Gallery encourages sounds of music

It’s not uncommon for curators to warn patrons against touching works of art on display. Curators of the dA Center for the Arts’ latest show, however, are encouraging the opposite. “Artisans of Musical Design,” led by 2 of Claremont’s own, beckons  visitors to get up close and personal with the musical crafts on exhibit through January 26.

Handcrafted guitars hang from the ceiling, beckoning for a strum, while wooden drums await eager hands in the gallery’s center. Glittering accordions and cigar-box guitars also adorn the gallery, handmade and available for playing, despite their ornate appearance.  

“I love the idea of seeing that fine line between a functional object like a musical instrument that can be used to produce art being art itself,” said Michael Kotzen, one of the exhibition curators and a Claremont resident. “A lot of the instruments in this show straddle that line perfectly.”

Interactivity isn’t the only atypical aspect of this unique art display, now in its second year. Artisans of Musical Design represents a special collaboration of artists across the region equally passionate about their music as they are about the melodious art pieces they create.

“It’s all about building community, and helping to support this unique group of [craftsmen],” said Martin Maudal, curating the exhibit along with Mr. Kotzen.

The musical engagement began last year without the fanfare that now surrounds the exhibit. The one-day showing took place in a back room of the Pomona gallery as a favor to Mr. Maudal by gallery worker Chris Toovey, who employs Mr. Maudal at his tree trimming business. Mr. Toovey had become familiar with Mr. Maudal’s wood-worked guitars, many made with the scraps gathered from tree trimming.

Mr. Maudal and fellow artists displayed their instruments during dA’s annual artisans boutique in December 2011. As a part of that sale, the craftsmen came together in a spontaneous, improvisational jam session, encouraging visitors to grab one of the hanging instruments and do the same. Mr. Toovey remembers the extraordinary cacophony of sound that followed.

“You have didgeridoos and all these different styles of drums getting into a groove. It was very tribal,” Mr. Toovey recalled. “It was remarkable.”

The exhibit is now upgraded to front-room status. Gallerygoers were given a special treat last weekend when the artists came together in a special opening-night performance, melding the sounds of their instrumental displays, from washtub bass to didgeridoo.

“It was awesome,” Mr. Maudal said. “It was every bit as cool as the first time.”

Among the artisans involved in this season’s show are a number of Claremont notables such as Richard Barnes of the Folk Music Center and Kirk Delman of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, who has several joint projects with Mr. Kotzen on exhibit.

One of Mr. Kotzen’s notable drums stands in the middle of the room slightly masked by its design, resembling a table. Mr. Kotzen finds pleasure in the delight on people’s faces when they begin to drum on the wooden tabletop.

“I really like to surprise people,” said Mr. Kotzen of hidden chambers he conceals under the table’s top. “I enjoy watching to see their faces as they hit a different spot and discover a different sound. It’s the most fun.”

Mr. Kotzen’s craft began like many other instrument craftsmen, out of necessity. Unable to find the Cajon box drum he sought, introduced to him by Dorothy Chase of the Folk Music Center, he set out to create his own. He did, and now he makes a living off making drums for others.

“It’s been immensely rewarding to work with percussionists to fashion an instrument that suits their playing style and the type of music it will be used for,” Mr. Kotzen said.

JT Whitney, founder of Whitney Drums, also found reward and profit in his woodwork. Mr. Whitney channels his running imagination into his instrumental masterpieces.

“I have always had wild ideas dancing around in my head,” Mr. Whitney said. “If my mind was otherwise idle, it would be designing and fabricating something—motorcycles in my youth, musical instruments later on.”

Mr. Whitney put his imagination and background as a woodworker and a musician to use with the creation of his button chromatic accordions, several of which are on display at the dA along with numerous drums including a drum set. Years later, when Mr. Whitney noticed a bandmate carting heavy drum pieces back and forth to practice, his imagination ran wild once again.

“My mind started dancing with ideas that would improve on conventional drum and hardware designs,” Mr. Whitney said. “This led to what is now my primary business, Whitney Drums.”

Mr. Maudal found inspiration in the trees surrounding his Claremont Village abode. Using scrap wood collected from his tree trimming work, Mr. Maudal created his luthier business, Carolann Guitars. A line of guitars made out of trees along Ninth Street hang on display at the dA, along with a piece of wood used to create his prized pieces.

“It’s really fun to slice [a piece of wood] open and watch it magically transform,” Mr. Maudal said. “It’s like alchemy. It’s magical.”

Mr. Maudal and Mr. Kotzen find it equally enchanting to watch gallery visitors discover their own inspiration within the artists’ works. Mr. Kotzen says that he, in turn, inevitably learns something new from the experience.

“There is always at least one person that plays an instrument in a way I haven’t heard before. I think, ‘wow, I built that thing, but didn’t know it could produce that sound,’” Mr. Kotzen said. “It’s fun to watch people explore.”

The artists will come together in another improvisational jam session for the closing of the exhibit on Saturday, January 26, at 5 p.m. All are invited to come take part in that jam session or in one of their own during gallery hours throughout January. The dA Center for the Arts is located at 252-D Main St. in Pomona and is open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. and on second Saturdays from noon to 10 p.m. For information, visit or call 397-9716.

—Beth Hartnett


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