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DIY elves take over the Asylum

Posted by Marcia Dick  December 23, 2010 10:03 AM

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Clay Ellis photos

Casey Lee shows off her robot pants.

It was Dec. 20, and the elves had taken over the workshop. Make that the asylum. The craft space Artisan's Asylum was celebrating its first Do-It-Yourself Secret Santa swap, and judging from the LED sculpture near the entrance, these guys wouldn't need Rudolph to light up a sleigh.

About 25 elves set down their presents in the second-floor warehouse space filled with Frankenstein bikes, milling machines, a swing clamped to the ceiling, a mural of a robot tearing open a box, and cofounder Gui Cavalcanti quickly wrapping his own contribution in a brown paper bag.
Some of the participants were volunteer officers, relative old-timers at the Asylum, which opened July 1. But for many, it was their first visit to the space.

You'd never know. Armed only with the recipient's answers to a freewheeling survey, these strangers came up with better gifts than lifelong friends could find. In fact, they were pretty much the best gifts ever.

One after another, all clever and well-crafted: Tiles printed with dark-and-twisted holiday scenes. A blank book hardbound in polished wood. A star-shaped potholder and a crown for a Super Mario Brothers–style quest. A tall glass goblet with a sealed chamber holding a card for the old sci-fi movie "Slaves in Bondage."

Sarah "Ecco" Pierce of Charlestown, 24, the default cheerleader, practically cooed over someone else's hanging lamp of sculptured green knots, prettier than the things Ikea rips off. "I bet that throws really interesting patterns. Oh wow, I have to touch this," she said.

Sarah "Ecco" Pierce tests out her new hammer, made from a repurposed oxygen tank part.

The giver stood up. "My name's Mike Sullivan and that took a lot longer than I expected," he said. The materials? Paper and Elmer's glue.

Technique often took center stage - especially with the rules limiting everyone to $20 of supplies. Pierce, who teaches the Metalworking for Women class, unwrapped a Viking-sized bulb-topped hammer. She wielded it with glee, then examined its construction, wondering how it held together. "I don't see any welds," she said.

Viking-sized metal artist Randall "Hilljack" Bird of Boston, 45, stood up. He'd made the tool from the top of an oxygen tank and a railing J. Crew threw away, and sealed it with nothing more than friction.

Which is not to imply that all the gifts were practical ... unless you're Wile DIY Coyote. Asylum sewing coordinator Casey Lee unknotted the twine of a box marked "Acme Robot Supplies." Out came two corrugated metal tubes with a metal cylinder on top: robot legs. Think of the Michelin Man, or Wallace and Gromit's "wrong trousers."

Newcomer Max Eskin of Somerville, 28, introduced himself as the creator. "The survey said you had problems with pants," he said.

From behind the chairs came such a clatter ... Lee had fallen over trying to put on the legs. She coolly stood up and tied the drawstring. They actually fit.

Even the surprises had surprises. Colin McMillen of Somerville, 29, was psyched enough to get a handmade rubber stamp of Rick Astley. Then his Santa pulled out an ink pad and a dollar bill. Following instructions, McMillen placed the stamp so that Astley's face obliterated George Washington's. A Rickrolled dollar. True brilliance.

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Gui Cavalcanti, cofounder of Artisan's Asylum, shows off his Secret Santa present: a red dragon balaclava.

As the party dissolved into project talk and soy nog, it was clear many elves didn't even realize their ingenuity. A question about how on earth you could come up with a Rickroll stamp drew a blank, puzzled stare.

Sullivan, 50 and a Groton resident new to the Asylum, dismissed the skills required to bend paper into 3D art. "There's a pattern I found on the Internet," he said, and he just figured out how to turn it into a lamp.

The robot legs? "It's just ducting for, like, dryers or something... [and] aluminum flashing for roofs," Eskin said. "Now you can make your own robot pants." Of course you can.

Bird started packing up his gift, made by Lee: a small painting of a wrench under a rainbow. "Most of the people here work on the engineering and hacking," he said. "To get something that's a painting -that's really neat," he said.

Overall, he thought the Asylum had more variety and openness than Willoughby + Baltic, the now-disbanded workshop that used to rent the space. "It's something for everyone," he said. "I don't have to be 'the metal guy.' ... and that's really drawing me forward on my own artistic journey or whatever."

Pierce agreed. "I feel it has to be balanced" between art and industry, she said. "I'm sort of the poster child." (Unfortunately her primo exhibit, a 9-foot pterodactyl sculpture, had gone away to live with Zebbler. Yeah, that Zebbler.)

Cavalcanti wouldn't put down his own gift, a giant red dragon balaclava described as "Cthulhu Tigger." It should come in handy for the Asylum's next public project: The first snowy Saturday of 2011, they'll be building two-story forts in Union Square. Bring your giant hammer.

Did you have a DIY Christmas? Post in comments or contact Danielle at

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