University of Kentucky Associate Professor Janice Fernheimer and New York Times best-selling author and illustrator JT Waldman are working to build a transmedia project that raises awareness of the longtime presence and participation of outsiders like women, Jews, African Americans, and immigrants in the development of Kentucky’s bourbon heritage. The project is a webcomic inspired by oral histories and local folklore with links to online archives that provide audiences a trove of related materials including primary sources.
Photo by David T. Coons
Photo by David T. Coons
According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and The Kentucky Bourbon Craft Trail brought nearly 900,000 visitors to KY in 2015 alone. What if these bourbon-obsessed visitors delved deeper into Kentucky’s diverse heritage via topically related “listening material” for drive-times between distilleries? What if there was an augmented reality mobile tour of a distillery by a character from an alternative history webcomic?
Kentucky’s Jewish history is as long and deep as the Bluegrass itself, however it remains largely untold. America’s Chosen Spirit is a transmedia project that aims to rectify this lacuna. Created by University of Kentucky (UK) Associate Professor Janice W. Fernheimer and New York Times best-selling author/illustrator JT Waldman, America’s Chosen Spirit raises awareness of the longtime presence and participation of outsiders like women, Jews, African Americans, and immigrants in the development of Kentucky’s bourbon heritage.
Based on archival research and original oral history interviews conducted with industry insiders, America’s Chosen Spirit unfolds across multiple platforms including a webcomic, podcast, and sip-and-study-lecture series. The core of the project is a graphic narrative that offers readers an alternate history of the bourbon industry’s “old boys club” through the eyes of women. The story appeals to audiences interested in Kentucky/Appalachian culture, Bourbon, gender studies, Jewish American history, and comics. The narrative follows three generations of Jewish women involved in the bourbon industry from post-Civil War to the mid-20th century. Depicting how some women broke free from socially circumscribed roles, the female protagonist highlights the Commonwealth’s deep Jewish roots and provides a positive role model for women in science and entrepreneurship.
America’s Chosen Spirit is more than a webcomic inspired by oral histories and local folklore; however. Each chapter will link to online archives that provide audiences a trove of related materials including indexed and transcribed video oral histories, photo collections, maps, timelines, and other primary sources. To promote the project, a series of podcasts will shed light on our research and other overlooked players involved with the bourbon industry. We aim to create a digital experience soaked in bourbon, feminism, and geek culture.
Waldman and Fernheimer met in 2012 when he was invited by Fernheimer to lecture on the UK campus; work on America’s Chosen Spirit began shortly after. Supported by a 2014 Hadassah Brandeis Institute for Jewish and Gender Studies Research Grant and a Dorot Alumni Foundation Research Award, in 2014-2015 Fernheimer and Waldman researched oral history and archival collections at the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky, The Filson Historical Society, and the American Jewish Archives at the Hebrew Union College (AJA-HUC) in Cincinnati. During 2015-2016, seven high-definition video oral history interviews were conducted with industry insiders and two more are scheduled for 2018. Now part of the UK Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History Digital Archive, these interviews contribute to The Kentucky Bourbon Tales Project and the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence (JHFE) Jewish Kentucky Oral History Collection. These interviews have been transcribed and indexed using the Nunn Center’s cutting edge technology—the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS)—an open-source platform that allows audio and visual context to become searchable and accessible with a mouse-click.
Over the last five years we have only met face-to-face six times to conduct research, video oral histories, and produce the webcomic. The Archive Transformed Residency offers us the time and opportunity dive deeper into multiple aspects of America’s Chosen Spirit . Our main goal is to develop a proof of concept for the online platform that will house and provide curated access to the transmedia narratives’ multiple components. We plan to test a software like Conducttr to determine if it is appropriate to house and connect archival assets (oral history clips, artifacts such as letters, memos, images, photographs, etc.), the webcomic chapter(s), and the podcast that grows out of these research insights. If time and bandwidth permit, we aim to record and produce a polished podcast episode as well. The Archive Transformed Residency also affords us the opportunity to meet with subject matter experts within the University of Colorado community with IT and design expertise that could benefit this project immensely.
Conceived as collaborative, interdisciplinary, and transformative, American’s Chosen Spirit builds on bourbon’s growing popularity and enables it’s many aficionados to redefine their sip-inspired curiosity. This residency will enable us to develop a prototype that could be used for similar archive-inspired transmedia projects while also providing crucial face-to-face collaboration to take this project to the next level.