Making In The Blood: A Family Visit with Hill, Blake and Chris Hudson
Posted on 08 June 2015
We recently toured the Portland fabrication shop shared by Hill Hudson of Escape Collective, and his brother Blake of Hewed Design, where we shot our Father’s Day collection. As luck had it, we were also treated to a guest appearance by their multi-talented, moonshine-making, dream-interpreting dad, Chris! While poking around the shop, we talked about their various projects, inspirations, and their take on creative family and community.
Hill, a tinkerer of several trades, is the main user of the 1500 sq foot shop these days, where he builds geodesic domes, motorcycles, and other oddities for Esc. Co.
HES: What is Escape Collective (or Esc. Co.)?
Hill: Escape Collective started out making and renting domes as experiential spaces for people to hang out in. The Escape Machine Motorcycles just kinda happened. I went to school for illustration at PNCA (and my brother went to school for glass blowing at RISD), and I decided to build a motorcycle for my thesis because it had everything I wanted to do. I like to sew, and paint, and sculpt, and draw, so it had everything.
Who started Esc. Co.?
There’s around four of us, but anyone who wants in is part of it… it’s a collective. It’s me, Andy Carlson, my buddy Connor Kennedy, and Kara Caldwell. Oh, and Marshall Burnbaum. He’s in Utah working for the Summit Series, and it’s nuts, man. At one point I was sitting next to the founder of Toms Shoes and on the other side was Glitch Mob, and we’re just eating dinner. That’s where we started! They needed pop-up structures and suggested that we build them, so that was pretty cool! He might be taking time off to help us grow Esc. Co. and launch some more products.
Where’d the engineering come in? Did you have a background in mechanics beforehand?
No! I’d worked at a fix-it shop, but that’s as far as it goes. I started fixing Macbooks and iPods and things when I was in highschool, and when I was 15 I interned for a wood furniture maker, a 65 year old guy who one day was just like, “hey do you want to check out my garage? I’m really into motorcycles.” I didn’t like them at all, actually. I thought motorcycles were terrifying! And then he brought me in there and showed me his bikes, and after that I got the bug, and we decided to build a bike together. He showed me how to rebuild the engine, and it kinda spiraled and fell into place in the right way. I like to tear things apart and fix things and make things from scratch, it’s what I’ve always loved to do.
It’s in the family, I guess. My grandfather had a factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a doily factory called Brook Lace. That was in the family since 1886, and they brought a lot of the machinery over from Germany. Actually a lot of stuff you see on Blake’s side [of the shop] came from the family. When my grandfather died no one wanted to take over the company because they all had their own lives and everything, so Blake went from Rhode Island with a semi and loaded up as much stuff as he could from the factory. So I got into this at the right time, and the machining stuff showed up at the right time, and Blake got really into it, and we both kind of had to do it to continue the legacy in our own way.
Anything that wasn’t bolted down he tried to shove on that trailer and drive back. From Rhode Island to Seattle! Twice! He’s still trying to find the metal lathe that was in the factory.
Blake: I know the model and even where it is, up in Connecticut, and I’m going to get it back!
Hill: We’ve always been sculptors, y’know. We both did everything at school, so it kind of worked out. Motorcycles have all those components. I sewed the seat for this one [for a customer], and my thesis one too, and I paint the details… but it’s about finding an equilibrium between loving to do everything.
Motorcycles I’m addicted to. I love tearing them apart, I’ve got an engine opened up that I’m rebuilding over here. I just like ripping out transmissions and seeing how super nerdy I can get with it. Like with this one for a customer, I built the whole rear section, extended the swing arm, and I try to do everything from scratch. These headlights I made on the lathe through this crazy metal spinning process, and the glass is antique Ford lenses. Take a mold and chuck it in the lathe, then you spin a piece of metal on it, and start forming. I’ve been trying to make my own copper cups to practice but you have to use a special kind of copper, I tried to anneal some and throw it on there... all I got was a bunch of weird ashtrays. Blake’s got a forge from the old factory, actually. Maybe it’ll go somewhere. I got real nerdy with this headlight, made everything down to the snap rings. This is the kind of thing where the client says they’d like some really cool headlights, but I can’t find anything that looks awesome, so I just said, “**** it, I’m going to make my own.”
This is the type of stuff I love, because I want to see something unique happen. A lot of the work that comes through is grunt work, which is fine, and then there are projects like this [motorcycle] where I’m not making much money but it’s gonna be Escape Machine No. 2. It’s a ton of love and art, and if we get to keep building domes and I get to keep doing this kind of stuff? I’m golden. We just want to do crazy fun projects built out of nothing.
You know Schwood? They made a couple videos where they went out and built a treehouse for people to find. A little iffy, but they had a great time doing it. So we’re talking about going out and finding young branches that are still bendy and geocaching a whole geodome.
I was wondering if you guys had a sweat lodge connection. Are you heading that route?
I went to a super hippy alternative school, which is kind of why I am the way I am (Blake’s like that just because our parents are like that). We built weird sweat lodges in high school, but we as Escape Collective haven’t done it yet. We want to team up with Schwood and start geocaching that, with a dome and hammock hooks. Ever seen hammock stacking? You string a bunch of hammocks up on top of each other, it’s incredibly fun! We want to do that, but with a circular grid of hammocks…
I feel super ADD talking about it because there are so many things that we do!
Me and Blake are both secretly nervous individuals, we have a lot of anxiety, which is part of why we’re addicted to making shit. You get lost in your process and don’t have to think about it, and it’s very like meditating. So I called my thesis my Escape Machine, because I was essentially working through all that shit in building it, but then you get to hop on top of all those problems you worked out while building it, and ride these issues away. So I called it the Escape Machine and that’s how we came up with the Escape Collective.
What’s next up?
What we’re hoping to do with Esc Co. soon is more environmental stuff, and small product lines. We teamed up with The Original Nomad, they do portable hot tubs from scratch, and we’ve been setting up hot tub domes and setting up hammocks that we make. So we’re doing the whole experience, product wise, where you can buy hammocks and find our domes hidden in the woods, and do geocaching adventures and other weird cool fun things.
We’re going to keep releasing videos and tutorials on how to make things. I’m making a seat for a friend’s bike soon and I’m going to show step by step how to do it, and not try to keep it a secret. We want to get people super amped, not necessarily on camping, but adventuring. Just getting really weird and building stuff and then going and using it.
This is kind of on the DL, but we might set up domes for [a large tech company], for all of their top hackers to hang out in at an off the grid camp, where they’ll be given the most crazy internet problems to solve and try to become better at figuring these things out. Overall right now it’s mostly experience party domes and festivals.
We want to make things, and encourage people to make things, and have fun. We were trying to figure out what to do with Esc. Collective and it fell into our laps with the domes, because we were asked to make them and said sure. But at some point we were like, “Oh wait we don’t just want to be a dome company!”
We don’t want to be a company who just sells products, we want to encourage people to make things. Because we started as an experience company, really. Oh look my dad’s here! The hammocks are part of that, since in every dome we’d always hook up hammocks. I’m going to be hooking up small DIY kits for motorcycles, like for headlights and tail lights. Also tutorials, so you can either get the product or make the product. Andy’s making laser engraved dome kits, so you can buy a little dome and learn how to set it up on your desk, so you can learn how to set up a dome out in real life. And then the normal stuff, stickers, patches.
I’m also super addicted to Polaroids and Polaroid cameras. Like these, I have a lot more than this [large shelving unit full of cameras]. I found my first one at Goodwill, and if you go to our website there’s a section where I have like 200 Polaroid pictures just thrown up. They’re square style, and every time I find one, garage sale, estate sale, whatever, I have to pick it up. Then I bring it here and put it on the milling machine to mill the battery compartment out, because they don’t make these batteries any more, and then solder new batteries in. I sell them, and I’m gonna be selling accessories for these on the website eventually, since Fuji still makes film for them. It’s like $12 for a pack and they’re super fun. I shoot on them all the time. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of them… Of my friends, projects, portraits of myself working. And here’s the build we did for Hand-Eye Supply, that’s the first dome, and Kara setting it up! And some double exposures, since you can expose it as many times as you want… That’s our thing. We go to a lot of festivals. We’ll bring a ton of people out to the woods and set up a dome, do cool things and have people visit.
Tell me a little more about how this space is used.
There’s always something. James.. Have you heard of West America? Jordan Huffnagle’s company, James and Jordan are friends of ours. There was a giant hotrod being built in here, outside he was also building his mobile house. He bought a ‘50s Chevy and was building a house on it, if you go to Crowemetalco you can see it in the shop parking lot.
Blake’s having a kid pretty soon, a little boy, so he’s moving back to the hometown - Bellingham, Washington - so Esc. Co. is going to fully take over the building. We’ll be able to build our domes in here, and whatever else is going to happen. We’re hoping to have showing/gallery status, but whatever else, just a big space for whatever. Blake mainly does freelance fabrication for people, but he also does gallery installs. He does glass lamps, where he has a mold that he blows into and then cold works. And the base he gets done with the same caster, and then touches up on the lathe. Pretty classy, design-within-reach-y. He’s the high class one.
He did go to RISD after all.
Haha yeah, and he’s taught me most of what I know about machining too. He does that stuff and freelance, and I do freelance and motorcycles and Escape Collective. My dad went to school for ceramics, and my mom’s a children’s book illustrator, so they both got their BFA and so did we! We’re a big old art family. Couldn’t escape it if we wanted to.
Blake also makes signs. He made his own Just Married sign, bolted it to the back of their car and lit it up afterward and drove away. That Triumph over there is Blake’s first big build up.
Blake: That’s my 10-year project.
Chris: Yeah, that’s the one he’ll work on with his son in his hands.
Blake, how does your work fit in here? What happens on your side of the shop?
Right now I’m trying to separate my work into the design line which is a little more production, and then back to the art that I wish I was making. And then hopefully there will be places where they merge together.
My friend casts these table legs for me in Washougal, I machine them and make the wood top here, and the whole idea is that they’re light. All my friends in places like New York have no room, so this is like the writer’s desk for cramped spaces, and it’s all cast aluminum so it’s light enough to lug up the stairs, and it comes apart and flat packs. Which is nice.
The lighting is nice, because I apprenticed as a Venetian glass blower when I was 16, and then went to school for glassblowing, and then got to take a few metalworking classes that kind of changed my life. It was so amazing going from glass to something where if it isn’t right I can hit it with a hammer! So woodworking is a nice step back for me, it’s challenging because I have to be patient. And precise. Because I’m neither!
And then I have a job shop where I fab stuff and weld things. I do a lot of work for restaurants around town, sign making and stuff. Like a sign for Poler, and I made all Pendleton’s door handles. Lots of weird little things, but trying to eventually step back from that because it’s so stressful, and it’s such a hustle to bid and have to hit that mark. You can’t have anything go wrong because it’s so competetive! You have to make all these jigs and stuff for just one job that then collect dust forever.
Work like these [lamps] is pretty satisfying. Growing up with this crazy old dude, it was “Make Destroy Repeat.” You make mugs all day long and you throw away the ones that suck, and the next day you make them all over again. I really like repetition, it’s calming to the ADD soul.
My wife will hang out in the office while I’m working late and make little felted Tobys. She’ll sit here and stab felt for hours, wishing we were not here. Just kidding. Sometimes I can get her to come work. She’s in dental school so she’s great with her hands. There was a huge chandelier project a while ago and she was right over here with me in that sink, grinding the hell out of all these glass bowls. It’s awesome to have her in here kicking ass. She’s always doing some rad project so we can work at the shop together. Refinishing a rocking chair, drawing too.
Chris: Her dad’s an engineer and her grandfather’s an inventor, so yeah, she likes to keep her hands busy.
You guys are going to have a smart kid.
Blake: The first time I met her grandpa, he just went, “Does your school have a photo booth? You need to start taking the silver out of the silver solution. That’s how I paid for college.” Ooh okay! He’d extract the silver and keep it. That’s the coolest way of putting your way through I’ve heard. He’s 90-something, and at 86 he re-roofed his whole house, fell off and broke his arm, went and got it fixed and was straight back to being an awesome old dude.
Are you going to set up shop up in Bellingham?
For sure. In a lot of ways Bellingham is a smaller version of PDX, we just need more good people to head up there. The goal is to set up a woodshop-glass shop-metal shop in one building, and to have people come and collaborate. It’ll primarily be my workspace, but I’m going to be so secluded, in terms of how close I am to makers here, that I want to get people up there and stay at the shop for a week and work on stuff together to get that creative fire going.
It sounds like a pretty creative town. Chris, Hill mentioned you trained in ceramics. Did you work as a ceramic artist?
Chris: Yeah, I got into it as a teenager. And by my senior year in high school I was the ceramics teacher. The art teacher said “I don’t have time for the ceramics department!” So I took over. It was a small room, heated with wood, no running water. I just taught classes and fired the kiln, did pottery. Then I apprenticed with a potter after I made some money after graduating. I applied to one college because I could live in the attic of my grandparents’ house, and it was a state school so it was cheap and I could afford it. So I did pottery there, and met Dale almost right away, and that was 40 years ago. I didn’t really do much pottery after that, though I did have a studio in New York for a while..
Hill: Chris’s also an apple cider enthusiast, calls himself the Yankee Pruner. He grows cider apples, makes the cider, and distills that into hard alcohol. Don’t tell anybody that though.
Have you been moonshining for long?
I made my living by working orchards - pruning, picking, raking blueberries. I did outside work in NH. Wild blueberries have to be harvested by hand still, they all do actually! In Bellingham I wanted to get back into apples, and got into business pruning people’s back yard trees. Then I started making apple cider presses, designed my own, and finally came up with the right one. So I harvest apples locally, within a mile or two of my house, and then just started making cider. And I made too much, so what’s the next step? Just go from fermenting to distilling. I just have fun with it.
I love that it lets me putter in the yard. Dale has her studio in the back which is small, about 16’x20’ but neat. I have a big garage that’s all insulated and that’s where I put my pottery so I can teach it to kids, with a woodworking shop on the other side. Then I have a cider shack where I do my fermenting, that’s next door. We have a sauna in the back yard too, that the kids helped build when they were younger. I’ve also got a composting toilet in the back yard, and an outdoor shower… so Dale might not see me for the whole day!
Hill: It’s how he acts like he’s in a cabin in the middle of nowhere on an island, even though he lives in the city!
Chris: Yes. I like to call it the Urban Farmette. That’s my thing. I’ve got 500 gallons of rainwater, I recycle my own waste while I’m working out there, my cider presses are out of recycled materials, my cider is made out of otherwise wasted apples… so I guess I’m a gleaner. And in return I get great stuff! A lot of the people [I work with] are elderly and living alone and they feel bad that their [apples are] not being used, so they’ll go and pick a few for apple sauce and I’ll pick them the nicest ones and prune their tree, then bring them some nice cider, some hard cider, some cider vinegar… I make that too, I’m retired! Dale still works, so that’s the deal.
So you get to play all day?
Yeah, I get to keep it simple, Dale wants to complexify it, and that’s the way it works! [Blake is] going to bring some mighty big complexity to my life when he moves back!
Hill: He’ll just put the baby in your hands and be like, “Peace, I gotta go buy more machines.”
Wrench in one hand, baby in the other.
Blake: Yep, I’ll have my little partner suited up like me in no time.
[After recommending several reading topics, including traditional Basque cod fishing techniques that allowed for early exploration of Newfoundland, and the increasing esteem we have for Neanderthals, Chris ended up on the topic of dream interpretation. It turns out he used to edit a Dream Interpretation Journal in New York. Here are some of his fun insights for newbies to the subject.]
Chris: There are so many ways to approach dream interpretation. I recommend Montague Ullman, who died a couple years ago in Sweden. He was a former psychiatrist and he got unhappy with the business, so he wrote a couple books on the study of dreams. Of course, everyone’s written a couple books on the study of dreams. Everyone has an opinion. The thing is to not follow any type of specific psychoanalytic approach. For example, how Freud thought that the unconscious was a reservoir of repressed sexual feeling. And sometimes it is. And he grew up in Victorian times, so yeah, all his female patients were sexually repressed. And then Jung felt that the subconscious was a reservoir of more archetypical stuff and the collective unconscious. Everybody has an idea of what the unconscious or subconscious is, and all of them are partly right and partly wrong.
The Russians knew that the most effective form of torture without touching someone was to deprive them of REM sleep. Well, everyone uses that, but I can tell you, as even a young healthy parent, taking away sleep of the type that organizes whatever you need to function… it’ll drive you nuts! So sleep! And it’s not even super deep sleep, there are different levels. When you first get to sleep you dive way down low, and then you bounce back up and come back down to REM sleep, and you stay there for a while, not very long, and as the night goes on through the cycle you stay there longer and longer, until that biblical level dream of early morning, that feels like Dream 13a, Chapter 6… but you might have a 45 minute dream! You maybe need an hour and a half, two hours, to dream. Dogs dream. Cats, dogs, gerbils, chimpanzees, they all do!