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For some years I have been making, along with my normal guitars, a series of art guitars; these are fully functional musical instruments which also have artistic work carved and/or inlaid into their upper bouts. I limit such work to the upper bouts because this doesn't interfere with the normal sound-producing work of the guitar; or at least it does so minimally. Three years ago, through the intermediation of Richard Glick of Fine Guitar Consultants, I received a commission from Mr. George Famiglio of Sarasota, Florida, for a unique set of matched six and twelve string guitars with some specific artistic design work on them. Mr. Famiglio was at a point in his life in which he was wishing to commemorate an important personal transition, and he was seeking a way to celebrate this threshold event in a tangible and artistic way. Being a guitar collector, he was open to doing this through a lutherie project.

Mr. Famiglio, Richard Glick and I spoke a number of times via 3-way telephone to discuss the concept and sensibility the client had in mind, and how it might be conveyed artistically. Mr. Famiglio spoke to me of his life; he said that one of its important present concerns, or themes, was about the process of crossing a threshold from one thing/place/level to another; or transformation of one thing into something else that was different, better, or more free, or more evolved. The central theme, it was clear, was to be one of not just superficial change, but metamorphosis. And this, it soon became apparent, was to be represented with allegorical figures.

The image of the court jester came up repeatedly in our discussions. It was an apt symbol for lightness, inconsequentiality and funniness, but which also contains their opposites: depth, consequence, and weight. In the course of these discussions, Mr. Famiglio also kept returning to the image of a turtle emerging from its shell and becoming a rabbit. Clearly, if an creature of swift independence coming out of some kind of protective and hardened but no longer useful shell was to be the main theme, then the jester, the turtle and the rabbit were to be the main images. Finally, Mr. Famiglio sent me a packet of Xeroxes of images of Picasso's cubist-period work, which style Mr. Famiglio was particularly attracted to, and in which aesthetic he hoped my design work could and would be finally executed. I was to create an allegory of coming-out or metamorphosis, in cubistic style, for him.

I thought about these things for some months, and ultimately sent Mr. Famiglio some preliminary sketches of my concept of his theme. He approved them. The Famiglio Project Guitars are the final result. Each of these designs, in their final forms, represents compilations of some one hundred and sixty separate elements, techniques, procedures and materials, and each took some sixty hours to execute.

I want to offer you my description and explanation of the thematic and design work of the Famiglio Guitars. Each depicts a jester. In one the jester holds a looking glass; in the other the jester holds a scepter whose top is a rabbit's head.


The jester is a traditional image for a being that is outwardly absurd, funny, irreverent, facetious, and intellectually and emotionally lightweight. But while the jester wears an idiot grin for public view, underneath that he can be quite serious and deep. The jester is an echo of much earlier images of the essentially contradictory human figure -- such as the Greek character Cassandra who, while not herself funny in any ribald sense, spoke serious truths that others laughingly disbelieved. To be not seen, heard or understood is the essence of tragedy, and the jester is an essentially tragicomic figure. He embodies both the smiling and frowning masks which are the symbols of legitimate theater. He is a figure of contrasts and contradictions.

Accordingly, of the two jesters depicted on the Famiglio guitars, one is smiling and one is frowning. This is fitting. Both jesters are wearing masks. This is also fitting, as jesters are creatures of the theatre who also are appropriate figures for projecting the superficial aspects of things while at the same time masking deeper essential qualities that everyone knows are there but are momentarily out of sight. This is suggested in that while these particular jesters are looking straight ahead at the mirror and the rabbit-head scepter, they are also looking straight back at the viewer in ambiguous Picassoesque style. They are hinting that their stories pertain to you, the viewer, also.

The turtle is the icon for slow uninvolved ploddingness. The jester with the mirror is looking into it, at himself. He's certainly seeing only himself and seems interested only in himself. And he is grinning and pleased at what he sees. In this way the jester is the embodiment of narcissism, in which one is aware of only one's own image. Being protected inside one's impenetrable shell of self-reference is a metaphor for the turtle. The idea of a turtle, which I had originally discussed with Mr. Famiglio, is not in fact directly depicted by any actual image of a turtle. It is instead subsumed into the character of the mirror-gazing jester, who is as insulated from anything outside of himself as a turtle is. The jester is the turtle. He is happy and smiling to be inside his protective shell against awareness. He is self-absorbed. Even his cap suggests his inner, circular and loopy world. He is not going anywhere, except in circles. Even his mirror, the one solid thing he is connected to within a sea of [also round, but insubstantial] soap bubbles, is circular.

The mirror itself, with its abalone shell frame and mother-of-pearl "glass",
is intentionally flashy and shiny. It's the kind of object a child would delight in. But the jester's looking-glass frame doesn't completely contain the mother-of-pearl "glass". There are spaces above and below the "glass" which reveal an ebony underlay. These are seen as black arcs. They make the mirror more "artistic" by giving it additional depth, line value and texture. But they also suggest the dark blind spots at the edges of the narcissist's field of view.

The rabbit is one of the most common symbols of fast, decisive and directional movement. Others are lightning, certain birds and cats, and arrows. The second jester is holding a rabbit's-head scepter. He is not viewing only himself, as the first jester is. This second jester is looking ahead, outside of himself. He is pointing in a forward direction, away from himself, with his left hand. He is outwardly directed. Even his hat hangs down directly, without circumlocutions. The combination of his pointed index finger and cocked thumb says "Bang, gotcha!" He is extroverted and involved; no turtle would ever say this. This jester is the rabbit emerging from the turtle's shell. He is going that-a-way, and giving a thumbs-up sign while doing so. Interestingly, he is not smiling, like the turtle-jester is. It is a truism in life that the people whose focus does not extend beyond themselves seem the most pleased with themselves; they are untroubled by the pulls and demands and nature of the external world. It is just as much a truism that those individuals who break out of their shells and have an awareness of the larger world around them, and who are in touch with the complexities and ironies of it, have more reasons to not smile all the time. Reality is sobering. Awareness is serious. It is awareness and mindfulness that separate the fool from the wise man, regardless of the costume either wears. The wise man carries the burden of his awareness, but goes ahead nonetheless.

These truisms are echoed in the character of the objects the jesters have in front of them. The "unruffled" jester with the mirror is gazing at round, smooth elements: the looking glass and the closed fist. Even his smile-mask has rounded edges. The feet-on-the-ground jester is facing an irregular, complex rabbit's head shape that has interesting angles, lines and curves [parenthetically, if you want to be a rabbit and go places, you have to have your feet on the ground]; his partly open hand with the pointy thumb and index finger presents a more complicated shape than a rounded, closed one does; and even his frowny mask is more sharply angular than the other, smiley, one.

THE SOAP BUBBLES: Both jesters are surrounded by "soap bubbles", the lightest and prettiest things that will float on air. They are a pleasure to see and delight the child in us. However, no matter how colorful they are, none of them live for more than a minute. These contrasting realities are part and parcel of the world of the jester.

THE WORK: Each of these designs represents assemblies of some one hundred sixty separate parts, techniques, procedures, and materials. These include (1) all the carving steps required to execute each design, including relief, recessed and intaglio work, (2) inlays [the black areas under the caps and the black at the top and bottom of the mirror are inlaid ebony veneer; also, the rabbit's head has five separate inlays; finally, there are invisible reinforcing inlays under parts of the design], (3) making, rounding, engraving and gluing twenty-two contoured and engraved mother-of-pearl "soap" bubbles for each jester, (4) incising-and-texturing work of the jesters' caps and stylized clothing, (5) incising of the hands, fingers and fingernails, eyes [including eyebrows and corneas], throat and bottom-of-body lines, (6) the mask string, (7) the soundhole rosette itself, and (8) finishing in French polish.

All the relieved wooden elements in these designs are cut from the selfsame guitar tops. No other extraneous wood whatsoever has been glued on. Please observe the unbroken continuity of the wood's grain lines at every one of these places. Those separate materials that have been glued on and in are ebony, rosewood, mother of pearl and abalone shell.

All cutting, carving and incising has been done strictly by hand, with surgical scalpels and Japanese carving tools. Cutting of the mother-of-pearl bubbles was done with a jeweler's saw and their engraving was done by hand; their shaping and polishing was done with hand files and a Dremel Moto-tool.


The rabbit's head is cut from the self-same wood as the guitar's face, as is true of all the relieved features. It comprises of six elements: (1) the rabbit's head itself, in which the flopped over ears with ball-ends mimic the jester's hats, (2) inlaid rosewood eyes, (3) an inlaid Paua abalone nose, and (4) two inlaid mother-of-pearl incisors. The offset of the eyes give the rabbit head a sort of goofy, doll's head look which matches the sappy-jester motif and contrasts with the serious-jester one. Also, note the flat circular nose and the spherical eyes: they are like that intentionally; the latter lends an organic realism to rabbit's face, while the former denies this, suggesting instead a button-nosed doll's face.

The ebony inlays under the jesters' caps are there to represent the caps' insides. This is a touch that is intended to suggest depth in an otherwise flat field; the caps would look very two-dimensional, and less visually interesting, without these dark spots.

The jesters are revealing their left hands. It is the left hand, which connects to the inner world of intuition, feeling, and creativity. No matter how foolish, narrow, or unaware a man may seem, all is not lost so long as that connection is there. Also, the word that originally designated left-handed human beings is "sinister". It is very jester-like to pair something sinister with the intuitive, creative and feelingful.

The abalone shell looking glass frame is slightly proud of the mother-of-pearl mirror, which is thereby slightly recessed. I thought this gave the mirror a more realistic texture. Since it is the "grinning" jester who is holding the mirror, I placed a soap bubble right on his elbow, suggesting a collision with his funny bone.

After much thought, I decided to make the "soap bubbles" out of mother-of-pearl, which I rounded so as to suggest spheres in relief. Other contenders for the material were abalone shell, wood, silver, colored plastics and ivory, but each had a drawback. Best of all, mother-of-pearl has a chatoyance, a pearlescence, in which light bounces off the "grain" with a lovely shimmery and glittery quality which changes as you look at it from different angles. Just like real soap bubbles.

These images, with all their parts and pieces, exist on four separate physical levels of their "canvases". It was thought appropriate that something rendered in cubist style should have depth and texture comparable to that which real cubism can convey. The Famiglio guitars depict an allegory which is expressed in relieved, flat, inlaid, carved, glued, textured, undercut, incised and, lastly, recessed design work.

©2010, Ervin Somogyi, all rights reserved.
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