Guitar Art: Is Folk Artist Ed Stilley the Howard Finster of Lutherie?

From True Faith, True Light (Photo by Kirk Lanier)

By Mark Kemp

Ed Stilley was in his 50s when God told the Arkansas artist to make guitars. And like the visionary paintings and wood carvings of the late Georgia folk artist Howard Finster — whose works adorned album covers by R.E.M. and Talking Heads — Stilley’s guitars, ukes, and other stringed instruments are anything but ordinary.


In a photo-heavy story posted to the website Slate on Sunday, writer Jordan G. Teicher explains:

Stilley was on a mission and wouldn’t be stopped. A deeply religious man, he’d gotten the idea during a dream. The way he tells it, God instructed him to start making guitars and to give them away free of charge to kids.

Stilley’s story is remarkable, and two recent books featuring stunning photography — True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Life of Ed Stilley, by Kelly Mulhollan and photographer Kirk Lanier, and  Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley, by photographer Tim Hawley — are must must-have collections for any aficionado of folk art, acoustic guitars, or both. In the Slate piece, Hawley tells of how he tracked down the various instruments that Stilley, now 85, has distributed far and wide over the years, and of what condition they were in:

“Some people treasure these items and are very proud of them. Others pulled them out of barns, covered in dust and dirt. I thought that was part of the whole story. Rather than clean them up, I wanted to let that be,” Hawley said.

Read the Slate piece and marvel over the photographs, check out Gifted and True Faith, True Light, and enjoy the photos and two videos here, particularly the clip below, in which Stilley talks, in his own words, about his life and work. His story will blow your mind and warm your heart.


‘True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley,’ by Kelly Mulhollan and Kirk Lanier
Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley, by Tim Hawley
‘Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley,’ by Tim Hawley
Photograph by Tim Hawley, from 'Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley'
Photograph from Hawley’s ‘Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley’


Mark Kemp
Mark Kemp

Former AG editor Mark Kemp is the author of Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South (Simon & Schuster, 2004; University of Georgia Press, 2006).

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