By Robert Beck
On the few occasions that I have held a professional violin in my hands, I have been awed by the integrity of the instrument. It feels impossibly strong and light. Something of that size, complexity, and durability can’t weigh just a pound. I’ve eaten almond croissants that were heavier. You can feel the purpose, the energy. It is designed to resonate, and it responds to the air in the room, to the pulse in your hands. Touch it, and it speaks. Caress the strings, and it will sing.
I painted Bill and Molly in the living room of the fourth-floor walkup where they have lived for 44 years. Bill Hampton, who is 81, makes stringed instruments. That’s one of his gorgeous violins in his lap. Bill began his career as a young man in Kentucky playing music and making banjos and dulcimers, and now he has instruments in museum collections, including the MET.
The elegantly domed wood top and back of the violin are not bent into shape; they are carefully carved out of solid pieces. The outside is sloped to the edge, and the inside is scooped out to varying thicknesses in different locations—some just 3/32”—using a plane that fits the tip of the maker’s finger. There is a post inside, under the high-pitched end of the bridge, held between the front and the back by pressure from the strings. The bass end of the bridge doesn’t have a post, just a rib glued long-ways along the underside of the front. When the bridge transfers the vibration from the strings, its motion is a pivot from the end over the post. Those vibrations resonate throughout the body, moving the air and creating the instrument’s unique voice. Measurements are critical. Craftmanship is extreme. There is a lot going on that makes a good violin good.
Molly Heron is an artist, working in two and three-dimension. She has done a painting a day for years. She also is a photographer and Yoga instructor. She carried my French easel up the stairs, which I greatly appreciated.
There are many stories. The fine musical instrument maker and his path from Appalachia to the Big Apple. The artist and teacher, and the path that took her through Kentucky. Their four decades in an Upper West Side apartment. My paintings describe what I see and learn in my encounters, and this is as it was: a lovely afternoon with extraordinary people.
When I was done painting, we talked about art and music for another hour. Then Molly carried my easel back down the four flights for me.
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