The Art of Work
Missouri is home to vibrant musical traditions, a sign of the state’s rich artistic and cultural diversity. Every cultural group that settled in Missouri brought its musical customs, including easily transportable instruments and the skills to build and repair them. Although often overlooked, the visual and aural art of luthiery—the intricate craft, repair, and restoration of stringed instruments—is central to musical expression.
By the 1860s, St. Louis was home to multiple small luthier shops and two manufacturers of stringed instruments. Perhaps Missouri’s most influential manufacturer was the Schwarzer Zither Factory founded in 1866 in Washington by an Austrian immigrant. Employing German craftsmen, he developed award-winning, innovative, and elaborate instruments that are still admired for their quality. Luthiers were needed in isolated rural areas, too. Local musicians often served in that role, as a sideline to their primary occupations. Periods of economic hardship required creative solutions, so instruments were strung with braided horsehair or screen wire, and fiddles were created from recycled cigar boxes and other found wood.
Research in the archives of the Missouri Folk Arts Program uncovered a tribute to the late Cope Ashlock, a luthier who once operated The Violin Shop in downtown Columbia. He printed a telling motto on his business cards: where work is art and art is work. Ashlock’s philosophy aptly describes the dominant theme in this exhibit – building instruments by hand is an art, and creating art requires skill, precision, and lots of hard work.
Today, despite the ready availability of mass-produced stringed instruments, luthiery remains a living art form in Missouri. As mandolin maker John Wynn stresses, “Putting together a mandolin from a kit is not instrument making; it’s assembly. I make every part and decorative feature of my mandolins from beginning to end. I take pride in the quality of my work.”
This exhibition celebrates the work of six contemporary Missouri luthiers, all of whom participated in Missouri’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program (TAAP). All are accomplished musicians, passionate about their music and instrument making. Each learned through a combination of sources: formal instruction, mentors and peers, books, imitation, and old-fashioned trial and error. Each begins his work with carefully selected wood. Each, by cutting, measuring, shaving, shaping, bending, tuning, and finishing, turns simple boards into intricate instruments that are pleasing to both eye and ear.
The Work of Art
Luthier techniques and approaches vary with each builder and instrument. Bernard Allen and Greg Krone use the patterns of European masters like Stradivarius, now readily available in books and on the Internet. Others, like Geoff Seitz and mandolin maker John Wynn, create their own patterns that they develop and perfect over time. Seitz, Krone, and Allen build their violins almost entirely by hand, using chisels, gouges, planes, files, knives, saws, and scrapers. Krone has an array of specialized modern hand tools, while Allen combines his love of hand methods and vintage tools.
Other luthiers incorporate power machinery along with some homegrown ingenuity. Bass maker Luther Medley and his partner, Ed Holden, opt for air-compressed tools. They engineer unique equipment powered by anything, from lawn mower to sewing machine motors. Meanwhile, Wynn blends fine handwork with creative uses of basic woodworking machinery. Instead of hand planes and chisels, Wynn uses an ordinary table saw in new ways, shaping the contoured arches of the instrument’s body before carefully perfecting it by hand.
Indeed, forming the arch out of the body’s wooden plates is a critical step to craft the best sound. In Medley’s basses, heat and pressure are used to bend the front plate into an arch. Seitz, Krone, Allen, and Wynn carve the arch into the wooden plates. As the arch’s shape and depth are slowly refined and thinned, meticulous measurements are made. Violin makers at work, like Krone, exude an air of precision. However, since “every piece of wood is different” measurements become guides rather than absolutes, and adjustments to the wood are carried out with the skill of a sculptor.
Different intuitive techniques are used to determine when the carved arch is ready. Wynn “tap tunes” by using his fingers to tap the top of the mandolin body, listening for the pitch of the wood. As he taps, he carefully adjusts the shape and thickness of the plate, which is complete when it is tuned to A. Seitz also taps on the plates but focuses more on flexibility, which allows the wood to vibrate freely when the instrument is played. Thus, Seitz thins the arches as much as possible to enhance flexibility, while preserving the strength of the wood.
Donald Graves – Walking Cane Dulcimer
Donald Graves still plays his great-grandfather’s dulcimer as well as his own. Maw-Hee, also a fiddle maker, wrote his name and the year of completion inside each instrument. Graves continues that tradition today. Like many rural nineteenth- and early twentieth-century luthiers, Maw-Hee built instruments on request only, not as an occupation. Similarly, Graves makes dulcimers by request for family members and special friends.
Bernard Allen – Fiddle and Mandolin
Bernard Allen applies his love of Ozark hand woodworking methods to instrument making, primarily fiddles and mandolins. Here, Allen holds a fiddle with a natural finish that allows the beauty of the wood to stand alone. Allen uses the curled ƒ-holes (visible here and on many of the exhibition’s instruments) as a tuning mechanism during the construction process, blowing across the holes with his mouth and gently shaving the bass bar until the instrument is tuned to F. The paired curled ƒ-holes allow sound to vibrate more freely.
Gregory Krone – Violin and Viola
Greg Krone shows a viola-in-process balanced lightly on his fingertips – a test of skilled carving. Before apprenticing with Geoff Seitz, Krone trained at the Violin School of the Americas in Salt Lake City, Utah, the first such institution in the United States. The violin school movement originated in Europe following World War II and continues to expand in the United States today.
Geoffrey Seitz – Violin, Viola, Cello
Geoff Seitz is the only urban-based luthier in the exhibition. Because of his location, his customers are quite diverse: young and old, amateur and professional, classical, oldtime, bluegrass, jazz, country, Irish, and others. In his shop, he displays a collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century violins by St. Louis luthiers who “created wonderful, wonderful instruments.”
John Wynn – Mandolin and Banjo
Wynn purchases wood locally from a third generation Ozark logger who knows Wynn’s preferences. Sassafras is abundant in the Ozarks and serves many traditional uses. Young roots are made into a medicinal tea or dye. The wood, known for strength and flexibility, is used by Ozark woodworkers as well as river guides to make johnboat paddles. Wynn once built a mandolin using Ozark sassafras – inspired by a tale that sassafras made the best sounding fiddles.
Luther Medley – Bass and Fiddle
Luther Medley and assistant Ed Holden show off a Medley designed bass. After he retired, Medley thought instrument making and repair work would bring in a “few extra dollars” for his favorite pastime, “goin’ fishing.” Medley’s bass became so popular that he enlisted the help of Holden, a retired friend, woodworker, and fellow musician. Holden owns and plays this particular bass in his bluegrass band.
Transformation & Creativity
As a young woman of only eighteen, Naoma Powell, now eighty-one, accompanied her father to Cope Ashlock’s violin shop on Broadway Street in downtown Columbia. They brought along an old, badly battered, and broken Italian violin: “My father said that Mr. Ashlock was the only person who could repair it.” In the following weeks, she returned to the shop and watched as he rebuilt the violin. “It was so hot in his shop, but, oh, he was a real artist!”
The art of luthiery combines an indescribable artistic intuition with the structural skills of an architect, the carving skills of a sculptor, the inventiveness of a mechanical engineer, and the ear of a musician. Geoff Seitz perhaps states it best – the art of making instruments emerges in “the ability to take your skills, and go beyond them to the next level.”
As a young artist, Powell clearly recognized the unmistakable process of creativity that unfolded before her eyes, as wood from the natural world was transformed. Indeed, Greg Krone, a former environmental educator, knows that connection, as he is inspired by his love of music, the outdoors, and the potential to “use the materials of nature to create something very beautiful.”
Years later, while writing a letter to friends, Powell recalled her meeting with Cope Ashlock in a poem about a tree that fervently wished to sing but “could only whisper.” After the tree died and fell to the ground, a luthier harvested the wood. Powell’s poem goes on to playfully narrate how that luthier fulfilled the tree’s wish. As if she anticipated this exhibition, she recently published the poem she calls “The Singing Tree” in a book of her drawings and verses.
“….On forest ground for many months it lay
Until a kind, old man picked out the tree.
“Oh, what wood. And what you will soon be!”
He took his chisels, saws and glue
And cut and gouged until his task was through.
The man had shaped a singing violin.
He trimmed and sanded till the wood was thin,
And by its careful shaping gave it space for sound;
There was no finer tone the world around.
…Each year it sings still sweeter, high and low:
“At last I sing my song that life is good,
Though I was once a silent tree of wood.”
From the book The Singing Tree / Naoma Powell / Copyright 2006