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Community of Strings: Regionally Crafted Stringed Instruments

November 4, 2005 - February 5, 2006


(above: Brad Nickerson, Tiger Guitar, archtop guitar)


The masterful art and craftsmanship evident in the exhibition Community of Strings: Regionally Crafted Stringed Instruments offers viewers the opportunity to appreciate a variety of stringed instruments made in the area. Viewers may be dazzled by the diversity of design employed to enhance the visual beauty of a device made to deliver beautiful sound. The exhibition includes a diversity of traditions and types of instruments. Represented are steel stringed and archtop guitars, violin and viola, banjo, and Renaissance harp, many of which were made especially for Community of Strings.

The individual histories of the instrument makers represented in Community of Strings are intertwined with the story of the Brattleboro area as a rural mecca for artists. The exhibiting artists, Doug Cox, William Cumpiano, Will Fielding, Scott Hausmann, Lynne Lewandowski, Dan MacArthur, Rodney Miller, Brad Nickerson, Charles Richstone, and Froggy Bottom Guitars collaborators Michael Millard and Andy Mueller, are representative of the mix of talent in our region.

Community of Strings: Regionally Crafted Stringed Instruments is guest curated by Petria Mitchell, and Joe LoMonaco. Linda Rubinstein, is the exhibition's project director.

(above: Michael Millard and Andy Mueller, detail, Froggy Bottom Guitar)



What do ancient Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians, 14th-century Europeans, and present-day artisans of southern Vermont and western Massachusetts have in common? They have all made contributions to the artistic and functional design of stringed instruments.

Community of Strings explores a diverse selection of stringed instruments made in the Brattleboro region, including steel-stringed and archtop guitars, violins and violas, banjos and Renaissance harps. Many of these were made specifically for this exhibit and represent years of experience in design, craftsmanship, and creativity. The wood and other materials used in the construction of these instruments are of both local and international origin. Often the grains and colors of the wood are matched; or they may be designed to contrast with one another, complementing each other and the instrument as a whole. The results can be startling, and we can be assured of an imaginative delight-from the flaming oranges of stained and varnished tiger maple, to the more subdued but equally impressive reds, browns, and blacks found in Brazilian rosewood, to the natural warmth of mahogany. (left: Scott Hausmann, Guitar)

The individual histories of the instrument makers represented in Community of Strings are intertwined with the story of the Brattleboro area as a rural mecca for artists. Many of these artisans migrated here from other parts of the country. Perhaps they settled in the area as a result of their appreciation of natural surroundings and the raw materials they offer. Perhaps they wanted more from life, wanted to entertain themselves rather than be entertained, to create rather than be passive. They may have been looking for a simpler life, knowing that there was something they needed to express and finding it through the quiet, solitary work of shaping wood to make resonating boxes that would express unreserved creativity, both visual and aural.

From the most unadorned to the most complex of the designs in this exhibit, beauty and grace surround us, whether in sensual curves and intricate inlays or in more puritan designs. But the physical instrument is only the beginning. Take a moment to look beyond the obvious to the vision, spirit, life, and humanity these works of art embody, not only in themselves, but also as conduits of human expression. Imagine the song of each instrument as its strings are plucked or bowed. It speaks for itself and touches our hearts and souls.

From his hillside workshop overlooking the foothills of the Green Mountains, Doug Cox, through his study of fine old instruments, produces violins for a wide range of players. Many of his instruments are constructed with aged wood which he mills from the trees around his workplace. He is exhibiting a violin patterned after the Ginn Stradivari of 1691.

William Cumpiano builds a wide variety of wonderfully designed guitars, including the traditional rural Puerto Rican ten-string guitar known as a cuatro. He also coauthored the book Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology, which has become the standard reference in the field. William is exhibiting a smaller-size guitar that is less common than the traditional steel-stringed guitars currently manufactured in the U.S.

Building both guitars and banjos, Will Fielding pays close attention to the way various pieces of wood interact with each other and how the various patterns, colors, and textures work together to create a complete instrument. Shown here is a five string clawhammer banjo, frequently used in "old time" banjo playing originating in traditional Appalachian folk music. Note the woodcarving on the heel of the neck. For the most part, the instrument is unadorned, accentuating the combination of figured woods that entice the observer. (right: Will Fielding, detail, Banjo)

Scott Hausmann has thirty years of experience in woodworking and instrument making. He is showing an octave mandolin. Though in size it is more akin to the guitar, its voice is more characteristic of a mandolin. Look for an instrument similar to a small parlor guitar in size but with the "waist" higher up on the instrument.

Lynne Lewandowski's historical harps, psalteries, and lyres have joined countless consorts on recordings and on stages nationally and internationally. Her instruments have been exhibited at Early Music festivals and museums in Boston, London, and Washington. Lynne has loaned us a Renaissance harp. These small harps were the standard throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

One exhibitor, Dan MacArthur, exclusively uses Vermont native woods in the construction of his instruments. Dan has built a guitar for the show made from native maple, cherry, red spruce, red maple, butternut, and hop hornbeam, with-as he says-"an odd touch or two such as a curly pear headstock veneer."

Rodney Miller makes a distinctly American interpretation of classic Italian stringed instruments, using North American as well as traditional European tonewood that is recognized for its tone producing ability. He is exhibiting a violin made in the style of the 17th-century violins of Brescia, Italy. Look for the characteristic double purfling and ornate inlay -- unusual by today's standards -- which was used by northern Italian violin builders during the late 16th- and early 17th-centuries. (left: Rodney Miller, detail, Violin)

To Brad Nickerson, guitar making is akin to tool making. As a pen may be considered a tool for the calligrapher, or a saw a tool for the carpenter, Brad considers the guitar the musician's tool. Sound and playability are the foremost qualities he considers in his designs. Brad's instrument is the only archtop guitar in the exhibit. Look for a red sunburst guitar with a blend of yellows and oranges originating from the center of the instrument and moving outward toward shades of reds.

Charles Richstone has been making violins and violas in Brattleboro for more than thirty years. His knowledge of violin design and his attention to tonal quality are evident in the instruments he has produced. Charles is exhibiting the show's only viola. Though the shapes of the viola and the violin are similar, the viola is generally larger and produces a deeper, more sonorous tone.

Froggy Bottom Guitars is a result of the collaboration between company founder Michael Millard and Andy Mueller. Many aspects of Michael Millard's guitar making are inspired by his life experiences from his early woodworking education in old New England boat yards to his music lessons with the legendary blues singer and guitarist, the Reverend Gary Davis. These experiences are manifested in his fine woodworking and in the style of guitar construction found in many of his instruments. Andy Mueller, also a lover of wooden boats, built his first guitar under Michael's tutelage, and his enjoyment of the work is still growing. Andy and Michael are exhibiting a steel-stringed guitar made especially for the show.

- Joe LoMonaco


About the author

Joe LoMonaco is guest curator for the exhibition.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above article was rekeyed and reprinted on November 3, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to - Hilsdon of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center for assistance concerning the publishing of this article.

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