Curator Leo Mazow talks about “Storyed Strings” in his office, his guitar exhibit is coming to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts when the phone rings.
“Hello Lucy, can I call you back?” he says to the caller. It’s Lucy Kaplansky, a well-known folk-rock singer, one of the participants in the studio music sessions of “Stories Strings”. “She can’t wait to start recording,” he says.
Studio music sessions… in a museum? “There will be a recording studio in the exhibition, where we have invited a number of national and regional musicians to explore the guitar,” he says.
Mazow, Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane, curator of American art at the VMFA, is known for thinking outside the sound hole.
In 2019 he designed a working hotel room in the style of the painter Edward Hopper for the exhibition “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel”. He’s been working on Storyed Strings for a little over three years and feels compelled to exceed expectations, he says. “The Hopper project tells you a bit about my own attitude towards exhibitions. Like all curators here, I really want to animate the space.”
The first exhibit to explore the symbolism of the guitar in American art from the early 19th century (rare footage of the Carter family with influential mother Maybelle Carter), along with more than 30 rare instruments.
Throughout the exhibition, the visitor is treated to well-known imagery – such as Al Aumuller’s 1943 portrait of Woody Guthrie, depicting Woody Guthrie playing a guitar, with a sticker that reads “This machine kills fascists” – alongside historically important ones , but rarely seen works like 1855 painter Thomas Hicks’ ‘The Musicale, Barber Shop’, the earliest known depiction of an integrated musical group in American art. While there are icons – Bruce Springsteen, Josh White, Prince – there are just as many many ordinary people hold, hug, strum and pluck their axes.
Side lectures and events on topics ranging from guitar making to the music of Elizabeth Catlett are also planned during the exhibition’s run, and the museum has partnered with Starr Hill Brewery to produce a limited-edition lager called “Storyed Strings” — because guitars and Beer just seems to go together.
And then there is the recording studio. At the center of the show is a glass-fronted room built by local In Your Ear studios to accommodate accomplished guitarists at various times during show times. Lucy Kaplansky will be collaborating with the likes of popular blues rocker Tommy Emmanuel, Wilco’s Nels Cline, Charlottesville bluesman Corey Harris and, from Richmond, The Jayhawks’ Stephen McCarthy with ace picker Charles Arthur. The individual sessions of these and other players during the exhibition will not be announced in advance, Mazow informs. “They will just happen randomly. For visitors, it will be the luck of the draw.” The recordings will be published on the museum’s website and YouTube channel.
In essence, these musicians will be a living part of the art on display.
“Each of them will play a few songs and talk to us about what the guitar means to them and how it works as a means of expression in their music,” says the curator, who is a semi-gigging Fretsman himself. “What does it mean for the guitar to tell stories?”
Leo Mazow sat down with Style Weekly to talk about the ambitious “Storyed Strings” and how the guitar – in all its forms and uses – has become such a powerful symbol in both American life and the arts.
Style Weekly: What’s so important about the guitar?
Leo Mazow: As a colleague says, it’s the storyteller’s companion. But that’s only in relation to the music. To my knowledge there has never been an exhibition examining the guitar in American art and it is important to study it because the guitar plays such a prominent role in the stories we tell about ourselves.
Sometimes the stories are quite direct, like the pictures we’re about to show of Leadbelly or a person in a labor camp during the Depression. Otherwise, the guitar is more of a motif, a formal problem that an artist is trying to portray. The exhibition dealing with these two types is divided into ten categories, one of which shows European prototypes for the guitar, instruments such as the cittern, which appear in some paintings, and the mandolin.
People love to pose with the guitar and, as your exhibition shows, visual artists like to use it as a prop.
We have a section, Guitar Welding Women, that features women using the guitar as a symbol of achievement or accomplishment. This continues to the present day in which a handful [female] Artists of the 20th and 21st centuries have used the guitar to control male exploits in rock music, for example. Much earlier, in the early 20th century, there were a number of images of women using the guitar to convey a sense of gravitas and a sense of their own status as someone who works with their heads and hands.
How about the guitar as a status symbol?
There is a section called Cold Hard Cash that addresses this very aspect. There’s going to be a guitar in this segment that’s really meant to be seen, with all the carving and mother-of-pearl inlays, more than it’s meant to be played. To this day, much like cars, a beautiful guitar can say something beautiful or privileged about itself.
At the same time, as you show, it has also helped those who are not so privileged.
Yes. For example, the guitar plays a predominant role in black art and culture. We show how by the late 19th century the guitar had replaced the banjo in popularity because the banjo was a racially upset charge. The guitar became one of the most important instruments in navigating blues territory. And it was a new idea – the whole idea of using a musical form to express for the sake of expression, to say things that would otherwise not be heard, not taken seriously, in any other medium.
Does the exhibition explore the use of the guitar as a phallic symbol?
It’s more of a pop culture phenomenon. We have a few album covers that address that. What we find much more is the guitar as an extension of the individual playing it. This can be done simply by the subject hugging or hugging the guitar or holding it like a parent would hold a child. We show excerpts from a 19th-century diary in which a person with a guitar behaves as if he were with a friend – like a mental extension of himself.
You said you learned a lot putting this together.
That was quite a journey for me. I’m a good guitarist. And I’ve written about the importance of music in art and sound in art, but I didn’t know much about the guitar as a street music instrument, say, or as a money-making tool for the blind, or what makes a guitar a Spanish guitar.
They call the live-in-studio performances the Richmond Sessions, a nod to the Bristol Sessions.
Everyone uses the word sessions because it’s reminiscent of Bristol. For example, In Your Ear has their amazing Shockoe Sessions. The Victor Talking Machine Company sort of invented country music with the Bristol Sessions, and the themes in those songs ranged from courtship and Christianity to trains and transportation to mortality.
It is my hope that these Richmond Sessions, like these 1927 recordings, will engage the guitar in a thoughtful exploration of personal relationships, national identity, folk religion, sense of place, gender and sexuality. I might not say, “Hey, let me talk to you about my love-hate relationship with the United States” or tell you about my shifting sexuality, but I can play a song about it and I’m comfortable talking to you about it in the space of Guitar.
Storyed Strings: The Guitar in American Art runs October 8 through March 19, 2023 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Further information on the exhibition and accompanying lectures and events can be found at https://vmfa.museum
Guitarists participating in the “Richmond Sessions,” which will be held at undetermined times during the exhibition’s run, include Yasmin Williams and Corey Harris. Nels Cline, Tommy Emmanuel, Stephen McCarthy and Charles Arthur, Lucy Kaplansky, Joel Harrison and Anthony Perog and Seamus McDaniel. To follow the progress of the sessions, go to youtube.com/virginiamuseum