Essay - It’s Personal.

Ten days in.

Our heads are swimming with stories, thoughts and some fatigue-driven wonkiness. We feel the trip in our legs and backs, but we are anything but weary. The scores of people that have shared their stories have fed our enthusiasm like logs to a fire.

Our first days were full of ambition and planning. Traveling through familiar territory of lower Michigan, I had an abundance of mentors and creatives that I wanted to talk to, and had access to. The first field trials of our concept were conducted at a bustling pace, with eight interviews across three cities in as many days, hurtling between cities via late-night trains. Kyle and I were finding our rhythm, getting comfortable with our gear, while putting it through its paces. We were joined in Detroit by videographers Jeff and Seth for what felt like our first high-stakes recording at Third Man Records.

It took a little to get behind the veil, and I was fascinated with the story. Acting as host and interviewer while doubling as my own audio engineer, with a portable recorder hanging off my belt, along with three power packs for wireless mics has its challenges. I feel intimately connected to the process, and slightly terrified that something may fail. Do I have good signal? Are either of us distorting? Are the batteries going to hold?

Listen.

I am intent on listening. Being present. Holding space for story. I am learning what helps us get to guests’ memory banks where more personal thoughts and stories reside. I feel responsible and obligated to do this honorably and respectfully. I want to be open to let their stories go where they go — naturally, while artfully looking for themes, connections and common ground. What does a Chef and restauranteur have in common with a jewelry maker, an old-school photographer, a record label and record press? What about a multifaceted community of food businesses including a bakery, coffee house, creamery and restaurant? How does any of this tie in to distilling or brewing? How does the craft of guitar making connect to farming or free-lance journalism?

I quiet myself from thinking too hard about any of these, and listen. Kyle’s shooting-style has evolved with every visit. He’s responding to the distinct rhythm of these conversations. Our expressions and posture are different from beginning to middle and end. I feel like I disappear into conversation and rarely notice where Kyle is shooting from, or whether he’s taking a moment to himself.  In our quiet dance, he has been capturing amazing images with rich emotional content, full of personality.

I listen.

“It takes time.” “You can taste the difference.” “It’s personal.” “It’s a whole different experience.”

Our first overnight train is welcome solitude, while also our first experience of a packing ourselves into a sleeper car, and the acrobatics of shared travel — Gonzo style. Cocktail kits help.

The Northeast brings new voices, urban texture and insight into access, density and gentrification. Is it community investment or displacement? Opportunity or obstacle? The questions are deepening, and I feel that they deserve time to let answers and thoughts naturally ferment from many strains of perspective. We continue to rely on, and feed our curiosity; visiting places we’ve never been, meeting people we’ve only heard about, while asking them to share their personal story.  It is humbling and gratifying and so far, — inspiring.  Even the people between the stories, in cafes, bars and rail cars, continue to confirm our belief in this project.  It is stunning how much energy we feel from peoples’ response when our answer to their first question is, “We’re talking to people who make things - to find out what this is all about…” 

We hear about why these craftspeople are dedicated to their art, and their product. It rarely feels like a career goal— instead it’s a perpetual and dogged pursuit of creating quality experiences from their work. The perpetuity is guaranteed because as they approach achieving their original aspiration, they are driven to raise the bar and strive for something deeper, better, more personal. Each accomplishment is a stair step to the next - and they don’t know another way, and they’re not interested in being done. Instead, they simply want to see more art and more quality — everywhere.

In some ways, I was preparing for these passionate makers to be the most cheerleading voice about craft; celebrating its virtues and heartily sharing how wonderful it is to be a part of such a grand adventure. This first dozen or so characters however, all echo the gritty perseverance and determination that makes an artist tick. They look back with appreciation for what grew from their work, but with an eye for the challenges they’ve survived and the near-misses that could have taken their ship down. They look forward with enthusiasm and cautious optimism, all the while chewing on what they could do better, and what market forces threaten their stability or growth. They shoulder the burden of concern and responsibility for their businesses, teams and families. They are deeply passionate, but rarely satisfied.

It’s personal — and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Essays, JourneyFred Bueltmann