When the McMichael Canadian Art Collection committed to an exhibition of hand-crafted guitars, the gallery was working well out of its comfort zone.
“I had no idea what the expected outcome would be,” head curator Sarah Stanners admits.
“And when you’re curating something where you don’t what the results will be, that can be terrifying.”
Stanners is speaking about the McMichael’s Group of Seven Guitar Project, an exhibition (accompanied by a documentary and concert series) that opens at the Kleinberg, Ont.-based gallery on May 6. For a woodsy house of paintings that specializes in works created nearly a century ago, it was a dicey (and not inexpensive) commissioning: seven acoustic guitars from seven renowned Canadian luthiers, each tasked with creating one-of-a-kind instruments representing a specific Group of Seven painter.
And if the gallery was taking a risk, the guitar makers did as well, each stretching their skills, often utilizing unfamiliar design and decorative practices to create something exceptional.
The luthiers, so to speak, were sticking their necks out on this one.
But they pulled it off, not only producing seven artfully singular guitars individually, but collectively adding a baritone model as an homage to Tom Thomson, the woodsman who died young in a canoeing accident 100 years ago, before a group of eight could happen.
“It was like herding cats, to be honest,” Stanners says of the project, which was the brainchild of Toronto guitar creator Linda Manzer.
“The meetings were quite raucous with them, with lots of energy. It turned out to be a beautiful experience, though.”
Six of the luthiers are former apprentices of the seventh, master builder Jean Larrivée, who mentored each of them in Toronto in the 1970s. The Globe and Mail spoke with each luthier about their guitar.
Tony Duggan-Smith, on his guitar inspired by Arthur Lismer
“It’s a small-bodied archtop, with eight extra harp strings on the bottom. I discovered Lismer as a student at the Nova Scotia [College] of Art and Design in the 1970s. He was once the principal there. A couple of us were given a house to live in, with the condition that we clean the basement. I found two spoons lying on the floor in the basement that were going to be thrown out. I kept them as a memento. All these later, I knew I had to put one of them in this guitar’s peghead. It’s my Rosebud.”
George Gray, on his guitar inspired by Frank Johnston
“A number of his paintings had airplanes in them, and I’m a private pilot. I saw his Beamsville painting and began to get curious. So I got in my plane one day and flew down to the area around Beamsville, Ont., where the painting was done from. He must have done a sketch from a little biplane. It was uncanny how accurate it is. The guitar uses cherry wood from where Johnston used to live in Wyebridge, Ont. The tree was old enough that it was probably growing on the property when he lived there.”
Sergei de Jonge, on his guitar inspired by J.E.H. MacDonald
“I wanted to reflect the areas in which he had worked and painted. He did a fair bit of painting right around where I live on the Gatineau River – probably a few hundred yards from our house, for that matter. The guitar is a fairly traditional classical model. The outside is birch bark, which I’ve never used. Of course, a guitar isn’t much good if it doesn’t sound really good. I think I accomplished that.”
David Wren, on his guitar inspired by Franklin Carmichael
“It’s a standard six-string, steel-string guitar. With a project like this, you try to let it go and have a jump in the dark. I tried to lose my sense of audience; just go with my gut instincts. I came up with an asymmetrical shape. Carmichael was into nature, and there’s not much in nature symmetrical.”
Linda Manzer, on her guitar inspired by Lawren Harris
“It has a side port, which is kind of an invention from a couple of our group members, Grit Laskin and Serge de Jonge. It acts like a little speaker. I looked at Lawren Harris’s Ward district paintings, studying his windows in particular. He would make maybe 10 tiny strokes for a perfect little window. But if you look at them closely, they’re very abstract. So, my guitar’s side port is painted as a functioning window that opens and closes.”
William (Grit) Laskin, on his guitar inspired by Frederick Varley
“We wanted a variety of types, so mine is a Flamenco Negra. The neck is filled with inlay and a lot of it is a bit of a history lesson about Varley and his life. It moves in a chronological way, up to the neck. I included myself in there, actually. I’m the interloper into his life and his life story.”
Jean Larrivée, on his guitar inspired by A.Y. Jackson
“It’s Larrivée L09, with a Sitka spruce top. It has a 2,000-piece mosaic on the inside that creates a Jackson painting. The rest of the guitar is quite normal. The idea was to make the artist standout, rather than me to stand out. The point was to create something you don’t make on an everyday basis. It was a challenge for all of us.”
The Group of Seven Guitar Projects runs through Oct. 29 at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (mcmichael.com).