Life As An Itinerant Artist

Stories and anecdotes from fifteen years on the art show circuit. 

Building on the past

When I was young, my father liked to put together those plastic models from Revell. I remember sitting at our kitchen table while he would work on a WWII submarine. He approached it carefully, glueing a few parts at a time, and then setting it aside. We didn’t have a lot of money, and I think it was his way of occupying downtime in the winter when there was less to do around the guest ranch. He got great pleasure from seeing it slowly take shape, and savored the activity more than the final outcome.

I’ve been working on a lap steel guitar in much the same way. Following plans from Bluestem Guitars that I’ve had on hand for years, the pandemic has finally given me the time to carve up a slab of mahogany I’ve been saving for this project. And taking it slowly has provided much satisfaction. It’s not a fancy guitar. Patterned after the Gibson and Rickenbacker solid bodies of the late thirties and forties, it is a simple design. I’ve modified it to accommodate eight strings rather than the six on the plan, and fancied up the headstock just a bit. Parts have been sitting on my bench for a while now, just waiting for this downtime.

The gray plastic of Dad’s submarine was featureless. Of course, it could have been painted, but that would have taken funds that Dad didn’t want to spend, so gunmetal gray plastic was the color it came in, and the color it stayed. I don’t know if the submarine itself had any significance to his experience in the war. I don’t think so, as he was stationed in the Philippines for a time, and never stepped foot on a sub. I think he was just fascinated by the idea of sailors stepping foot in a steel coffin, and living ascetically for weeks at a time. It was the process of building it that interested him, not the final product.

I plan to finish the guitar with a few coats of varnish or polyurethane. It’s an experiment, and a process. The body of the guitar slowly takes shape under the blade of the bandsaw and the spindle sander. The neck is the most complicated piece, with a fretboard overlay of curly maple. I’ve never built a fingerboard from scratch before, and I ordered fret wire and market dots from Stewart-MacDonald (StewMac) for the first time. The bridge and the nut came from a favorite luthier of mine, Ryan Rukavina, of Missoula. Not being much of a metal worker, I opted to purchase these pieces ready made, and also obtained several pickups from various sources. I want to build more guitars, if this one is successful.

Dad loved his war games, too. He designed a grid layout when we lived in Oklahoma, and devised complicated rules of engagement for game play. My brother David and my father spent hours in mock battles with plastic men stolen from a commercial Milton-Bradley Civil War game. Dad’s love of war games went back to his childhood, when he played with tin soldiers (actually lead castings) and small soldiers crafted from folded paper. His interest was more in the procedures of battle, than in the outcomes. In his teaching days, these simulations became research into actual battles which he would set up and reenact.

Dad was no military man. He abhorred violence in general, and served as a medic in World War II. But he was fascinated by military hardware and tactics. His library is filled with books on Civil War and Revolutionary battles.

As a player of guitars, I am an amateur. In high school, I had a couple of bands. Playing music with others was much more enjoyable than trying to make money at it. It’s been years since I had the opportunity to jam with others. One notable exception is my life-long friend, Shawn Malaney, who I see rarely. We shared a room in a vacant frat house early that summer before moving into a hippie flat on Mifflin Street in Madison, in 1971, while I was in summer school. We spent hours on the front porch playing our guitars, and roaming the University of Wisconsin campus in the early morning hours. There was an acoustic dead spot near Bascom Hill, called Muir Knoll, where you could play in the middle, and hear no reverberations from the surrounding area. It was a bit spooky, and a bit spiritual. We’d go up there at sunrise, and play some open tunings and it was magic. For more on Muir Knoll…

After our family moved to Oklahoma, I never saw Dad build another plastic model. Maybe it was a passing fancy. Maybe the submarine had been a gift. But watching him put it together with care and craft is a lesson that has stayed with me my whole life. I learned to use tools and simple craft from Dad — a gift for which I am forever grateful.

June 12, 2020

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