour of my facility.”

Shear at Past Lives

Long story short: Dahl’s financial investment made it possible for Past Lives to obtain a lease for the 26,000-square-foot portion of the building they’re currently occupying. The ink dried on it the same day they had to be out of their old space.

The crew spent six months remodeling and organizing in time for the official opening in September of 2022. Since then, machines, equipment, and people have tended to show up as if by magic. When I inquired how they got the forklift for free, he said that its former owner offered it to them because it was busted. “We had it working in ten minutes,” he smiles. When I express my incredulity about how they managed to amass what must be hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment for relatively little money, he explains that the world is full of machines sitting unloved or in disrepair in garages and storage spaces, and it’s just about finding them and putting them to good use.

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Past Lives’ business plan is multi-pronged and always evolving, relying on more than just a simple membership model (the downfall of many makerspaces), though it is now 100 members strong and growing. The business model includes a general contracting, design-build, and custom fabrication arm that services commercial partners and private clients. Whenever Morlock puts together a work crew for any of those jobs, he gives first preference to previously incarcerated members of Past Lives and then to other members who come from the broader Portland art community. (In addition, Past Lives supports formerly incarcerated makers by giving them a $50 discount on the $160 monthly membership fee.)

Morlock’s hope is to eventually buy the building so that Past Lives can take over the remaining 26,000 square feet and incorporate things like a body shop, room for ceramics and glass kilns, a place to mill wood, and anything else the community can dream up. The extensive facilities already include a screen printing press, a row of sewing machines, new industrial embroidery machines, a stained glass area, and an art framing set up. Machines and tools continue to roll in: a few days after our conversation, I asked Morlock about a possible lead on a stoneware kiln and he told me that they already got their hands on one. “Our engineer is upgrading it. Things move fast around here. I forgot to tell you.”

When I was lying on the floor of Morlock’s office, muttering to the pine cones and the acorns and the Magnolia pods and the gold sequined blazer that I never wanted to leave—so enchanted was I with everything that was possible within the space and because of it—he said quietly, “You don’t have to.” I get the impression that most people who meet him and tour the space feel similarly.

This is a place where machines and people are recovered, where lost things are found. Everything and everyone gets a second chance to contribute to the community, to find purpose, and to make something beautiful.

_____

A Call For Light  closes on February 12th and is viewable by appointment or during one of the upcoming panel discussions on Feb 9th and 10th featuring Past Lives’ community partners that serve the incarcerated. You can find out more about Past Lives membership here.

This piece is co-published by Oregon ArtsWatch and OUT OF THE BOX.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jennifer Rabin is a Portland-based writer, artist, and arts activist who fights for equity and increased funding for the arts. If you want to follow along, please visit https://jenniferrabin.substack.com/.

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