Video Interview with Art Mize

Kentucky Historical Society


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AF: So, let's pick up there, I agree, I think there will always be a market,

there will always be individuals that want handcrafted items that include a

portion of the crafter in them, and have a very personal identity. So thinking

in terms of moving forward, and how the shop is moving forward and the business

is moving forward, I know you're working on a diverse range instruments, so will

show us some of those instruments and talk about that diversity?

AM: Ok, well on the one hand there are different types of instruments. Although

most of my work is on violins, I also service violas and cellos and bases. So, I

don't know if I can, if you'll follow me over there, if I was going to like show

you the base (conversation about moving the instrument in front of the camera)--

AM: So this guy moved to Kentucky from California, and he had his base stored

for a while, right--

AF: Oh wow(shows base with large crack down the side)...

AM: And that's what happened, the tension on the strings, which I've got slacked

now, it pulled apart at the block and then, because of this pull forward, it's

cracking the belly here, and there's a crack here-- and I think that's a former

crack that has not succumbed to the pressure. So this is the sort of thing that

sometimes comes to me.

Usually bases, different instruments have different ranges of problems, it's

very common for bases to get bumped when they are being carried around because

they are so big, and fracture across the heal or have neck issues and I've done

a lot of those repairs and restoration. Usually it's just a matter of the edge

work coming lose, people take their bases out to the Bluegrass festival or

whatever in the heat, and the glue gets weak, and that sort of thing.

Tonal adjustments on any instrument, I get asked to do but the structural sorts

of things for a base, it's, there's some major work there.

AF: What sort of wood--

AM: You typically have maple on the back and sides, and spruce for the belly,

but there's a huge presence of laminated bases which are like plywood, backs and

tops, and that one is probably laminated for the back and the ribs, but the

belly is solid spruce, which is why is cracked the way that it did, because of

the stress that it was under.

So there are different kinds of instruments and I'll show you this one, this is

actually mine, this is a mandolin, a Gibson mandolin from 1904 that I bought

from Mr. Miller when I first met him, and played it for quite a number of years,

and then it came apart where it had been broken here around the neck and had

been repaired, and it came apart again and cracked from the pressure of the top,

similarly to the base over here. I repaired it, this crack up through here, with

these cleats a number of years ago, and then it was just sitting on the stand

one day and I heard a big loud pop, and the whole thing had caved in and so I've

had to go through, I've taken my old cleats out, in the upper hand, and I've put

new cleats here that are a little sturdier and longer and had an additional

crack to clean here in the belly, and from 1904-2012 were gonna have this

instrument back up and playing again because I miss it. But mandolin repairs,

you know, wood repair and an eye to the pressures that the wood is under,

structure repairs, are pretty similar instrument to instrument, but you do get

some variations of wood, and this one has walnut ribs and walnut back, actually,

the back is sitting right here. I'll put the back on when it's time.

So, I do some other guitar, mandolin, banjo setup kind of thing, because the

violin family instruments don't have frets I don't do much in the way of

fretwork. There are other specialists in guitar and mandolin who can cover that

territory and I'm happy to let them have it as far as that goes, but so there

are different kinds of instruments that I work on that are usually matters of

damage, you know and I address that grafting, I had a Martin guitar, a D-28,

that had been kicked or something and had a big hole in the back and I found

some really good matching rose wood and grafted a piece in, so I get that sort

of work.

As far as violins, there are instruments that are fancy, like this was probably

made Belgian made--

AF: That has a lovely color--

AM: Isn't that neat? And it's got a wonderful crack allure in the varnish, which

some would like and some would not, but I think looks really great. But that

sort of roping around the outside, that's a pretty neat instrument. This is not

the nicest instrument that I've got, but this is Germanic, this one is

French-made, but it's a French factory produced instrument from the turn of the

century and, or a little before. The French tend to make better instruments,

their factory instruments are better than Germany factory instruments, typically

on par, at least the low end of what the French would do wasn't as low as what

the German and Czechoslovakian factories would descend to, and they would tend

to not, they would tend to cut corners in different ways, that preserved better

quality in the instrument overall. But-- (Art moves around to locate certain instruments).

I don't know what this is, but it's got the most amazing birds eye maple back,

little speckles all over it, and I've never seen a piece a piece of birds eye

maple with so many little birds eyes, it's just incredible.

AF: Now where did you come across that?

AM: Well now this was a repair for somebody, and they, the person who owns it

bought the instrument and it had this neck in it, which once you take the neck

off, it's marked on the other side of the finger board, French late 18th

Century, and that's right, this is a very French scroll from the late 1800s

(1700s?) and this is a continental European instrument, probably German of some

sort, but it's very, very nice. These two don't go together. Stylistically they

are a horrible mismatch. So, I am actually carving a scroll, and I will graft it

to replicate, because this violin is 1700, so it's 1700s-1750, very, very old,

and so, I'll try to replicate the style of a scroll that would be suitable for

it and have it grafted so it looks like it's that age and anyone that knows

violins will look at it and know that that's a replacement neck, but hopefully

they'll say, what a darn good job he did. So, that's at least what we're

shooting for.

And then, you know, one thing that does happen here, on these instruments that

are tucked in this little cubby over here-- This violin was made in Ohio, 1880s,

name of Lovejoy, if I remember right, in Columbus, Ohio-- 1889. So, I'm

restoring it. Occasionally I'll get an instrument like that, that's pretty

nicely made. There's a good violin making culture in Ohio, because German

settlement in Cincinnati brought luthiers to the area, and this one is actually

made pretty nicely, it's pretty good quality too, so this is an American made

violin to bring back to life by ability.

AF: And so, from an economic perspective then, being able to repair such a

diversity of instruments it that really important to you?

AM: In economic range, what an instrument requires to be in good playable form

and preservation is pretty much the same , but what you find on the lower end

like with this violin that there may be some other things that you could do to

it to improve the instrument, but once you're in a certain economic range like

this one, where everything is really made in the best possible way, the

standards of what you want to end up with are the same, but what I would do

would be less invasive and more preservative of whoever made this, this is a

handmade instrument no doubt-- no doubt about it. I'm not sure I answered your question.

AF: That's allright--

AM: I might have strayed in to another question while I was thinking about

whatever I was saying-- Now I also do a lot of bow work.

AF: Ok.

AM: And the bows are an entire other territory. Now this bow is fiberglass bow,

or a carbon fiber bow actually that needed a tip replaced. Here I've cut the

piece of ivory, mammoth ivory in this case, and I want to put this on to the tip

right, and then I'll cut out the little chamber and put fresh horsehair in it.

So there's a different set of technical knows-how involved in bow restoration.

Metal work that's wire, that's wrapped, leather that's put on the bow as a grip,

let me get a tip of a wooden bow and show ya--

So we have our, have the ivory piece on the tip. It's a very delicate piece of

wood, I don't know if I messed up the lighting there by moving the light around

but, the grain of this wood runs this direction so it's common for these to get

broken on the end. So occasionally if it's a very expensive bow you can splice a

repair right down the middle of the crack (interruption in filming, siren--).

AF: Ok--

AM: Well let's see, there's repairs when the bows get damaged, and again, what

happens frequently with bows is that the often the cost of the repair is greater

than the value of the bow will end up being, so it has to be a pretty nice bow

to warrant putting very much work in. They are typically pieces of wood that are

cut straight and then heat bent to have their shape. So, a lot of times bows

have lost that shape and I have to heat them and shape them myself to restore

that arc.

There are different issues here, in terms of the pearl that can get damaged.

This leather you would put your hand against and your thumb against, so the

leather tends to get worn. Being able to skive leather, a term for leather

working where you trim and shave the end of the leather down to a thin edge so

that you can wrap it and it look nice. There are some skills there that are kind

of unique that you would never run across in wooden repairs and that's kind of a

fun thing to know how to do, wrap leather. And this sort of stuff, different

kinds of protective materials, which back in the 1800s could be whale-bone, but

these are typically plastic or some sort of synthetic material. So. Yeah,

there's a different range of repairs that go with violin bows and base bows.

AF: So, thinking in terms of where the actual materials come from, one of the

questions that I wanted to make sure that we touched on today, it's difficult to

get access to wood, especially old growth, so will you talk about that and where

your materials are coming from.

AM: Yeah, that's a really good question. You can buy tone woods, there are

European and Canadian suppliers and it typically tends to be pretty expensive.

What is tricky about violin instruments, and really any of the acoustic wooden

instruments, is that you can't kiln dry the wood. Heat drying the wood destroys

natural properties in the wood that you need to have for the best voice. So you

have to carefully air dry acoustic wood, and one of the differences in the value

and price in factory instruments is whether the wood was air dried for years, or

6 years, or 10 years, ok. So, if you have to hold on to the wood for 10 years

before you're going to make an instrument out of it, it's going to be a lot more

valuable because that wood is going to be a lot more expensive.

AF: Right--

AM: So you tend to have cheap instruments in the market, in the low end of the

economy, that are made with cheaper woods that aren't air dried, so they tend to

have more repair issues, right. And I see that a lot here. As far as the woods

that I've acquired, I was fortunate because Mr. Miller had a whole lot of spruce

that he had acquired over decades, and decades, and decades. And even though he

had a big story about his maple, he bought some maple that came out of Stearns,

KY, down in Whitley County (correction by transcriber, Stearns in located in

neighboring McCreary County), back in the 30s and he made gobs and gobs of

violins out of big boards of that maple wood. None of that was still surviving

when I was around. He had some maple that was plenty old enough, maybe 20 years

old, but he had a lot of spruce. I've got probably enough spruce bellies that

probably date back to the 40s, or enough wood that I could make bellies out of

for violins. I could probably make 20 violins. Of course, he'd been picking over

it, so it tends to be a little wider grain, so for all the years he'd start

looking for something he'd say oh, this is the best one, and he'd start making a

violin, and then he'd go through and find another one. So it's not the best

selection for the grains pattern and that sort of thing but it's all really fine

wood just the same partly because it's aged so well.

But there was a mandolin maker down in Berea, or around Berea, that was named

Carl Cates. I don't know if Carl is still living or not, but he developed a

neurological disorder that kept him from continuing to make mandolins, and he

made about 30 mandolins before he quit. But he had amassed a nice collection of

wood. In fact, I've got some samples of it here-- this chunk right here. This is

Washington State spruce that, just one billick, I've got a whole bunch of these

that I bought from Carl, in fact that's what the belly on my violin is made

from. I split off a piece of that, and cut my top out. It went from this raw

state, to that shape and form and carved arching and all that sort of thing.

AF: Well it's interesting to think about the commodity chains, where the

different pieces come from--

AM: Yeah, that's right--

AF: Ok.

AM: So this had been harvested from Washington State and he'd had it arranged to

be shipped to him and then he sold it to me. So I will hopefully make lots of

violins out of this spruce. The maple is a little trickier. There was supplier

that would come through to the shop occasionally-- I think I got this from Carl

too, this nice, big piece of maple-- Someone-- no, I got this somewhere else.

Someone had decided they were going to make an electric guitar, you can see the

it's penciled out, an electric guitar, and then they decided against it and

brought it to me because they thought it could be something I could use for

violins. But see, that could be sawed in and I can probably get three violin

backs. That will be a one piece back, perhaps, it depends on what the flame

pattern looks like, I might want to start and split them because that's a really

nice pattern coming that direction, if I laid them open it would be really

pretty. So that's something I could use either way.

I bought a bunch of matched maple sets that were Kentucky made from Carl and I

would pick up wood every now and then. I was going to say there is a supplier

that would come down from, I think, Massachusetts and bring violins to show me

that was also bringing tone woods, European tone woods, and I bought quite a few

chunks of maple from him. These were guaranteed to have been, these were dated

and they were already 6 to 7 years old. So I've got a bunch of that stockpiled.

AF: That's great, I hadn't actually thought about all the different places that

the wood would come from that you work with--

AM: Yeah, you can find a lot of resources online. There are companies where you

can just order from Canada that makes it their business to accumulate from

whatever sources that they can get it from. Now, of course, there are different

types of wood here, there is ebony, which typically comes from India or

Madagascar, and there's boxwood-- Usually, the various woods come already shaped

for this purpose, you know, you don't buy a chunk of ebony and have to cut it up

yourself, you buy fingerboard blanks that are already cut down to the final

shape, close to the final shape and you just do the trimming. There is also

ridge wood like a blank. This particular bridge was manufactured in France. That

retails at $42.00 (USD). It is such a highly selective, aged wood. Aged maple

and then cut out. Very well selected for the type of maple that you want for

bearing the type of pressure that it has to bear right under the strings there.

So there's a very specialized selection involved in just bringing that piece of

wood to me, on the market, and then I don't have to start from scratch drilling

all those little holes, right?

AF: Well, I tell you, on that note-- Is there anything that we didn't touch on today--?

AM: What we mentioned earlier was the apprenticeship program.

AF: That's right. Let's talk a bit about the apprenticeship program because, not

only have you studied with Mr. Miller, but you've actually taken on some

apprentices haven't you?

AM: Yes.

AF: So, talk about your experience working with apprentices-- It was two?

AM: Yeah, I've had two. Well, two years ago I took on Greg Sutherland and we got

the grant, the Master Apprenticeship grant from the Kentucky Folklife Program

and Greg worked at Don Wilson Music Company, he still does, and he was in charge

of their rental instruments and I really had, like Mr. Miller in a sort of way,

I didn't want to take on the trouble and the distraction of working with an

apprentice. But, I found that their rental instruments were just kind of old

stock and I kept having students that were picking up instruments there that

were kind of problematic and I thought, it's just going to be a tremendous

public service if I get Greg on to some really good repair and set of

principles. So we did the apprenticeship and he learned a great deal about how

to decide if a fingerboard is correct and what should be straight, and how do

you set a post, so that he could do better setup on the instruments that the

kids are going to be playing.

AF: Right.

AM: Really, so that they could be more successful and really, that was all that

apprenticeship was about for me, was passing on the kind of information that

really helps the kids enjoy the music experience that they have when they have

to rent instruments. But Greg was a lot of fun, he's a really great guy to work

with too, and I enjoyed it so much that, Tommy Case, is my apprentice-- They

just finished this last cycle and he was more interested in making instruments.

He has made quite a few pretty nice instruments with success, he studied with

Bill Huckabee who is a violin maker in Pinksmill, North of Frankfort, and what

was deficient about Tommy's instrument was the aesthetics. He could get a pretty

good tone, although I think that what we made in our first instrument we made

together is something that will out shine his other instruments as far as tone

and success, but we started from scratch designing the shape of the instrument

and keeping an eye to the aesthetic development of it and he's going to turn out

an instrument here that's going to be very beautiful, it's going to have a lot

of character. It is just, if you're an amateur and just love instruments, you

can make an instrument but not really know the terms that a very discriminating,

knowledgeable person will bring to examining that instrument. And there are a

lot of people that love to work with instruments, violins, guitars, whatever;

they don't really know what the discriminating viewer is going to look for to

really judge it. So that's been a lot of, hopefully the benefit that Tommy will

get from working with me over the past year, is making a violin that he's a lot

more excited about for its success and gets recognition for.

AF: So it is, literally, about sharing knowledge for you?

AM: Oh very much--

AF: It's not just helping someone improve--

AM: Absolutely. Yeah, I very much identify with the teaching role.

AF: Yeah, it sounds like it.

AM: Yeah, I enjoy that very much. There's a certain degree to which people that

run a business like myself, tend to be self-protective, because the knowledge

that you have is what you have that's special, it's what brings people to you,

but, I've never been very good about drawing those lines very successfully,

those self-protective lines or whatever, but it's been very rewarding to work

with both Greg and Tommy and see them, you know, enhance what they're doing.

AF: Right--

AM: Because that's really the joy of teaching.

AF: Well I think that's actually a very positive point for us to close on. We've

done a good job I think of, you know, of getting a sense of your history and

what you're doing at the shop, and then how you've passed that knowledge on and

that's been an enjoyable experience for you. So thank you, Art, for sitting down

and doing the interview with us today.

AM: You are most welcome, and thank you for spending the time with me.