Photo Essays

The Wild, Handmade Guitars of a Man on a Mission from God

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Ed Stilley in his studio, from ‘Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stille’ (all images by and courtesy of Tim Hawley)

One evening in 1979, Ed Stilley, a preacher and homesteader in Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas, found himself feeling he had “no way out” after a deeply troubled period in his life. He fell asleep with a gun in his lap. He claims God then spoke to him in a dream, promising to “take care of the matter” as long as Stilley obeyed a strange command: make guitars and give them away to children for free.

When he awoke, Stilley put the gun away. Despite having none of the training or supplies needed for instrument-building, he began what would become a 30-year practice of hand-making guitars, ukuleles, violins, and dulcimers from scrap wood and found objects. He carved most of them with the words “True Faith True Light Have Faith in God” and, as he was instructed, gave them away free of charge. His spiritual despair — the exact cause of which he’s never made public — subsided.

X-ray revealing the insides of Stilley’s “Butterfly Guitar,” with a circular saw blade used to create harmonics

In 2011, after hearing about Stilley on a local TV station in Missouri, photographer Tim Hawley became enthralled with his story and eventually befriended him. By placing ads in newspapers, he also tracked down dozens of the recipients of Stilley’s divinely inspired guitars. A new book, Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley, compiles the striking photographs Hawley took of the Ozarkian craftsman’s world: His hand-built barn and chicken coop; the creeks of rural Hogscald Hollow; 40 of his 200 handmade instruments; and the 85-year-old Stilley himself. 

Each of Stilley’s sculptural creations is “a piece of interactive art that is a cross between a banjo, an old barn, and a well-worn bible,” as Hawley, an LA-based commercial photographer, writes in the book. Each instrument takes about 100 hours to make, and they sound as unique as they look. They’re examples of folk art at its purest; the products of an imagination childlike in its innocence, and creativity untainted by self-interest, formal training, financial pressures, or any of the other usual trappings of an artist’s life.

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Detail of a dulcimer Stilley adorned with marbles

When he was six, during the height of the Great Depression, Stilley’s father left him, along with his mother and six siblings, giving them a brutal farewell: “You can just root, hog, or die (an old idiom about self-reliance). The resourcefulness Stilley was forced to learn shines in his cobbled-together guitars. In X-rays of these instruments, Hawley reveals their intricate inner workings: internal reverb systems made from screen door springs; pot lids and valve springs attached to metal truss rods, making for wild, oscillating tonalities. Stilley made the instruments from thick slabs of hard wood not usually used for string instruments and sawed them into strange, jagged shapes like butterfly wings and lopsided trapezoids.

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Stilley’s Butterfly Guitar

When Stilley told the story of his epiphanic dream to Kelly Mulhollan, of the folk duo Still on the Hill, she wrote a song about it, capturing Stilley’s Ozarkian twang:

… One day I heard the Lord confide, ‘Shed your vanity, shed your pride, and I’ll see you make it to the other side.’ / Pork chop bone whittled for a bridge / tail piece made from a rusty ole hinge. / Door springs, saw blades mounted in the middle,/Lord loves the sound when them ole parts jiggle, / sawed off frets from a braising rod, carved on the top … True Faith True Light Have Faith in God. / Well, I built a guitar and hundreds would follow, for nearly every child in Hogscald Hollow.

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An X-ray revealing the intricate inner workings of one of Stilley’s guitars
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Ed Stilley’s hand-built barn, chicken coop, and workshop in Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas 
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One of Stilley’s early works
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The creek at Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas
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A 12-string guitar Stilley created with materials he found
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A fiddle Stilley made for his wife, Eliza

Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilleyout from Press Syndication Group, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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