Movie buffs will remember the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which a bunch of people that have each individually experienced a UFO sighting are inexplicably and irresistibly drawn to one common geographic location in Wyoming.
That story was fictitious, but in real life, it’s as if there is a giant beacon near Lake Flower that transmits a signal with a gravitational pull specifically on artists of all genres. They have no choice but to travel directly to Saranac Lake, buy a house, move in, and become part of a special cultural phenomenon; a whole town with a tangible artsy vibe that visitors can feel.
I call it the Saranac Lake Beacon Theory, and I have some anecdotal facts to support it.
First, how can you argue my hypothesis when presented with the fact that every single Saranac Lake resident whom I have met is an artist? Yes, every one.
Off the top of my head, the list includes artists such as Kathy Ford, and Tim Fortune and Sandra Hildreth who have visual art galleries of their own, Gail Brill, who is among many other things a professional calligrapher, Emmy Award winning playwright Karen Lewis, professional actress Beth Glover, photographer Mark Kurtz, NPR contributor and NCPR Adirondack Bureau Chief Brian Mann, and even culinary artists and entrepreneurs like Jecinda Hughes. And I could go on.
In fact, some of my coworkers who have chosen to live in the Adirondacks' Coolest Place are also novelists, professional photographers, musicians, and respected film documentarians.
The community and its artists have at their disposal a number of artistic gathering places within the village, including galleries such as the cooperative Adirondack Artists Guild which serves as an illustration of the huge volume of visual artists in the area, and live music and performance venues like Bluseed Studios and the Pendragon Theatre.
Some of these artists have also tackled the seemingly discordant disciplines of art and technology by successfully leveraging the promotional power of digital marketing.
One such example is my latest new artist friends - who are hardly new to Saranac Lake.
A mutual friend e-introduced me to Jeff Oehler and Sue Bibeau. I’ve now learned that they co-founded Bluseed Studios with Arts Director Carol Vossler 16 years ago, and have owned houses and been part of the community’s artistic fabric for 20 years.
In the 1990s, both Jeff and Sue worked in the corporate music industry; he was in production doing sound stuff and she was an art director doing visual stuff. After leaving the faltering music industry, they established a Saranac Lake-based company called Beehive Productions in 1995.
Beehive has been producing music, audio, and visual content from their studio in Saranac Lake for several years. As it says on their website, collectively, the Beehive Productions team is “dedicated to the growth and empowerment of independent musical artists and the organizations that support them. We produce recordings, videos, graphics & photography in collaboration with musicians, media & presenters.”
But for their current project they are producing a dichotomy. Yes, they are presenting live acoustic music from old world medieval times - in High Definition.
The Roots of all Medieval
Their new project is a short-film series on Roots music called “Ear to the Ground.”
But first things first. I decided to find out more about this production company, that I had no idea was operating in our midst, and learn more about their new project. So I visited Jeff at their studio on Front Street.
Jeff and Sue live in a big house across the street from the studio, which appears to be a regular old historic Saranac Lake home from the outside, but is a fun instrument-and equipment-filled studio on the inside.
We sat down next to his computer setup to discuss their new short film series, and I asked him what I figured was the most obvious question we needed to address. What IS Roots music?
Roots music is jazz- and blues-oriented acoustic music - not electronic, and not synthetic. He describes it as a relatively broad term to describe modern music that stems from traditional origins, coming from very old-world traditional folk from medieval times. This type of music fed into the more modern definitions of folk, like the music of Bob Dylan.
He described the music as being organic, both sonically and in the instruments that are used. “It’s a language and communication tool between musicians and an audience. A dialogue takes place,” Jeff told me.
If one checks out some of the series on their website: beehivepro.com, that’s exactly what it seems like, a dialogue.
So the music itself is old-world style acoustic folk, but they are using high-tech electronic methods to create something organic.
The films are a mix of interview and performance, but they are not conventionally journalistic. The Beehive Productions crew is creative with their own art by capturing snapshots of the individual artist and reassembling them. It results in a mosaic of live performance and interview footage in a film that is roughly 10-15 minutes in length.
And now they are adding an additional layer to the series experience. They are teaming up with one of Saranac Lake’s arts institutions, Pendragon Theatre, to present live concerts of the artists that they are filming, while they are simultaneously filming on the stage for the series.
For the first event, Beehive Productions will be be presenting a screening event and live concert with the Mike & Ruthy Band at the Pendragon Theatre on Saturday, March 12th. They are attempting to emulate NPR’s Mountain Stage program, only the North Country version.
At this event, they will be creating one of their “Ear to the Ground” films — filming and recording the show in front of a live audience. This event is a pilot; a test to determine if this type of show resonates. If it is deemed successful, they could do 6-8 of these performances per year in the off season.
Peer to Peer
So how do they make money? Well, they travel a lot to do film and production work for which they get paid.
As champions of independent roots music, they consider the artists they feature to be partners, and they do not collect money from them for this work. Every artist has full usage of the finished content to help promote and further their own careers. Plus, the footage is accessible on their vimeo.com and on the Roots Channel.
But for the “Ear to the Ground” project, their goal is to build a self-supporting and self-sustaining revenue stream for the series.
To that end, they have a couple of programs in the hopper. One is a partnership with the print and online magazine “No Depression,” which will provide them with exposure in exchange for first release rights to the series.
They’ve also launched a peer-to-peer campaign via Patreon, which is a crowd-funding platform that supports ongoing creative projects. On this platform, Patrons pledge different amounts of money to receive different levels of rewards, including being privy to new episodes of "Ear to the Ground" before they are released to the public.
An increasingly accepted way to exchange goods and services, online peer-to-peer mechanisms like this are mini online ecosystems for people with shared interests. People essentially opt-in to be part of the collaborative community that supports this genre. It’s community-supported art.
They are still navigating the many partnerships and platforms that, combined, can help them achieve that sustainable goal.
I didn’t specifically ask Jeff and Sue if what they thought about my beacon theory about Saranac Lake, but I suspect they’d agree generally but not necessarily science-fictionally.
The film series allows not only to bring the viewer into the conversation with the artist and roots culture, but to connect with the place. A number of those sessions are recorded in their studio in Saranac Lake, and the upcoming live performance series is a way to weave Saranac Lake into their “coffee house” movement-style stories.
As for their overall connection to the geographic community? They agree that a number of highly respected people have chosen to make it their home. Why? “We’re all dug in together not out of economic interest, but in the interest in being human. It’s a vibrant community that embodies a communal collaborative spirit,” Jeff said.
I don't know about the beacon, but for some reason, I do feel like getting out my sketch pad.
Beehive Productions, Pendragon Theatre & Bluseed Studios will present — "Ear to the Ground" with the Mike & Ruthy Band — filming live at the Pendragon Theatre on March 12. Doors open at 7pm and showtime is 7:30pm.
-Kim Rielly is the director of communications for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, and plays the piano, drums and tennis, in no particular order.
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