Instruments of Art

Violins as varied as artists creating them

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— Bill Sanders held the violin in his hand and knew he meant to destroy it. He examined the strings and the neck of the thing and felt sorry for what he was about to do.

Sanders is an animist, a man who believes every object has a spirit and a life of its own to lead. The violin, he decided, should still be played. He called the high school in Cortez and offered it to the music department there for a student who may not be able to afford his or her own instrument.

Sanders was one of 16 artists chosen by Strings in the Mountains Festival of Music to create signature art for the 2003 season. Each artist was given a violin to apply his or her chosen medium -- 16 violins for Strings' 16th anniversary.

With Sanders' violin living out its life across the state, he had to find another one.

He drove to Denver and walked into an old instrument repair shop on South Broadway owned and operated by three generations of the same family. Sanders asked for a broken violin -- an instrument that could never be repaired.

The owners went to the back of the shop and found a violin, covered in dust, that they planned to use for parts.

Inside was the inscription: "Copy of Antonius Stradivarius, Made in Checho-Slovakia, #741." And there was another piece of paper glued to the inside: "Repaired and revarnished, 1917."

"This was an object that had fulfilled its life," Sanders wrote in his artist statement.

He drove the violin back to his home high in the Aspen groves of Strawberry Park and began his work.

By trade, Sanders is a potter. He learned his art in Hawaii.

"In Hawaii, pottery is taken very seriously," Sanders said. "A lot of Japanese live in Hawaii and you can be a living treasure in that country just by making brooms or firing Raku the traditional way."

Sanders attended an annual pottery festival where artists dug pits on the beach and fired their pots using the ancient pitfiring technique. They filled the pits with seaweed and sawdust and surrounded their pots with wood twigs.

After a few years, the city cracked down on the open pit firing and the artists had to improvise by firing in metal barrels.

Sanders brought the idea with him to Colorado and now fires pots in his driveway using a metal barrel.

He stripped the violin of extra parts and covered its body with 20 layers of clay. He then fired the clay in a kiln and fired it a second time in the barrel with metal oxides and sea salt. The wooden violin inside burnt away, leaving only its colorful clay shell.

Sanders' violin will be on display with 15 others through April 15 at Mad Creek Gallery on the corner of Fifth and Lincoln. The violins will move to the Wild Horse Gallery for the summer and will be formally introduced to the world at the Strings in the Mountains Gala Opening Concert June 28 in the Strings music tent.

Of the 16 artists, several were potters, like Sanders, and had to stretch the idea of their art to create a piece using the surface of a violin.

Judie Day is also a potter and the owner of Laloba Ranch Clay Center. She and her husband, Biz Littell, bring artists and professors from all over the world for pottery workshops.

For the Strings in the Mountains show, she created a piece called "Mr. Horton's Opus" that stands 30 inches tall and 12 inches wide. Mr. Horton is the elephant hero of the Dr. Seuss book "Horton Hears a Who." Horton hears a cry from a speck of dust and spends the rest of the book trying to protect the tiny creatures that live there.

Last summer, Laloba Ranch hosted a women's workshop, a clay manuscript class, teaching women how to incorporate their own personal symbols into their work instead of copying the work of the masters, Day said. Laloba Ranch also held sculptural Jungian workshop teaching the use of dream symbols in the same context.

Day's violin is held by a fired, clay elephant on one side and intertwined snakes -- the symbol of the medical profession -- on the other. The elephant holds the bow, ready to play the violin as one would play the cello.

"Reptiles, particularly serpents, are positive universal symbols that emerged in many cultures, religions and myths," Day wrote in her artist statement. "(They are) symbols of healing, rebirth, strength and eternity.

"The elephant is an image of great strength and a creature known for unlimited sensitivity."

Day chose her symbols to communicate the healing power of music.

Julie Anderson, the 25-year-old creator of a colored pencil botanic piece for the Strings show, is also a potter.

She teaches ceramics at Colorado Mountain College and works for Ceramic Design Group on Twentymile Road.

She moved to Steamboat Springs three years ago to intern at Laloba Ranch and decided to stay in town after the internship ended because of the small, tight-knit potter's community here.

She studied biology in college, focusing on botany, but minored in art. Though she spends her life throwing pots and carving intricate clay tiles, she began with drawing when she was a child.

This show gave her a chance to return to that part of herself.

She stripped the violin and covered it with a sanded layer of gesso. She spent painstaking hours drawing the floor of the California Redwood forest, carefully copying a photo taken on a road trip.

"I'm very scientific-minded and enjoy photorealism," Anderson said. "Something inside me thinks that I have to tell the truth -- make things real."

The front of the violin is drawn is vivid greens. The back of the violin is black and white.

From returning to drawing, she said, "I learned how much I like clay."

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