Guitar making’s perils don’t usually include freezing to death. Yet one recent October afternoon, David Wren found himself in a canoe, seeking inspiration on a remote lake in Northern Ontario.
The search turned out to be a cold one.
“There was nobody up there because it was absolutely frigid,” the 65-year-old Toronto luthier recalls. “It was very windy, and if you capsize your canoe at that time of year you don’t have long to get a fire going somewhere, somehow.”
The trip was field research for a project that Wren describes as far outside his comfort zone: crafting a custom guitar in homage to Franklin Carmichael, one of Canada’s most famous painters.
The instrument is part of the “Group of Seven Guitar Project,” an exhibit opening in May at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, a sprawling, five-decade-old public gallery in the woods north of Toronto. Wren and six other top Canadian luthiers spent months building guitars—including one made from birch bark—inspired by Canada’s “Group of Seven” painters. Accompanying the show is a documentary film featuring performances on the new instruments by the likes of Bruce Cockburn, Don Ross, and Suzie Vinnick.
Carmichael and other Group of Seven members—Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley—essentially founded Canadian art in the 1920s and ’30s with vividly immersive paintings of the country’s wilderness. “They would take these long, treacherous journeys and then perch on a rock in the middle of the river and paint,” Wren says.
The passion they inspire even today can be seen in Wren’s eagerness to locate the remote hill above Grace Lake, where Carmichael once painted. “Paddling by his log cabin and then actually finding the quartz outcrop where he worked—it’s impossible not to be inspired by something like that,” Wren says.
The unique exhibit is the brainchild of Toronto luthier Linda Manzer, who conceived of the show while standing in a museum, studying a huge wall full of drawings by the seven artists. “They are preliminary sketches of some of the most famous Canadian paintings ever,” Manzer says. “And a light bulb just went off.”
Manzer thinks big—she famously designed a 42-string guitar with three necks for jazz-fusion musician Pat Metheny.
She soon began to see parallels between the seven painters and a tight-knit group of luthiers that essentially founded Canadian guitar making in 1970s Toronto. “We were our own little Group of Seven,” Manzer recalls with a laugh.
She was one of the first apprentices drawn into the orbit of Jean Larrivée, a bespectacled auto-mechanic-turned-pioneering-guitar-builder.
Wren’s photos from that time show Manzer and her fellow apprentices—a crew of grinning, bearded, long-haired, young luthiers—hunched over workbenches covered with clamps and bottles of glue. “We were making the first wave of a very distinctive type of guitar that wasn’t a Martin, wasn’t a Gibson,” Manzer says. “It really was something new.”
Wren—who notes contributions from such luthiers as G.W. Barry and Bruce West, who aren’t in the exhibit—says the new designs departed radically from the dreadnoughts then prevalent. The new guitars had tight waists, as well as clear pickguards from the flamenco tradition. “It was a very Canadian look at that time,” he says. But the group’s innovations spread widely.
Larrivée’s X-bracing system for the soundboard, for example, influenced makers around the world, and his guitars have become internationally famous for their crisp, balanced tone. In a YouTube video with some 35 million views, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield can be seen strumming David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station on a Larrivée Parlor.
But back in the ’70s, times were tough.
“We had day jobs—we all struggled,” Manzer recalls. “We were able to survive at a time when not many people were buying handmade guitars because we supported each other.”
Technically, they were competitors. “But we made a conscious choice to be friends and help each other,” Manzer says. “And it turned out to be a magical choice. It made us all better builders.”
‘We were making the first wave of a very distinctive type of guitar that wasn’t a Martin, wasn’t a Gibson. It really was something new.’
For the McMichael exhibit, she reached out to Wren and Larrivée, as well as Sergie de Jonge, Tony Duggan-Smith, George Gray, and William “Grit” Laskin, a luthier and musician known for his groundbreaking inlay art. “And everybody wrote back, without hesitation, and said, ‘I’m in,’” Manzer says.
Soon the luthiers were hammering out plans for an exhibit—and the accompanying film documentary—over coffee and donuts at Tim Hortons cake and bake shop. Selling the concept to the art world was tougher. “I thought, ‘Whoa, guitars—that’s not something I’d been used to,’” admits Sarah Stanners, head curator at the McMichael Art Collection. “What captured my enthusiasm was meeting the guitar makers. I realized the love and thought they put into each guitar. Even their process is very similar to the way a painter or another visual artist works.”
And that process produced stunning works of art.
“When you see luthier Grit Laskin’s inlays—my god, they’re just exquisite,” Stanners says. “It just happens that they are on a functional instrument.”
The Group of Seven, Stanners notes, was very focused on landscapes and natural environments. “And so are these luthiers,” she says. “I realized how sensitive they are to what wood species they’re using.”
Sergei de Jonge, for example, paid homage to J.E.H. MacDonald—known for his paintings of Ontario’s rugged Algoma District—by crafting a guitar with birch bark. “He used native materials from areas where MacDonald painted,” Stanners says. “We’re pretty convinced it’s the only birch bark guitar on the planet.”
These were nerve-wracking projects for the luthiers because they were using techniques, design concepts, and materials outside their comfort zone.
“Each one of us pushed the envelope,” Manzer says. “Each one of us did something we’ve never done before.”
Wren, for example, decided Carmichael’s woodcuts would lend themselves to being rendered on a guitar top with woodburning. The only obstacle: The luthier had to learn woodburning, since he’d never done it before.
“The scariest part was walking up to that top to start woodburning after I’d put 150 hours or more into the body,” he recalls. “I was just thinking, ‘I can’t erase this.’ Every line, there’s no going back.”
But he’s satisfied with the result. “It’s totally different than anything I’ve ever done,” Wren says. “I like the look and the fact that I stretched more than I ever had.”
After each luthier made one guitar on their own, all seven collaborated on an eighth instrument—a guitar inspired by Tom Thomson, an artist who influenced the Group of Seven painters before drowning on a canoe trip. “We worked for three days nonstop,” Manzer says. “Besides being incredibly fun, it was inspiring, and we all learned a lot.”
But it was also a chance for reflection.
“We hadn’t really worked together for 40 years, so this was kind of a flashback,” Manzer says. “In some ways our careers are behind us instead of in front of us.”
“But everyone was pleased with what they’ve done—really satisfied with the path they had chosen,” she continues. “For the seven of us, well, it’s been a special, magical journey.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.