The Guitar As Prized Art

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Ellicott City Amateur Wins Eminent Award

April 26, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Each of the six electric guitars on display, crafted from such exotic woods as cocobolo and padauk, could easily have belonged to one of the greats.

If only Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and Chet Atkins could show up to claim them, press the sculpted wooden bodies to their torsos and let their fingers bring them to life.

But wait. Are these actual musical instruments, or just for show? After all, there is an almost otherworldly quality to their glossy physical perfection.

And check out the name of the manufacturer, gracefully inset in mother of pearl. Who has ever heard of Eliasson?

A 10-member committee of judges at the Johns Hopkins University, that's who.

Blown away by his contest entry of those half-dozen instruments, the group selected amateur guitar maker Paul Eliasson of Ellicott City as the 2009 winner of the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts, which carries a $1,500 award.

"These are guitars that people would kill to own," said Craig Hankin, director of Homewood Art Workshops at the university and one of the contest judges. "They are all magnificent, yet they are functional and not just aesthetic objects. That's the magic of it all."

Eliasson, who will graduate from Hopkins this spring with a degree in political science, was not totally surprised by his win.

"I thought I had a good chance based on the originality of my entry," he said, adding that Hankin had good-naturedly told him that "he was prepared to throw a fit if I lost."

A couple of committee members needed convincing that Eliasson's work is an art form and not a craft, Hankin said.

The arts professor said there has never been a comparable entry in the contest, which has attracted the traditional array of gifted painters, musicians, photographers and other artists in its 26-year history.

Named for a Chicago businessman and symphony patron who scattered 14 other prizes around campuses such as Yale and Princeton, the unusual competition is intended to recognize excellence in the arts - with a catch. Entrants, who must be graduating seniors at the university, cannot be pre-professional students in the arts and may not submit in a category related to their major field of study.

Sudler, it seemed, wanted to reserve the prize for well-rounded students who happen to be highly talented amateur artists. Eliasson fit the bill perfectly, Hankin said.

"What's really extraordinary is that Paul - who admires the work of such masters as Paul Reed Smith - is a master himself, and he's only 23," Hankin said.

Possibly even more incredible is the fact that Eliasson has no plans to be a professional luthier but will head to University of Baltimore law school in the fall. His older sister, Anne-Laure Eliasson, practices civil law at a firm in Philadelphia.

On a recent day at his parents home, Eliasson fingered an unplugged guitar in the shape of a violin, which was modeled after one that Paul McCartney plays. He recalled how he got his first taste of guitar-making in the eighth grade at Clarksville Middle School when he was given a kit by his father, Orn Eliasson, a pulmonologist in Baltimore.

"The idea of building an acoustic guitar with my dad seemed like fun, but it was a lot more hard work than I expected," he said. "But the end result justified the arduous process."

By his sophomore year at River Hill High, the AP art student was taking a second crack at making a guitar, this time from scratch. He said his dad assisted again, both of them neophytes with "a lot of books" to guide them.

"We were extremely anal about every single point, stressing over every little mistake and trying to correct them over and over," Eliasson said.

That high standard still applies, years after starting with the most basic tools and progressing to the well-stocked workshop in the basement of his parents' home that he uses today.

He has made 15 or 16 acoustic and electric guitars and has another dozen in the works. Despite that inventory, he said he isn't seeking commissions right now.

Nadia Eliasson, a language arts teacher, said her son has always been a high achiever. "We pushed Paul like all good parents do," she said. "But he is very demanding of himself."

Gino Molfino, chairman of the visual arts department at River Hill, has kept in touch with his former student since he graduated in 2004 and has seen examples of his work.

"I've played guitar since I was 6, and Paul's guitars are really incredible," said Molfino, who also serves as team leader for fine arts. "It was exciting to see that he'd found a way to apply what he was learning in design to something he is so passionate about."

To create his trademark style, Eliasson uses rare woods that are "extremely interesting to look at but seldom used" in guitar-making, he said. He discovered that layering different types of hardwoods and then beveling the edge of the guitar's body creates an accent with a lot of impact.

His methodology involves tracing his design from paper to plywood, then using that template to guide a scroll saw in carving the body. He estimates he puts about $500 worth of materials in each instrument.

Noting that he plays guitar but isn't a "Peabody virtuoso," he said that he's not as interested in the performing arts as he is the visual arts. Yet, he loves all kinds of music - from classical to classic rock to country - and makes the sound of his guitars a priority.

He is awaiting approval of a patent on a nut, which is the ledge at the upper end of the fingerboard that the strings pass over. To be named "The Eliasson Compensated Nut," it would allow a guitar to be tuned on a much finer scale, he explained.

"I invest a lot of myself in what I do," he said about his art. "It has to look professional and be an original-looking and well-playing guitar. It has to be perfect."

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