Last night, I was watching something on the Discovery channel called “Motorcycle Mania.”It was a thinly veiled marketing vehicle for the Discover Channel’s version of Emeril: Jesse James.  The show (two different ones, actually) was a biography / documentary of how Jesse takes a custom-built motorcycle from wild concept through to production (and throws in some docudrama involving his split-up with his wife and also some VERY weak adventure/survivor flair with an “impossible” long distance trip on their custom bikes).

Yes, his name is Jesse James, and yes, they make it a point to say he is a direct descendent from THAT Jesse James… bad boy image and all.  People magazine (or the PR machine behind Discovery and whatever incestuous media conglomerate links People and Discovery) recently rated him one of the top 50 sexiest people.

This guy is also the “leader” of the crew on Monster Garage, a show I’ve grown to really like.

The word words “boyish impetuousness” came to mind watching him.  He is covered in tattoos (and even got another one for the camera, on the palm of his hand, nevertheless).  There is a large, clearly hand-built (which makes it ten-thousand times cooler) shark tank in his “office”.  He and his friends ride their bikes as fast as they can go without holding on to the handlebars (“look ma! no ha… SPLAT”) (one of his lunatic friends stood up on the seat and surfed his bike along the highway…).  His wife in the show was running the business side of his shop and told the camera that Jesse was terrible about holding money.

It’s not all image and glitz, though.  From what I saw, he IS very talented and well respected among young and old bikers around the world.  They showed some celebrities getting custom bikes (including a giant basketball player who required the largest custom bike ever created).

For the record, I don’t know a thing about motorcycles, but his creations looked kind of silly to me… tiny front tires, neon lights, fruity paint jobs… I wouldn’t say that to his face, though 🙂

What was fascinating, and what earned a lot of respect from me, was seeing this guy take a passion for art and creation, apply a lot of work, practice, and talent, and proudly reap the benefits of the end result.

Watching him pound metal was awe-inspiring.   He took a sheet of aluminum and using only mallets, a flame, and some crude mechanical hammers, transformed it into a perfectly smooth and curvy conical shape.

Those hammers, by the way, deserve mentioning: They were vintage factory machines that looked extremely dangerous for an untrained hand (squashed fingers!)

By contrast, the shop he outsourced for his unique motors created engine parts using a machine/robot that took a block of aluminum, a cad drawing, and an electronically controlled drill array to pump out parts.

I’ll give that an engine block needs more precision than the body or frame of the bike, but Jesse could also very easily automate the construction of the parts and take advantage of economy of scale.  The fact that he doesn’t, I think, allows for him to do things like command $50K+ for one of his bikes.

There was another man, who owned a shop that specialized in seats, who applied the personal touch, as well.  He hand built the seats from metal frames, foam blocks, and sheets of leather. Seeing this burly man take some leather fabric and a dainty sewing machine, literally COUNTING the stiches he made was surreal.

I think Jesse and the seat man, and all the other people involved in creating these machines (even the guy running that automated machining machine) are modern-day artisans.  Mainstream motorcycles are created in factories by large corporations with very minimal human touch (by manufacturing design).  If people didn’t value the custom and personal touches, there would be no reason for places like Jesse’s shop.  I doubt that these men learned most of their skills from school… it’s probably a tradition that’s passed down in mentor / apprenticeship models… maybe not formally like in many professions (i.e “first you spend 2 years as a shopkeep, then you can be a junior apprentice after 2.5 years and a test, then a journeyman then a….”), but I can imagine young enthusiasts tricking out their own cars and bikes, establishing some local noteriety, catching the eye of more seasoned workshop-owners, and then taking work in local custom shops where the old hands teach them new skills on-the-job.

The key point is that this is very much an organic and localized growth of an artisan industry (which leads to things like different styles springing forth from various regions in the world).

I do think localization, high degree of technical/specialized/hands-on skills,  and artistic talents are characteristics of artisans throughout time.

I’d like to think more about how computers and technology enhance or detriment artisans’ ability to create.  The quick reaction is that computers are just another set of tools for the artisan (ex. the CAD tool to build an engine part).  However, I would propose that piling on technology requirements raises the barriers to entry to a point where it’s difficult to sustain the activity as an artisan endeavor.  Namely, it requires an even deeper understanding of math and science or at least advanced (i.e. expensive) training.  You don’t typically see too many Ph.Ds from pedigree universities pounding metal on a custom-bike shop… what you DO see is young people from low-middle class blue-color families who have had exposure to mechanics and grease their entire lives.

Furthermore, I wonder about things like Case Mods (where geeks make their computer cases into works of art), Flash experiments, and robotic/interactive art.  Do they fall into the same category as Jesse’s creations?  My gut is saying: no.  Experimenting for experimenting’s sake, building things that are interesting from a technology R&D or scientific standpoint (i.e. to see if it CAN be done or WHAT happens to the world if it’s done: “Gee, wouldn’t it be neat if I built a blimp cam out of legoes?  What if I set 100 of them loose in a football stadium?”), is a different beast than taking a long tradition of tools and techniques to build something artistic, yet useful.  The invention for an artisan is in the synthesis of the tools and skills (perhaps with quite a bit of innovation to improve the tools and techniques).

Something to think about.  My personal take-away for now: I guess if I have fun doing projects, that’s what matters, right?

I don’t really believe that completely: Having fun is one of many ingredients to make toiling away in my garage a worthwhile endeavor in the road-to-self-actualization-sort-of-way… For it to be successful, it needs to feed me, it needs to benefit society, it needs to challenge me, it needs to be impressive, etc.

Goals, priorities, vision… Hmmm…