Inside the Idea Workshop

Inside the Idea Workshop
Words by Ashley Locke

“All my heroes have workshops,” says Brad Montague. “Santa, Geppetto, and Jim Henson.” So when he bought an old building in Henderson, Tennessee, to turn into his new workspace, he had to call it Montague Workshop—not studio, workshop.

“The desire with everything we do here is getting people into something meaningful and joyful,” he says. “I’ve found the best way to do that is through stories and art.” The joy shared by the Montague Workshop grew tremendously with the viral video series Kid President, but the seed for the workshop was planted when Brad was just a kid himself.

“My wife and I met at summer camp when we were kids, and then we became counselors at that camp, and then we got married at that camp on the soccer field right after we finished college,” he says. “Kristi and I have always had a shared love of kids and creating things. When a lot of people don’t want to work with their spouse, we’ve found that we complement one another. It’s always been a goal that we would be able to do our work alongside each other.”

They bounced around at different jobs before ending up at the same marketing company where Kristi was a photographer and Brad was “the weird creative guy they called in when they needed ideas.” It was there that they got to work on their first project together—a camp experience for junior high and high school students. “We got a taste of what that felt like, and we wanted to keep doing more of it.”

Outside of his day job, Brad was working out of his house writing, directing, and editing videos for YouTube, turning them around in a matter of days. That’s where Kid President began. “The real genesis of this, if I’m fully honest, is that I have a friend who said to me, ‘Brad, you have so many ideas, and you’re so creative, but we’re all just waiting on you to actually do one of those ideas.’ In that moment I was deeply hurt by that, but I’m forever grateful for that loving honesty,” he says. “I began to say, ‘OK, I’m going to commit to seeing one of my ideas through and put all my attention and focus on it.’ ”

This was right around July 2012, and the primary season was winding up in the summer before the elections. “I wanted to make a video around the Fourth of July that was something that I cared about: kids and listening to them. I was thinking, How can I give kids a voice that grown-ups can hear? In the midst of that, I found my voice and what my work in the world is supposed to be. Maybe you shouldn’t just have ideas; you should implement them. When I see people come to life because of a story that was told—I don’t know what that is, but I know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Brad made about 70 Kid President videos, then his first child was born and the room he was filming in got turned into the nursery. He didn’t have room to work at home anymore, so he found a perfect old building in his small town to turn into his new workshop.

The workshop looks like Brad’s art makes you feel—full of color and imagination and glee. “I am by no means an interior designer, but I have found that the spaces I’m in can affect how I interact and create in the world, how I live and breathe and move,” he says. “If I was going to be in a space, I wanted it to reflect the kinds of things we wanted to make. I wanted it to be a playground of possibility.”

There are lots of places to make a mess. There’s a wall full of art and inspiration from corner to corner. There’s a wall that is literally a blank canvas. “There’s also little doors on the trees outside and hidden in places like under trash cans. I always tell people, ‘Be careful; that’s where my ideas come from,’” says Brad. “It’s the kind of space where if someone comes to work with us, they would feel like anything is possible. They would see that in what can seem like a dark world, there is light. And it’s always a work in progress.”

At Montague Workshop, there is no typical week. “One week I’ll be on the floor trying to animate sugar for a stop motion video, and the next week I’m trying to put words together to make a book,” said Brad.

If it all sounds sort of silly, it is. And that’s the point. Silly, but sincere. The art and videos that have come out of the Montague Workshop go beyond having a good time. They also teach kids important lessons about tricky subjects. “I did a story about a balloon who realizes one day he’s going to pop. He comes to have gratitude for every breath of air he had,” says Brad. “I found out that a second-grade teacher was using that story as a prompt to help her students deal with the death of a classmate. That was a pivotal moment for me—realizing that stories, even if they’re silly, can help heal.”

The list of projects brought to life by the Montague Workshop is long. Brad helped kids design a playground, then they brought it to life. He smuggled children’s art into the Guggenheim Museum and hung it on the walls. He turned October into Socktober to help gather warm clothes for men and women who are homeless in communities across the country. He designed a Maker’s Map (you can find it in the Montague Workshop online store) that has been used in a prison rehabilitation program to help inmates transition back into society. He’s worked with everyone from the White House to Sesame Street to FedEx, but it all goes back to the children.

“A better world for kids is a better world for everybody,” said Brad. “If we have adults everywhere come alive to that idea, that every child matters, that sort of mindset will create the kind of world we all want to be in.”