The Violin Maker
May 14, 2005 San Diego, CA
A warm desk lamp illuminated a scarred workbench and a man hunched forward, listening attentively to a struck pitch fork and a plucked string. Violin pieces scattered about in various stages of completion surrounded Raymond Wise, a local violin maker. Beckoning him with a knock on the window of his North Park shop, I gestured to meet me at the locked screen door. He emerged from the dark room to greet me through squinted eyes. Stumbling for words, I spilled forth a jumble of “pleases” and “if you wouldn’t minds” for permission to look around and chat a bit. I had been curious about this workshop for a long time, having passed it often on neighborhood walks. “Awwwwl–right…Do whatever you want..” Raymond replied in a coarse but welcoming tone.
As I poked through and photographed things around the shop, an eight-by-twelve foot room, Mr. Wise continued with his work–finishing repairs and plucking and tuning the completed instruments. We talked about his childhood on a farm in North Dakota, learning to play the violin at age thirty-five, his grown children, and his twenty-two years of work as a guitar and violin maker, taking a few minutes to admire some of the instruments. A dozen violins and violas were hung from hooks on a high bookshelf, casting shadows on a large oil painting of a serious boy in a blue suit and knickers. Twenty or so hard-shell cases of stringed instruments lay in a row on the floor awaiting attention.
Each violin requires about 150 hours of labor and sells for $3500. Raymond pointed to the wall and started talking about a red violin he made a couple of years ago as a showcase piece. His young daughter painted a gold decorative trim as a finishing touch on the extraordinary instrument. This one was clearly not for sale. I asked the host if he’d seen the film “The Red Violin”..hoping there was some interesting story or point of inspiration to be revealed. “No…I just had a 3/4 size scrap of maple and I like the color red….”
“Look under the cabinet. You’ll have to move some of those cases. There’s a really old half-size down there in a blue case.” On my hands and knees I was able to reach way back under the bureau for a dusty blue canvas case. Inside, I found a 200-year-old, child-sized violin from Germany…light and delicate, rich in tone, and physical beauty….a piece of history kept hidden away so customers would stop asking to buy it. Then, Raymond explained to me where his materials come from. He handed me bows made from pernambuco wood from Brazil. The bow hairs came from Mongolia and Argentina. Violin tops are made of spruce. The back and sides are from maple imported from the Italian and Swiss Alps. A small sign in the window read “violin maker’ in chinese..such a big world outside the cozy, lamp-lit shop
Mr. Wise asked me why I was interested in photography, about my background in music and if I had “run out of electricity yet.” Sensing that my time was about up, I announced that I was finished. Raymond showed me out, taking a break himself…setting his Chinese coffee cup on the mailbox and opening a section of the sunday paper. I thanked the violin maker, while our eyes adjusted to the sun and told him that I would stop by and say hello from time to time. I see him often now, taking a rest in front of the shop, facing the wall while reading the paper and smoking. I startle him with a salutation and sometimes receive a smile in return, my new neighbor.