We Catch Up With Martin Sommerville, Owner of By Our Hands We Make Our Way

Words: Sophie Gargett
Photos: Sophie Gargett
Saturday 26 August 2023
reading time: min, words

Behind the many pleasing window displays in Sneinton Market Avenues, one in particular has always stood out. Decked with greenery, art and beautiful wooden textures, By Our Hands We Make Our Way is a space for woodworking, community, creativity and more. I decided to finally drop in and have a chat with owner Martin Sommerville to see what they are all about.

By Our Hands We Make Our Own Way

This is such a gorgeous space - it has piqued my curiosity for some time! Can you tell us a bit more about what goes on in here and how you began?
We rented the place for three months seven years ago then never left. It used to be that I was the woodworker and it was my studio, but now I feel more like a landlord of some weird pub. Everyone's a captain who comes in here. It’s a bit like a pirate ship.

The wood is what started it but it's become more of a communal hub. It's evolved into a multi-purpose community - an everything space. So people book time and I teach things, whether that might be traditional woodworking skills, or drawing and painting. People can use a bench if they know what they're doing and then they work on whatever they want to. Or you can come in and bring your laptop and use it like a café and hang out and do work.

What is your background - have you always worked with wood?
My background a long time ago was actually in video game design. But I wanted to get away from the screens and back to people again. It's kind of the same thing to me - this is like real-life Minecraft. Then after meeting my partner, Carly, we went into participatory and therapeutic arts, working with communities to make things such as films and animation, or whatever really!

I hear you do live music and other events here? It's such an intimate and welcoming space I can imagine it would have a Tiny Desk Concert kind of atmosphere.

A lot of the events come out of all of our different interests. There's a lot of venues in town that just have a licence for eighteen plus, but we've got a seven year old who loves music. So yeah, music happens all the time now. Anything goes - we’ve had acoustic gigs, improvised saxophone and drum ensembles, weird synth skronkiness. I like a mix of all sorts of things, so it’s not just just acoustic, we're not Luddites - I like flashing lights and bleepy sounds as well.

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You also run a charity supporting parents who have lost a child. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
So we set up the charity six years ago, after our first son died. There didn't feel like there was the kind of support available or even the language around that kind of loss, so we tried to imagine something might have helped us. It used to be at the City Hospital, but we recently moved it here to the centre of the city because it felt more open. We wanted to make it more acceptable to talk about grief and loss, if you're still hiding that inside the hospital and not bringing it out into the world.

We have regular drop-in sessions in the evenings, twice a month, and then another thing every month is a specific group for dads or fathers or men affected by the loss of a child. It's still very hard to get men particularly to access things like that.

I feel more like a landlord of some weird pub. Everyone's a captain who comes in here. It’s a bit like a pirate ship

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Who can come along to the space?
Well some people just come from the smell - just pop in, inhale deeply and then leave. [Laughs] In terms of events we thought, how can we involve our friends and our family more deeply? How can we create things that don't exist yet? That’s what this place is about. So Saturdays are kind of an open house where we just share food and music, hanging out, skateboarding, playing, making whatever. It's just open for anyone to come in and play and make or do whatever they want to do.

It’s a space for anyone who wants to see a completely independent, weird and wonderful community space where anyone's welcome. That could be someone who's just been sleeping outside on the bench that night to a judge, or a refugee family who've just arrived in this country or a bereaved family, or anyone, anyone can just come in, feel welcome and make something, or make connections. 

What’s coming up next for We Make Our Way?
We don't receive any traditional kind of funding streams, so the space is just self and community funded. We wanted to go direct from the ground up. We used to support it really by doing workshops and commissioned work, but we're in a tenuous position at the moment after the last few years of wildness. The place has changed so much so we’re starting a crowdfunder, but it's not the traditional thing where people get loads of rewards. The reward is that you know this place exists and it will always exist if you want to drop in and do something. And there's little discounts and certain things where you get first dibs on knowing about a gig or whatever.


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