"Bringing The Workhouse to life was a community effort. Cari and Stuart spent hours cleaning, painting, and building walls before they opened in March of 2012, and they accepted materials, inspiration, and physical help from community members."
Four and a half years ago, Cari Brown had moved back in with her parents when her career in restaurant work ended because of a ruptured Achilles tendon. She was still rolling herself around on an Easy Spirit Scooter when she started helping her friend, local Bend jewelry-maker Stuart Breidenstein, in his workshop.
When the workspace next door to Stuart’s opened up, he and Cari decided they would rent it and, with less than $2000, start a new creative enterprise. They weren’t sure what it would be, but they wanted to use the space to bring “economic and cultural value to [the] community.” What they came up with was The Workhouse, a shared studio and retail space to be rented by local Bend artists and makers—a place for artisans to do their work and sell their wares. This spring, The Workhouse is celebrating its fourth anniversary in that space and its very bright future ahead.
Bringing The Workhouse to life was a community effort. Cari and Stuart spent hours cleaning, painting, and building walls before they opened in March of 2012, and they accepted materials, inspiration, and physical help from community members. (One of these locals, Christian Brown, is now Cari’s husband, who, she says, has encouraged her since those first few months to keep going when she thought she surely couldn’t.) Even their landlord helped out, offering a grace period on rent to help them get off the ground.
By the time the space opened, the artists’ studios were all rented, and the retail space was stocked with locally made merchandise, from handmade jewelry to journals to fiber arts. Those first months were terrifying for Cari: she wasn’t generating any income and was surviving on “coffee and day-olds” from Sparrow Bakery next door. But she simply “refused to fail,” and the space continued to get great press and support from the community. Even when Stuart had to step away from the business for personal reasons, Cari was determined to power through. She says it was a matter of “deciding over and over again that it was worth it.”
"Four years later, the dream that one financial advisor once told her would only be a hobby is a flourishing business."
Four years later, the dream that one financial advisor once told her would only be a hobby is a flourishing business. Sales have increased by 50% each year The Workhouse has been open, the artists’ studios stay rented, and three studios have been added to the original six to accommodate demand. Crowds at Last Saturdays, a monthly arts event hosted by The Workhouse and the other businesses in the Old Ironworks District, have grown from around 50 attendees to nearly 400, and Cari’s already booking these events into 2017. On top of all this, an ecommerce site is about to launch. Cari is relieved and grateful that The Workhouse has made it through the crucial three-year mark, which is the time period during which most new businesses fail. Now that the space is “out of survival mode,” she’s staying focused on The Workhouse’s mission of bolstering the Bend art scene.
Lisa Marie Sipe, a mixed-media visual artist who rents studio space at The Workhouse, is a prime example of how the space is helping bring more art to the community. Lisa credits The Workhouse with helping her make the decision to move to Bend instead of to Portland in 2012. She was ready for a change after living in Arizona for 17 years, and when she visited Bend, she fell in love with the city but worried that the art community wasn’t big enough. On her way out of town, she stopped at Sparrow Bakery and found herself in The Old Ironworks Arts District, where she talked to Stuart about the studio spaces soon to open. “This encounter sealed the deal for me,” says Lisa, “I could see that Bend had an exciting, growing art community where I could find my place.”
"The Workhouse’s success has given other creative businesses the courage and confidence to follow their visions. The Workhouse has raised the standard on what creative spaces look like."
The Workhouse has pioneered the way for other creative work-share spaces in town, although it’s still the only one with a regular retail hours. Local artist and business owner Allison Murphy, who is working with Cari on the planning committee for this year’s new High Fiber Arts Symposium, thinks The Workhouse’s success has given other creative businesses the courage and confidence to follow their visions. “The Workhouse has raised the standard on what creative spaces look like,” Murphy says. Cari is excited to see these other spaces spring up, and she hopes that they, too, will strengthen the local art community.
As the creative scene in Bend changes, Cari hopes that she can push her vision for The Workhouse even further. She’s interested in more conceptual shows and events, and she’s excited for more collaborations like the ones she’s formed with OSU-Cascades, offering a space for gatherings and workshops with the Creative Writing MFA students. She’s also working with the OSU-Cascades undergraduate program to offer internships for students to learn about the retail, marketing, and administrative side of a working artist’s studio.
"The past four years have been a labor of love for Cari, one that has demanded “all the strength, courage, and tenacity” she could muster. But now she and The Workhouse are both steady on their feet and ready for the next chapter."
Cari believes that by having people come into a space where they can engage with the artists who make the wares they want to buy, The Workhouse is helping to make art more accessible—financially and intellectually. She hopes to highlight art’s potential influence on community as she showcases a wider range of artists. Lisa says that in her year of renting studio space from Cari, she can see how The Workhouse is starting to become as much a space for contemporary fine art as for artisans selling handmade crafts. Lisa, who describes her most recent work as sculptural encaustic photography, is excited to see this change. “The Workhouse has stepped up to give important commercial contemporary gallery spaces to the city of Bend,” she says.
This March’s Last Saturday event is another step in this direction. The Workhouse will feature a show by photographer Breezy Winters, whose series “The Collector” is a response to society’s excessive waste. Along with Breezy’s art, the evening will also feature Oregon Natural Desert Association volunteers, there to share information about their work in wilderness stewardship and restoration, and a new collaboration on an interactive disposal station with Rethink Waste Project, an educational program of The Environmental Center. Cari hopes that this event will “open up dialogue and raise awareness about issues of environmental degradation” while also opening the door to a new direction for The Workhouse.
Cari’s vision of that new direction remains grounded in the work she’s done to grow the space and encourage the artists in it. Breezy, who recently moved to Bend, sees The Workhouse as “vital to the community,” especially in the way that it’s helping artists to value their work and start pricing it more competitively, on scale with larger markets. Sweet Pea Cole, The Workhouse’s social media manager, echoes Breezy’s sentiments. She sees Cari and all the studio’s artists working to show the value of “the handmade movement.” She thinks of the space as “a gathering place for the creative community” and believes that The Workhouse will continue to grow and reach beyond the local scene.
The past four years have been a labor of love for Cari, one that has demanded “all the strength, courage, and tenacity” she could muster. But now she and The Workhouse are both steady on their feet and ready for the next chapter.