They call themselves the “la-la-ers,” a merry troupe of artists who came to this brick-bound studio two years ago.
Amy Frank, the band’s ringleader, adopted the name from another good egg — one who stands 8 feet, 2 inches tall, has starred on both PBS and HBO and boasts a shock of bright yellow feathers.
“There’s an episode of ‘Sesame Street’ that my kids loved when they were little,” Frank said. “It’s Big Bird trying to make a show and nobody wants to see it and his show stinks and he’s trying to figure out what’s wrong. And of course a light bulb goes off right at the end of the show and he says, ‘oh, that’s it, I just needed more ‘la-la-ers.’
“ ‘I just need more people to sing their song.’ ”
The Makery, Frank’s downtown arts and crafts studio, is not on Sesame Street — it’s at 209 W. Calder Way — but it’s become a hub for kids and adults alike in flexing their creativity, putting together a melody that rises and falls over the din of sewing machines and laughter. Phones get tabled for the tactile: the feel of thread between fingertips, splotches of paint, a dab of frosting from decorating a cake.
It’s the type of space that is growing in popularity around the country. Frank says The Makery has gotten consulting requests from similar startups in the Pittsburgh area, Kentucky, Vermont and Georgia.
“All of the sudden the song is so much louder,” she said.
It began before the Do-It-Yourself movement, before the heydey of HGTV and social media. Frank, who harbored dreams of fashion school, took a job as a business consultant upon graduating from Penn State. A prod from her father helped her choose Happy Valley over haute couture.
“My dad was practical,” she said. “He was like ‘you’ve got to go to Penn State first.’ ”
While she loved the business world, she kept sewing, her thread and needle never left dormant. After she married her college sweetheart and had children, she continued to keep her hands on fabric, attending art festivals and eventually began teaching classes at the Studio at Contempo, a creative space in Boalsburg.
When the studio closed, it was around the time when the space for The Makery became available. Amid the construction of the neighboring Fraser Centre, it had sat empty for three years, Frank said.
“But for us, it was perfect,” she said. “We’re really amazed at how the community has scooped us up.”
Since then, the studio has tripled its offerings, with 14 instructors teaching everything from knitting to photography. Frank, a mom of four, still teaches sewing, and says the art itself isn’t the only reason why kids and their parents come to the downtown studio. Working with needles can be daunting no matter the age.
“It’s making kids understand they can do hard things and then their whole world vision expands,” she said. “And that’s true of adults, too. We see that light go off: It’s that wonderful blend of creativity and social time, that as adults, we often have a hard time making time for.”
The space also hosts a slew of events, which range from tech meetups to the after party for Pop Up Ave, an urban-style flea market held on Saturday. It’s the type of milieu, she says, that’s key in making State College as well-known as Big Bird’s block.
“The story is downtown,” Frank said. “You just kind of have to be here to see it.”
Q: The sewing machine has been around since the late 18th century. Can you speak to the importance of keeping this centuries-old skill alive in the digital age?
A: We’re so in the age of devices. You can be a fashion designer on your phone, you can play “Guitar Hero” on your phone. My kids love this pottery game on the phone, but that is very different than acquiring the actual skills to create something, and I would argue that obtaining those actual skills is far more gratifying and also far more foundational to a person. Not that the tech stuff isn’t great, but we offer a counter to that. I think now more than ever that’s necessary.
What we see a lot of adults wanting to do is be able to mend, to simply repair things. And in an age of fast fashion, there is a beauty and an ecology in being able to repair things.
Q: So there are these competing trends: Tech is becoming more prevalent but so is this DIY movement.
A: I feel like they kind of have to: They’re the balance to each other. I think that’s why nationally, internationally we’re seeing this rise in this DIY culture. I see it as our first-world answer to the tech thing, which is not a bad thing, but we’re happy to be that source, because I believe in it wholeheartedly.
Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your career?
A: I would say the key to our success is it comes from a heart space. It comes from a belief in the creative arts and empowering children and adults in the community, and it comes from a deep love of this downtown space and wanting to make it something really exciting and eclectic and special.
It takes courage and faith in your concept. But the last one that’s been so important and kind of a surprise to me is tribe. If the idea you have is a good idea, the best thing you can do is share it. I could have never done this space on my own.
So when we were in Boalsburg we were three or four instructors and we were doing our thing and it was fine, but we triple that number and come here and offer the space for events and get an event planner and offer time for open studio and invite kids in for preschool classes and all of sudden we have all these “la-la-ers.”