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Handmade Revival

October 26, 2012

by Anjulie Rao (MA 2014)

If there is one testament to the unwavering spirit of innovation in creativity, it can be found in music. For centuries, humans have been crafting musical instruments to tell stories, ritualize events, entertain, celebrate, and mourn. SAIC alum Jeremiah Lee (MA 2005) has tapped into this dynamic component of the human spirit in his own work: the creation of finely tuned cigar box guitars. Recently he has been named one of the featured artists for the 2012 Chicago Artists Month.

Lee’s work is both beautiful as well as functional. Using scavenged cigar boxes and reclaimed materials, Lee crafts unique, three-string guitars that are perfect for strumming, sliding out blues riffs, and creating more complex chords. The instruments are crafted with symmetry between sound and design; the decorative patterns tap into elements of Art Deco, Futurism, and Streamline Moderne and display the sophisticated and dynamic energy one experiences while listening to the guitar being played. They combine history with utility, a concept which he delved into during his time at SAIC.

As a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Teaching program, Lee was immersed in a vibrant culture of making. Professors who combined theoretical and practical work heavily influenced him. He states, “The program caused me to become a rigorous researcher and critical thinker, not just a doer or maker of objects. It propelled me to become interested in the history of objects…and the stories behind them, as well as how things are made and techniques used to make them.”

Granted, his interest in folk culture and DIY at an early age also contributed to his current practice. In high school he found himself drawn to punk rock because he felt the movement “was less of a sound you were creating than a statement you were making through the culture.” He saw these two different ideas—sound and culture—as being inseparable, an idea he continues to pursue while making his cigar box guitars.

Lee says, “There’s an old quote, ‘here’s three chords now go start a band.’ These guitars are the pinnacles of that idea. Here are three strings, and you can make it yourself.” The luthier emphasizes the DIY element of his work as it can be contextualized in not only the roots of punk rock, but also into a global human history of making. He adds, “There’s a lot of history behind [the guitar] in terms of destitute populations figuring out ways to make music and celebrating culture through music. That is what this guitar embodies: you can do it yourself, you don’t have to wait for anyone to manufacture something for you; those elements…are the origins of the guitar.”

Beyond the quality craftsmanship and the intriguing concepts behind his work, Lee’s guitars are innately Chicagoan: The deco designs are reminiscent of the ornate facades of Chicago’s downtown structures and neighborhood historic buildings. They also embrace beauty, history, and the communities of artists who drive the city’s vibrant contemporary art scene forward. Lee states, “Chicago is a city that provides a support network for artists to live and work…. It seems like there are a lot of communities that appreciate DIY as an aesthetic and philosophy. It’s easy to find people who are doing things on their own, and building little communities around that.”

Lee’s work, which has been exhibited in Chicago, New York, and Nebraska, continues to investigate cultural landscapes and reinvigorates the handmade movement in Chicago. He synthesizes his experiences as a Chicago artist with his education at SAIC to produce pieces that are not only locally pertinent, but historically and globally relevant. It is no wonder Lee was featured in this year’s Chicago Artists Month.

View Jeremiah Lee’s handcrafted cigar box guitars at decosonicguitars.com.