Our Story + Guild Row's Mission
Written by: Jim Lasko
Upon the closing of Redmoon where I had been a leader for over two decades, I was interviewed live on Chicago Tonight. Phil Ponce wanted to know, of all the things Redmoon had done—after 25 years of making theater and public spectacles throughout Chicago, off broadway, at the White House, in Australia, the Netherlands, Ireland—looking back at our history, he asked of what I was most proud. I was surprised to hear myself say it was the marriages, the countless lasting relationships developed and blossomed under Redmoon’s roof.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been as much a surprise as it was. In the final years of Redmoon I adopted the tagline: Engineering New Ways of Being Together. I liked the way that “together” could modify both the act of engineering, done together, and describe a communal state of being. We weren’t creating theater, we were creating the act of togetherness and that seemed as artistically interesting as it was socially valuable.
I met Guild Row’s co-founders at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Actually, I met Mike before I even got there. He had heard I was to be a Loeb Fellow and, as a fellow Chicagoan, reached out to me with an important message: Harvard was not “all that”, just another place whose aura is in inverse relation to distance; the further you are from it, he told me, the more precious it seems. In the end it’s a place like any other, he told me.
Elyse was there finishing her masters in architecture. She was introduced to me as a kindred spirit. She had, after all, taken a year in London deploying design skills to create public events. I was at Harvard to discuss how public theater creates vibrancy and invigorates democracy. I only learned later that Elyse had also spent some time in Chicago as a metalworker and that our paths had surely crossed, if only at Irazu in its earliest days.
I knew that I wanted to collaborate with the two of them. On what I didn’t yet know. We started meeting weekly around my kitchen table. I’d make food. One of them would bring beer. Sometimes we’d invite guest thinkers, artists or craftspeople. An idea began to develop. It started as a joke of sorts. Living as we did during the Boom of Logan Square, we thought we’d call whatever we did “Artisanal Everything.” Given the fashion of the day, it seemed sure to sell.
In truth it was less a joke than it may have appeared. Because after stewing about it for years, I’ve decided that the current fascination with craft and the handmade is anything but a fashion. To my eyes it is a critical counter-cultural movement, and the most productive and hopeful one of my lifetime. It is a practical, earth-centered, sensible lifestyle choice that stands in stark contrast to the dominant capitalist paradigm of short sighted, corporate fed consumption. It’s an empowering and sustainable movement and a very real response to the very real problems presented by a planet of limited resources.
There is something else at work here. Something more primal and not the least ideological. It’s about human connection. There is a special connection that grows between people as they make things together. I’ve seen it again and again. It has something to do with the non-verbal communication of hands and bodies moving in determined coordination. That movement is not a reflection of thoughts or ideologies, but is a response to real materials and their incontrovertible properties.
Craft demands a different kind of listening. The materials at hand have their own particular and idiosyncratic and constantly changing properties that reflect everything from their growth conditions to the humidity in the room. A craftsperson learns to listen carefully to their material and to work with the conditions they find rather than the conditions they expect or want. So a master woodworker will allow their process and designs to be influenced by grain patterns the same way a coffee roaster devises their roasting techniques based on the properties of the bean or a master baker learns to read a dough through feel. Thus the famous Michelangelo quote about revealing the form hidden in the marble.
It boils down to careful attention on something outside of oneself. It’s a demanding and rewarding skill set to develop. Practicing that skill set together, in community, or in partnership, is a wonderful undertaking. It’s a great way to come together, across difference, outside of belief systems, apart from manner and custom. The focus is not on self or the other, but on a “third thing”*, a thing that will grow and prosper under shared attention. Practiced like that, craft reminds us of how much we can do, make, and provide with our own hands, and how deeply gratifying and self-sustaining a community can be to one another.
In the end we will make Guild Row together with our members and our curators, with the teachers and our partners. We will listen and respond, and together we will craft something beautiful and inspiring and beyond what any of us can currently imagine. I’m excited. We’re engineering new ways of being together.
*For a more in depth consideration of the “Third Thing,” I wrote an essay that was published as a chapter in “The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance,” edited by Dassia N. Posner, Claudia Orenstein, and John Bell.