In 1979, God came to Ed Stilley in a dream and told the Arkansas farmer that from then on, he was to make guitars and other acoustic instruments, and give them to children.
How could Stilley say no?
Like the Rev. Howard Finster, James Harold Jennings, and Thornton Dial, Stilley is an untrained visionary folk artist with a distinct style. Like most untrained folk artists, Stilley began making guitars (as well as dulcimers, fiddles, mandolins, and ukuleles) by using everyday objects and the tools he already had in his workshop. He uses the woods he finds around his home in Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas: walnut, cedar, pine, oak, maple, or anything else that works. He also uses some unlikely objects—saw blades, pot lids, bottles, springs from screen doors—to help brace the instruments and give them particular sounds he hears in his head.
Tim Hawley met Stilley in 2011, and the award-winning photographer became obsessed with documenting the visionary artist’s work. Hawley spent three years researching and photographing Stilley’s instruments—he even took X-rays of the insides, and made a short documentary on the process. The result is Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley (Press Syndication Group), a handsome coffee-table book of some of the most extraordinary photographs of some of the most extraordinary stringed instruments you’ll ever see.
One thing about Stilley: He doesn’t sell his art. He was instructed by God to give the instruments to children and that’s what he’s done. Hawley writes that Stilley puts about 100 hours into each instrument, and has built about 200 since 1979, which adds up to 20,000 hours of work for the love of God, guitars, and kids. Hawley spent much time during his research tracking down adults who still have Stilley instruments they received as children.
Another thing about Stilley: He doesn’t sign his artwork. The instruments, he suggests, are not about him. They’re about God. And they’re about making children happy and helping them to learn. It’s a refreshingly selfless approach to art, which is too often not a selfless pursuit. Instead of his name, Stilley writes the words “True Faith, True Light, Have Faith in God” on almost all of his creations. You don’t have to be a believer to believe in Stilley’s process and works.
“The total effect,” Hawley writes, “becomes a piece of interactive art that is a cross between a banjo, an old barn, and a well-worn bible.”
The following passages are excerpted from Hawley’s book:
A Spiritual Matter
“I lay down to sleep one evening, when this was brought to me. When I was sleeping, the Good Lord said to me, ‘If you’ll make these instruments and give them to the little boys and girls, I’ll take care of the matter.’ That’s the way it worked.”
This is the pat answer Stilley repeats whenever he is asked what inspired him to begin making his instruments. However, this answer raises the question, “What was ‘the matter’ that needed to be resolved?”
Stilley is not interested in making that information public. Occasionally, he’ll be a bit more revealing, as when he said, “God knows what he’s doing and he told me, ‘If you’ll make them and hand them to little boys and girls, I’ll take care of this other that is too big for you.’ See, spiritual matters are too big for you or me or anybody to handle . . . and this was a spiritual matter. Because they demanded me to refuse the word of God and go with their doctrine and I said, ‘No I won’t’. . . and I’m not.”
Turning Trash to Treasure
Stilley recalls, “I went to different places and they said, ‘You can’t make ’em out of heavy wood!’ They had a store in Berryville and that man told me, he said, ‘Why . . . you can’t do that!’ So it went on awhile.”
“So I’s over there one day buyin’ parts and he said, ‘Have you got one of your guitars with ya today?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Go get it.’ He had a man and woman in there. I’d never seen ’em before. So the man takes the guitar and sits down and played and him and his wife sang. The man at the store said, ‘I said you couldn’t take that heavy wood and do it, but you’ve done it!’ I said, ‘God can do anything.’ God was the only one that helped me because I went everywhere else and they said, ‘You can’t do it!’”
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
Besides experimenting with different sizes and shapes, Stilley also invented a mostly unseen but intriguing instrument within the instrument. This interior metallic skeleton is made up of an odd assortment of hardware including screen door springs, saw blades, pot lids, and old medicine bottles. These unlikely combinations work collectively to create an unusual framework of oscillating tonality. The listener will recognize a distinct timbre with harmonic overtones, some dissonance, and a haunting sort of reverb.
When asked why he added these strange parts, Stilley humbly replies, “See, I didn’t know what I was doin’. I was just tryin,’ but I wanted to do ever’thing I could to get the music out of ’em. The first things I put in was little jars and tin cans, but I tried everything I could think of because I wanted to get something that would bring the music out. That was my wishes.”
“I got lots of the pot lids from yard sales. I had certain kinds. It was either stainless steel or pot metal. Both of them have gotta ring to ’em. You can take you a knife and beat on ’em and make ’em ring. . . . Then some people give me some saw blades, and that helped me out. Them saw blades got a ring to ’em, too. Some carpenters brung me some blades that were no good to them, they said, ‘We’ll just give ’em to ya.’ Oh . . . just cuz they’re dull don’t hurt their ring . . . !”
“I tuned by ear. You can get ’em too high, you can get ’em too low for the instrument. Whenever they get into the right tune all of them blend. When you run a chord, run any chord you want to and all of them blend? Then you got it! That’s what I wanted, was to make more music.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.