Idaho Arts Quarterly » Southwest Idaho

Handmade Music

Luthier Lawrence Smart

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When most people think of physics, they imagine Einstein's hair, Newton's apple and their homeroom teacher's unquenchable thirst for polyester. Maybe they remember the first law of motion or the grace of general relativity theory, but what about Domenico Dragonetti, Jean Hotteterre and Adolphe Sax? They were physicists of a certain stripe, but theirs was a science of sound-waves, tone, vibration, frequency, pitch and resonance coming together with wood and metal to create music. Much of their expertise was mathematically based, but the real skill was in knowing how the slightest curve shaped an instrument's soul.

In a cluttered workshop off the main drag in McCall, Lawrence Smart is one of a handful of artisans keeping that skill alive. He is a luthier, an ancient term for "lute maker" that now applies to hand-builders of any stringed instrument, including Smart's specialty, the mandolin. Looking at photographs of his finished pieces, the delicate craftsmanship and blend of traditional and modern design are striking. In person, they are almost too beautiful to be played, though Smart insists he is merely a liaison between artists and their musical mediums.

"I have a hard time viewing myself as an artist," he said. "Real art people consider [what I do] a craft. But it's fun to be able to build something for an artist that's going to create. Whether they're really great or like playing alone in their living room, they form an intimate bond with the instrument. It's a tool for artistic expression, a tool that they'll potentially draw inspiration from, and it's nice to hear them play really good music on something that I made."

While attending Utah State University, Smart taught himself how to play fiddle, mandolin and guitar, cutting his teeth with local musicians and doing carpentry jobs to pay tuition.

"There was an evolution. I started to become a musician. I was interested in playing and fascinated with instruments, so I started picking up funky, broken ones and taking them apart," Smart said. This habit continued, and his current studio is hung with what he calls the "Central Idaho Museum of Bogus String Instruments." The collection includes a series of plastic guitars based on the designs of the great Mario Maccaferri (a favorite of Django Reinhardt), faux balalaikas made by his students and a pop can fixed to a guitar neck, which Smart affectionately calls a "canjo." They tell the story of a man with a sense of humor and a love for relics, especially those that demonstrate the energy and reverence he feels for his work.

"I love the tactile experience, and I have days in here where I can't believe I get to do this for a living-that people will actually pay me to whittle on wood!" Smart said, still excited after 15 years and almost 180 instruments.

Despite his natural affinity for woodworking and bluegrass, Smart's first job was in special education at a high school in Driggs, Idaho.

"It was a great ticket into a small place, the kind of place I wanted to live, and I really enjoyed working with the kids," he said. In 1983, he moved to McCall, another "small place," and after many years of teaching, he decided to take a leave of absence. Smart needed some time away, which translated into a four-month guitar-making workshop in Vermont. When he returned home, he quit his job and never looked back.

Over the years Smart learned by doing, combining an intuitive sense of musical physics with tenacity for the craft. One of his regular exercises was to attend the Weiser Fiddler Festival, an event he first experienced as "a wild hippie kid" and came to rely on for inspiration. It was there that he met Bruce Harvey of Orcas Island Tonewoods. Harvey was the foremost tonewood cutter in the country and came to Idaho exclusively for its spruce. He showed Smart how to spot useable wood from felled and dying trees in the dense forests surrounding McCall, and Smart now says he can tell a good piece from the stump.

His workshop is piled with Engelmann spruce and small supplies of accent materials like walnut, ebony, Brazilian rosewood, abalone and mother of pearl. Built in the 1920s, the structure has a modest view of a quiet meadow and every bit of interior space is covered with postcards, antiques, tools and sawdust. In the middle of the somewhat artful mess, Smart dons one of the many pairs of glasses lying about and works alone, making four to five pieces at a time for a waiting list nearly three years long. His clientele ranges from wealthy collectors to professional musicians to regular people who appreciate Smart's custom style. He spends a lot of time talking to interested buyers about their wants and needs and shapes the instruments accordingly. His tools are simple, his methods painstaking and his ultimate goal something just shy of perfection.

"In the golden era of violin making in Europe, the Italians made the most exceptional instruments. Just in the design they had so much flair, so much soul and spirit and depth. The German counterpart was technically perfect, but so perfect it had no soul that spoke out," Smart said. So he foregoes the convenience of hi-tech tools and assistants not only to ensure the craftsmanship of his instruments, but also to give them soul. And the more involved in the process his clients become, the better the result, even if all they tell him is that they want an instrument worthy of Nickel Creek's Chris Thile (one of the world's premier mandolin players and a recent customer of Smart's).

Seeing his creations in the hands of accomplished professionals and passionate amateurs alike, Smart is pleased with the enduring quality of his work but feels a constant need to keep growing as an artist, which he undoubtedly is.

"The first time someone wanted to actually pay me for [an instrument], that felt kind of like success, but I'm not sure what success is. I'm still growing with every instrument I make. It's an imperfect medium and I'm a human with a real capability to screw up, but I'm getting better at predicting what's going to happen," he said. "I'm trying to be here and make this stuff now. I realize that it's going to outlive me, and that makes me think I have a responsibility."

For more information on Lawrence Smart, visit www.smart-instruments.com.