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Art Mize, luthier, makes stringed instruments sing

Art Mize restores stringed instruments. He also performs and teaches violin. He won the 2007 Homer Ledford Award for "artistic excellence and  dedication to Kentucky's musical traditions." He will perform at the airport and at The Kentucky Experience pavilion during the World Equestrian Games.
Art Mize restores stringed instruments. He also performs and teaches violin. He won the 2007 Homer Ledford Award for "artistic excellence and dedication to Kentucky's musical traditions." He will perform at the airport and at The Kentucky Experience pavilion during the World Equestrian Games.

Many visitors wheeling their luggage through Blue Grass Airport during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will be serenaded by live music. One group hired for the gig is called the Kentucky Trio: Nick Lawrence on bass, Ken Holbrook on guitar and Art Mize on fiddle.

"We'll be greeting them and farewelling them on heavy traffic days," Mize says.

Visitors will get a sampling of the sounds of traditional local music and enjoy Mize's virtuoso fiddle playing, but what they won't know is that in his working life, Mize is carrying on another fine Kentucky tradition.

So much for philosophy

Back in his student days, Mize thought he knew where he was headed in life. He'd earned a bachelor's in philosophy, a master's in classics and was pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He was preparing himself, presumably, for a life in academia, insofar as the demand for professional or even free-lance philosophers in the workplace is limited.

But then, one semester, he stumbled, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into his own version of wonderland. A music course introduced him to the world of revered Lexington stringed- instrument maker J.B. Miller, and at that point Mize's career path toward the ivory towers took a significant detour.

"Mr. Miller worked from his garage off Southland Drive," Mize says. "When I met him, he was in his 80s. I focused on him for a project in an ethnomusicology class."

Miller, a wonderful storyteller, was a bit of a natural philosopher himself. He'd formed his perceptions of reality over a long life that began in 1902 in Owen County and ultimately lasted 100 years. "I was interested in acoustics and I asked him if he would train me; eventually he agreed."

Mize spent two years apprenticing with Miller, developing a feel for various woods and an appreciation for the kind of wisdom that can't be taught in school. "I learned a great deal of technical sensitivity from his many years of experience, but the greatest lessons were life lessons about living simply, enriching long years with the joy of living around music and among musicians."

Now, 20-odd years later, Mize, 46, is a professional luthier, restoring and repairing stringed instruments out of his house on North Broadway. A picture of his mentor is prominently displayed on a windowsill in his workroom.

You know you're a luthier when ...

The word luthier might conjure up visions of Lake Wobegon and Garrison Keillor's Lutheran references, but it has nothing to do with Martin Luther. Luthier comes from the French word for lute, and it means someone who works on stringed instruments.

Kentucky is lucky to have a handful of notable luthiers. Some focus on making or repairing guitars, others on mandolins, banjos or dulcimers. Mize is first and foremost a fiddle-restorer, but as a visit to his shop reveals, he has taken many instruments under his wing.

"I work on violins, violas, cellos, mandolins, guitars, banjos, autoharps, dulcimers ... I've worked on a sitar, an oudh — like an Arabic lute — and Irish and Greek varieties of the bouzouki." The shelves of his small shop/workroom are filled with instruments that are as beautiful to see as they are to hear (in competent hands, that is). Some are for sale; others are waiting to be retrieved by their owners.

If a tree fell in a forest ... would it make a rich sound?

As a luthier, the former philosophy student now spends a lot of time contemplating a wood's essence.

"A lot of what I do in repair work is selecting maple or spruce to match the original."

He also uses willow occasionally, and ebony, rosewood and boxwood for fittings. Mize has certain repairs that are fairly routine. For example, the joint where the neck is attached to the body is a frequent trouble spot. Older violins can come unglued there after years of stress.

To make new bridges, the small pieces that hold the strings up off the body, he looks at the rays in the piece of maple, the "curl" or "flame" in the markings that tells a lot about the strength of the wood. A bridge has to be strong because when the strings are tightened day after day, there's a lot of force that must be absorbed. Mize orders European bridge blanks, then he shapes them to fit the curve of the particular instrument.

At this point in the discussion, he demonstrates a little of the fine tuning involved: "You can drop the bridges on the table to listen to the tone." He drops one bridge, then another. Yes, it's possible to detect the variation, just like pinging various glassware.

"There can be a half-step difference even with fine bridges. A higher pitch means it's denser and enables more artistry. A denser piece of wood is a better transmitter."

And in the world of stringed instruments, getting the right balance between the sound that's transmitted and the sound that's absorbed makes all the difference. "The bridge is right under the strings, doing a lot of the work," Mize says.

When asked about some of the more unusual instruments he has seen, Mize opens a Civil War-era violin case to reveal a violin with beautiful mother-of-pearl detailing around the edges.

"It was brought north from a Southern plantation. Someone bought it from the soldier, and it's been in the family ever since."

Violins clearly have a way of hanging around. Another violin was brought to him for restoration by a customer who'd bought it on eBay.

"I could tell it had once been a fine instrument. It had been in a flood and was warped horribly. It took tortuous methods to restore it to its former self. When it was repaired, the gentleman who owned it took it to a conference and learned it was Italian, from the late 1600s."

Finding wisdom in the workshop

Mize's interest in acoustics began when he was more into Play-Doh than Plato. He was raised in the "shape note" tradition of a cappella church singing. (Shape note notation is an alternative way to represent sounds that was designed to simplify choral singing.)

"It was a wonderful way to learn the sounds of the intervals in the scale," Mize says. A pivotal moment came on his sixth birthday: "Dad bought me a baritone ukulele."

He became proficient, and the family played music and sang together. A few years later, his father bought him a violin from the local barber shop. As the family moved from Laurel County to Illinois, then back to Kentucky in Woodford County, Mize kept playing.

He continued playing — and thinking about music and sound — through all those years spent poring over Plato and Aristotle, trying, he says, to "conceptualize what knowledge is and how it emerges."

But ultimately it wasn't an ancient Greek philosopher but his Owen County-born mentor, Miller, who helped him attain what turned out to the most valuable knowledge, "about living simply, enriching long years with the joy of living around music and ... the peacefulness of working with your own hands in direct service to others."

It's a Kentucky tradition that will carry on long after the last WEG visitors have boarded their planes and flown home.

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