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ACT OF KINDNESS

Artists put their skills to work making PPE for front-line medical workers

Industrial designer Sarah Miller shows off two test pattern gowns at Artisan's Asylum, a makers/artists cooperative in Somerville.
Industrial designer Sarah Miller shows off two test pattern gowns at Artisan's Asylum, a makers/artists cooperative in Somerville.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When COVID-19 was looming, Mike Shia knew he couldn’t just sit at home.

Shia, a retired Microsoft Philanthropies program manager, is a member of Artisan’s Asylum, a nonprofit community fabrication center in Somerville with nearly 500 members and 14 shops that offer facilities in 3-D printing, robotics, metals, jewelry, woodworking, and more. Members are artists, designers, builders, artisans — makers who love a challenge.

“A couple of us got together and said we needed to do something,” he said last week. “I have a son who’s a nurse, and I want to provide him with the best possible material.”

Artisan’s Asylum shut its doors after the statewide stay-at-home advisory on March 23. Members were already brainstorming via e-mail.

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“We saw there was an acute shortage of PPEs overseas,” said executive director Lars Torres. “One member had a relationship with Cambridge Health Alliance. We listened to doctors and other medical professionals about what they needed.”

Within days, Artisan’s Asylum members went to work on a new project: designing and manufacturing personal protective equipment for health care institutions. Torres and his team found and modified open source designs for disposable and reusable face shields, reusable face masks, and nonsterile protective gowns. They devised a design for a 3-D-printable machine that can produce pleated medical masks. Shia leads a group of volunteers making disposable face shields.

Everyone had to reorient. “There’s been a tremendous amount of early learning about materials and tools, and how to move products that are new to us into markets with specific standard controls,” Torres said.

Volunteer Steve Klayman made face shields at Artisan's Asylum.
Volunteer Steve Klayman made face shields at Artisan's Asylum.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Still, industrial designer Sarah Miller, who co-leads the gowns production team with textile artist Jay “PQ” Diengott, said the jump to PPE has been natural.

“It’s not that difficult to pivot. A lot of us are designers and builders. We have to reverse engineer all the time,” she said. In the first two weeks of manufacturing gowns, the team made 3,000 and expected to sustain that rate.

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Supplies go to hospitals such as Boston Medical Center and South Shore Hospital, and to smaller institutions such as Rosie’s Place and Home for Little Wanderers, according to Artisan’s Asylum board member Nicolas Warren. The nonprofit sells them at cost, and welcomes donations via artisansasylum.com/covid.

Kristen E. Palumbo, chief operating officer of Nizhoni Health, which provides home care for people with complex, high-risk medical and behavioral issues, said reusable face shields made by Shia’s team filled a void as other supports fell away.

Nizhoni hadn’t used face shields before. “We’re really pleased with the product,” Palumbo said. “It’s great working with a local group wanting to support us and other health care providers local to the community.”

A face shield gets an adjustment at Artisan's Asylum.
A face shield gets an adjustment at Artisan's Asylum.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Artisan’s Asylum members are not the only makers applying their ingenuity to the PPE shortage. Providence textile artist Jungil Hong had just left a job in research and development of technical textiles when the pandemic hit. She consulted with doctors and put out a call on social media for volunteers to help make fabric masks.

“I wasn’t employed. The need was there. I could tap into the community,” Hong said.

As volunteers were stitching masks, she and her husband, Brian Chippendale, along with Matt Muller and Levi Bedall of Pneuhaus, a Providence design collective that creates inflatable art, teamed up to procure the raw materials for KN95 masks, the Chinese equivalent of N95. They ran a GoFundMe campaign to produce masks at a Fall River manufacturing company.

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Then Muller, in consultation with emergency room doctors, started fabricating face shields at Pneuhaus.

“We’re making 1,500 units a day, and we have donated 13,000 face shields to places in 12 states, mostly in New England,” Hong said.

She’s glad to be able to step up.

“It actually has kept us healthy mentally,” she said.

Shia says the same thing. With 3,000 masks made and 3,000 on the way, he is glad to be useful.

“I love making, building, creating things,” he said. “If I don’t do things with my hands, I get into trouble.”


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.