My father was a fine woodworker. He built a reproduction of a very elegant 18th century table with slender, curving cabriole legs. I was eight years old when I first became drawn to the intensity of his efforts and started asking a lot of questions. He put me to work sanding parts by hand. I made a lot of fine walnut sawdust that stained my hands purple. It filled my nostrils, and some of it must have gotten into my blood. I became hooked on the smell and the feel of the miracle of wood. I learned to make beautiful curling shavings with a spoke shave, and to carve with a knife. Any scrap of wood in the shop was fair game. The tools and the wood sharpened my imagination.
This created a mutual enthusiasm for learning how to do it all. I loved to draw with pencils and crowquill pens; I learned to paint with watercolors by trial and error. A plain white piece of paper was a whole world begging to be explored with a pencil and my imagination.
At about the same time, I became fascinated with music. Both my father and grandfather were great trumpeters, although my tastes leaned more toward country music. I entertained myself with a harmonica, a sweet potato, a penny whistle and a jaw harp — just about anything that would make an interesting noise. Then, one day I saw a photo in Life Magazine of Pete Seeger playing his long-neck banjo on the railroad tracks and I was Gone! I had never heard such an instrument, but I knew it was for me. Having no way of acquiring a banjo, I made one — a crude one to be sure, and only boy-size, but I had me a banjo! That simple banjo was the beginning of a lifetime of musical instrument making and playing.
It seems that all my life has been about making things fit. Whether it is a dovetail joint in a piece of furniture, a mother-of-pearl inlay, the composition of a painting, or the words of a song, everything must fit precisely in order to appear seamless and natural. I believe that as you labor intensely on a piece of work, visualizing and concentrating your energies on that object, it takes on a life of its own. When you encounter a great work of art of any period, it sets the mood of the room. The sheer energy invested by the artist or craftsperson to create the piece of art can deeply affect those exposed to it. If you are a young artist, I would encourage you to find something in life that you love and are inspired by, and learn all that you can about it. Find a mentor, someone you look up to and who is among the best in your field of interest. It need not be someone who is alive today; you can always buy records or prints, and read about the person’s life. Make your mentor a part of you. There may be someone in your local community (a retired person for instance) who would be glad to teach you what he knows. My father was my mentor; although he passed away a few years ago, he is with me every day, looking over my shoulder and encouraging me.
When I have an idea for a project, I generally research the subject. This may involve going to the library or to a museum. I sometimes photocopy pictures and enlarge them as needed. I visualize the subject from an unusual angle to make it my own. I almost always do pencil drawings followed by pen-and-ink drawings. These may become templates for paintings, carvings or inlays, or they may stand alone as the work itself. The "line" is everything. Painters, sculptors, inlay artists, etc., live and die by the "line." For me it is the absolute "make-or-break," impenetrable, defining element of any piece of work. The finished product is only as precise as the layout, and the layout only as good as the "line.