The Big Bang, 2005
By William “Grit” Laskin

For many guitarists, a few mother-of-pearl dots on the fretboard to mark the regular positions are perfectly satisfactory. For others, something very simple—a flower, a family crest, a favourite constellation—is all the custom inlay they desire. Then there are clients like this one. Over a nine-month period, documented by over sixty printed pages and numerous phone calls to and from his home in Europe, was one of the most wide-ranging and in-depth client conversations of my career. And that’s saying something. I am lucky enough to deal quite regularly with wonderfully thoughtful clients who become deeply engaged in the process.

This story begins with the first phone call. My client made it quite clear that he was going to want every square centimetre of the neck covered with art. He was telling me I had permission to fill the canvas. But with what? Key phrases such as “possibilities in combining the real and the surreal, the figurative and the abstract” began to fill our lengthy and fascinating discussion. The word deconstruction made its appearance in the early emails, as did pointillism and pixellation, the digital bitmaps visible in an image. Also at this early point, he described some of his favourite inlays of mine and why they appealed to him. Words like self-referential and playfulness started to show up. Thankfully, this use of language helped me determine some of his sensibilities, which certainly comes in handy for knowing how to approach a subject as a design emerges.

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As our discussion progressed, it became clear that this was a person capable of being profoundly moved by art, someone who seemed to crave the task of finding the type of symbolism and meaning in art that communicates successfully. I learned that he had favourite painters (René Magritte, Roy Lichtenstein) and a favourite photographer (Andreas Gursky). He even had favourite works by these three, which I duly noted. We agreed that I would make an appearance in the design. At length we explored how I might “flow” the story, his wish to “evoke the primary materials,” and the importance of humour and irony.

At times our emails veered off into philosophy. At other times we compared impressions about the layered meanings in a certain artist’s work. We spoke of colour balance and movement and story structure and perspective angles. Clearly I am providing you with a highly truncated version of our deep and lengthy conversations. What ultimately emerged from those many months and many pages of emails was a clear picture of how my client thinks, how he views and analyzes the world, and how that fuels his music and his appreciation of art.

Was this a cumbersome and time-consuming process for me? Absolutely not. This is one of the great pleasures of my very personalized approach to guitar inlay. I’m allowed into my client’s world, their life, their mind. Then, knowing them to this degree, I can more easily create something they will feel deeply committed to. At least, that’s my goal, every time, with every client. And with every suggestion or idea this particular client offered, he also offered assurance that ultimately he wanted me to have complete creative freedom in encapsulating his/our ideas. In fact, he very specifically asked that I layer into the design meaning and symbolism that would require time and contemplation to understand.

My mind was spinning with ideas and concepts. For days I allowed anything and everything that occurred to me mental space to breathe. I reviewed our emails and my scribbled notes, underlining key words and phrases, especially those that were repeated. Still, the concepts were too broad, too open-ended. I had too many options. I needed to focus. I began by drinking in all I could find about my client’s two favourite painters. I was already well acquainted with Magritte, as I too had long been fascinated by his enigmatic Surrealist images. I was not as familiar with Lichtenstein’s Pop art, but for a couple of famous exceptions. In both instances it was pure pleasure for me to have the required task of exploring art.

One particular Magritte work was my client’s standout favourite: L’Empire des lumières. I placed that scene of a nighttime street lit by a single light under a daytime sky as the first item on the list of likely elements. Lichtenstein wasn’t so easy. I was certainly intrigued by his giant canvasses of tearful 1950s comic-strip women and cartoonish explosions, but I had no immediate idea about how I’d incorporate any of them. “Symbolism,” “self-referential,” “playful,” “pixellation,” “figurative,” “surreal,” these were the guidelines, the descriptive links that I was mentally clicking, but so far they weren’t connecting me to anything tangible. I added some other possibilities:

Myself—but what’s my role?

Magritte himself?

Lichtenstein himself?

One of my own inlays as a framed work of art? (I liked this concept and underlined it.)

Well, that was a bit of progress.

I was idly flipping through a book on Lichtenstein that I’d purchased, looking at paintings he’d titled Explosion and Whaam! and Varoom!, when a phrase jumped into my head: soup of ideas. These were words my client had used, and though it wasn’t a usable concept per se, it did start a chain of connections in my thoughts that went something like this: soup of ideas, primordial soup, beginnings of the earth, beginnings of the universe, the Big Bang. And when I landed on that last thought, the general term for the origin of our universe (and everything it contains, obviously), I saw in my mind’s eye a Lichtenstein-style exploding BANG! At that moment, the words “Oh! This is interesting” popped into my head.

In an instant, I had a vision of a Lichtenstein-inspired explosion, somewhere near the centre of the inlay, with things flowing out of it—emerging from the Big Bang—to the left and right. Carrying that thought to the next logical step, I naturally asked myself what should be emerging. In the accepted theory, the universe’s Big Bang was the source of all matter, all the building blocks of any object or substance with mass. (This kind of information fascinates me. I’ve been an astronomy nut since at least age ten, and when my parents offered me the choice of a telescope or a guitar for my thirteenth birthday, I agonized over the decision, alternating visits to the science store and the music shop for weeks. In the end I chose a guitar, but I often wonder what might have happened, where life would have led me, if I’d chosen the telescope.) So, what should be emerging from the Big Bang was pretty obvious: I create stories out of stone and shell. I could show these materials flowing out of the BANG and ultimately transitioning to scenes at each end of the neck. Yes.

The Big Bang-7

 

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But I have dozens of varieties of these materials. How was I to show them all—a rainbow-like mix of colours? Alternating vertical bands, like the printout of a spectrograph? (A spectrometer measures the properties of light wavelengths over a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and enables astronomers to determine the material substance of distant stars.) At that moment, I recognized an association with another set of building blocks: the binary code. When that message was conveyed to my conscious brain, barely a fraction of a second passed before I was seated at my computer Googling the binary code for the alphabet. In no time at all, I found what I was after:

***

S – 01010011

H – 01001000

E – 01000101

L – 01001100

L – 01001100

***

S – 01010011

T – 01010100

O – 01001111

N – 01001110

E – 01000101

***

I would have the binary representations of these materials flowing out of the BANG. To represent the zero, I would use a light shell; to represent the one, a darker stone.

My attention now turned to the scenes that would occur at either end. As is my habit, I considered the headstock area first. At this point, I knew I would somehow incorporate Magritte’s L’Empire des lumières. Also, at my client’s request, I would be making a personal appearance and perhaps so would one of the other artists. If I were viewing a painting, I thought, most often it would be at a gallery. So the Magritte could be on a gallery wall. What kind of wall? A gallery’s standard plain white wall would make for a boring inlay. Perhaps I could make it a brick or a stone wall. Check. Continuing with the gallery concept, I wondered if there was a way to show another room. If so, it would provide the space to add more characters and more elements.

The Big Bang-11

Since all this designing and playing with options was occurring in my head, it made manipulating the elements supremely simple. I moved myself and the painting in various directions within the space. And while playing in this way, I hit on an interesting idea. If I moved myself downward into the fretboard, I would have the space to create an upper opening in the wall. The opening would offer a view into the next gallery.

Who or what to put there? Almost as soon as I began picturing Magritte or Lichtenstein, an amusing idea took shape. If I depicted myself looking at the Magritte, why not have Magritte viewing one of my works? That made me smile. I very quickly realized that for this to work, for the viewed work to be visible, Magritte would have to be shown from behind. I found photos of him dressed almost exactly like the bowler-hatted men he often painted. In the end, I borrowed one of these iconic men and inserted him into the story. To add another subtle element to this scene, I decided to have Magritte’s character admiring an inlay drawing of mine that was the preparatory work to a design that itself depicted other artists: Egon Schiele and Jackson Pollock. I imagined my client enjoying the challenge of working that out.

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At this point, I felt that I’d thought out all the preliminary work this scene needed. But just as I was preparing to turn my attention to the scene at the opposite end of the neck, my gut signalled that the story in this section needed to be more interesting. At first I was stumped. What else, after all, could someone be doing with a painting in a gallery but looking at it? I had no immediate answer, so I sat down for lunch and pondered. When I finally stumbled on the solution—or at least the road to it—it struck me that it had been staring me in the face, so to speak, the whole time. I was being entirely fantastical with my Big Bang concept, so why was I so tied to reality in the headstock scene? Why couldn’t something impossible be occurring?

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I portrayed myself as seen from behind, beginning to fall into the painting. My head was disappearing into the canvas, which I hoped my client would interpret as I intended—a visual metaphor for an effort to deeply understand the creative process. This conceit had the added benefit of giving me the perfect solution for the scene at the opposite end. I would show a blank canvas with the front of my face beginning to emerge. This would be the completed story arc: a deep understanding of art becoming the inspiration behind one’s own creative efforts. I also imagined the explosion, the BANG, as the physical centre of the concept. If I had lifted up the inlay design like a large piece of paper and folded it down the middle, the place where my face was appearing in the blank, untitled canvas would perfectly align with where my head was disappearing into Magritte’s canvas. Details like that are a major source of satisfaction for me and confirm that there is internal logic to the layout, even if no one else notices.

My client, you’ll recall, asked me to imbue the design with layers of symbolism he would have to decipher. None of what I have written here was conveyed to him at the time. One day I will have to ask him for his own interpretations. I wonder how close they’ll be to my own.

A parting note: I marked the fret positions with enlarged computer cursors cut from nickel silver. To confirm the cursor’s particular pixellated shape, I simply kept enlarging the image on my screen. Borrowing a computer symbol felt like the most appropriate echo of the illustrated binary code.

You can pre-order: Grand Complications: 50 Guitars and 50 Stories from Inlay Artist William “Grit” Laskin on Amazon.com which is due out November 15th, 2016

Have a look at our current issue of “American Guitars”

Featured Interviews with Joe Bonamassa, and Greg Howe as well as  Luthiers Gabriel Currie from EchoPark Guitars, John Monteleone, and a look at Benedetto Guitars after 48 years by CEO Howard Paul. The Photographers Vault by Derek Brad of his shoot of Joe Bonamassa at the State Theatre.

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