After retiring from VCU 10 years ago, a gifted Chuck Scalin began teaching courses in collage and assemblage at Richmond's Studio School of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Now he's pulled together a group exhibition, selecting 10 students from the more than 200 he's worked with during the past 10 years. Among them is Ann Rudy, whose Blues Triumvirate resonates emotionally across the Artspace Gallery in Richmond's Manchester District where it's on display through March 23. I recently interviewed her about her visually striking and musically adept work of art:
There is a "cigar box guitar" tradition that started in the mid-19th century that interests me - where a wooden box, a stick, and a wire string comprise an instrument that was easily constructed from materials at hand. Because real instruments were expensive, the cigar box guitar (also fiddle and banjo) was an instrument that was accessible to black Americans living in poverty and contributed to evolution of the blues.
Why African American bluesmen?
The Mississippi Delta was where the blues arose from field hollers and call-and-response. Specifically, Dockery Plantation near Cleveland, Mississippi was the home of numerous black Americans (including Son House and by association, Robert Johnson) who shaped the Blues as we know it, in fact, nearly all truly "American music" comes from African tradition.
Who are these people anyway, and why are they important?
Son House, the "Father of the Blues," stands apart from other early bluesmen. He was a Baptist preacher who performed the secular music of blues with all the power and drive of spiritual music. He did not abandon the "devils' music" for the sacred like many of his shamed contemporaries did, but embraced both in equal measure, recognizing and ministering to the human need to both worship and weep.
Robert Johnson, the "Spirit of the Blues," was notorious for "selling his soul" to the Devil at a crossroads near Clarksdale, Mississippi in exchange for musical mastery. A good deal of hoodoo and African beliefs are associated with the legend, and the "Devil" was not the devil at all, just a Christian face put on Elegba, an African deity who was the protector of the crossroads, a gatekeeper between the physical and spiritual worlds and grantor of fortune both good and bad.
Muddy Waters, the "Father of Chicago Blues," electrified the Blues and took it from the cotton fields to the big city, where it was embraced by people of all backgrounds. The map on the neck of his guitar traces the journey from Rolling Fork, Mississippi to Chicago along famous Highway 61 and Route 66, drawn along by the Lindbergh Beacon blinking atop the Palmolive Building. He holds untold influence over scores of blues and rock musicians who have since spread his "gospel" worldwide.
What's the driving force behind the exhibition?
Grief. My husband, an artist, a guitar player and a lover of the blues, left this world suddenly. When I create objects of his passion, his presence returns and it rekindles his love, allowing me to give love to him again.
Blues is all about respite from pain, creating art is a distraction from pain. Blues could be considered one of the earliest self-help programs available to the masses.
The materials used?
All three guitars started with a cigar box and a one-and-a-half-inch stick of wood. The Robert Johnson uses a one-and-a-half-inch handrail. Standard guitar parts - tuners, switches, and knobs - make it easier to create playable instruments. Everything else is decorative and adapted to evoke and honor the instrument each man played. Everything is off-the-shelf from the lumberyard and hardware store - a wire gutter guard, a chrome floor drain, stair tread appliqué brackets, a plastic For Sale sign, nuts and bolts. In addition, an Altoids tin lid stands in for a Telecaster bridge plate, OSHA Red substitutes for Candy Apple, a plastic net from a clementine box stencils up nicely as snakeskin, and three silver Mercury dimes saved from my childhood serve as dot markers and a personal offering to the Spirit of the Crossroads.
How would you describe it to someone who could not see it?
I would let them listen to the guitars. All are fretless, open-tuned and are played with a slide. They are surprisingly melodious, each has a unique tone--the resonator resonates, the acoustic is full and thick, and the electric squeals and moans with the best--and all are true to the cigar box tradition.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com, where portions of this post first appeared.