Music speaks to Memphian Nancy Apple in many ways, whether it’s new lyrics for a song, her fingers twanging the guitar strings on a smoky stage, dishing up a stream of music as a DJ, or making her deft hands fly over piles of colorful bits as she makes her “Guitart.”
For people who “get art,” and find the combination of “guitar” and “art” clever, her brand of Guitart is an unforgettable name. So are the detailed works that has been creating since the mid ’80s.
Apple finds or accepts donations of stringed instruments and their cases — guitars, violins, cellos, mandolins, ukuleles and more. With the ones she cannot rehab for musicians, she makes art of the battered, cracked and forgotten pieces.
When she has an instrument ready for her art, she browses through the “found art” she has plucked from roadside trash piles, dumpsters, yard sales or her own history.
She touched one guitar as she explained where she acquired decorations from her family’s history. She remembers stories and uses her art to tell them.
“I’ve always been told I was one of the keepers of the family’s memories,” Apple said.
The items she finds are fastened to the foundational instruments to create a mood and a message. Some works honor the musicians who’ve inspired her. Tucked into different pieces are images of Bob Dylan, Ann Peebles, Carla Thomas, Johnny Cash, Teenie Hodges, Elvis and Memphie Minnie.
Others honor her heritage as the granddaughter of Arkansas farmers.
“There’s something of yourself that you put in them,” she explained, pointing to the details in her intricate artwork. “… If you really look close, you can see there’s so much there.”
The complexity makes viewers stop to examine the works, and Apple has laminated tags attached to each artwork to explain the piece’s origins and message. The message varies with the tidbits: There’s a partially completed paint-by-number Jesus. Computer keyboards are taken apart and the keys saved. Fragile dessicated leaves make lacy patterns glued and shellacked to the instruments. Her mother’s delicate collection of pinned butterflies adds to a girly theme. A small mule collar frames another instrument. A shrine draws the eye in a Mexico-themed piece.
A work she calls “The First Girl in Space” has a rocket, swirls of bright beads and a doll who embodies her childhood dream of being an astronaut.
For her, art is everywhere. She toured an old rotted building just before demolition and came away with armloads of prizes for her art and isn’t bothered by the mess of dumpster diving. When she sees items stacked by the road for the trashman to take away, sometimes she can’t stop her foot from hitting the brakes.
She talks ruefully about how she can’t resist adding new elements and can’t bear to throw something interesting away, like a carved wooden guitar case that begs to be touched and displayed.
“I’m a third-generation hoarder,” she said.
Once she has all the pieces she needs, Apple creates three-dimensional assemblages with a theme. Sometimes Apple will lay things out like a puzzle, and other times she just starts and sees where her whimsy leads her.
“I can work all day in my pajamas,” she said. “I have my ‘work pajamas,’ with paint and glue all on them.”
She prizes bright bits like plastic trinkets, old earrings and brooches, small dolls, plastic soldiers, elaborate metal lids, Masonic pins, golden sconces, her grandma’s old buttons, a TV remote, mirrors, stray dominoes and even swatches cut from an old handtooled leather purse.
One guitar has military medals and a honeycomb-grouped batch of bullet casings lined up along the neck in a piece that honors military service. She debated whether it was disrespectful to use the medals in her art, but it bothered her more to see them thrown away as if the soldier’s efforts amounted to nothing.
Another instrument has a rusted outdoor temperature gauge from Choctaw Butane Gas Co. fastened to the neck. A battered paintbrush was the inspiration that serves as the “hair” for a rapper’s face, complete with gold teeth and dangling swag adorning an acoustic guitar.
Yet another guitar has bright Mardi Gras beads and shiny glass rocks glued on in curvy swoops that appear often in her art. “They call this my swirly works,” Apple said. “Top me, it’s just a study in turbulence.”
Most of her work sells for about $90-$375, although favorite pieces are priced higher because it’s harder to part with them, she said. She does eventually let go, because she has kept only two Guitart pieces for herself.
When she finally parts with her favorites, sometimes customers and friends who buy them laugh and say, “You can come visit them.”
She’s just happy to see the artwork going to homes where they will be loved.
“People are a little more appreciative of this kind of art than they used to be,” Apple said.
Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to email@example.com.