When Ed Stilley, 85, started making stringed instruments more than three decades ago, he had no idea what he was doing. He’d had no instruction and barely any materials with which to construct them besides some scrap wood from the sawmill where he worked.
But Stilley was on a mission and wouldn’t be stopped. A deeply religious man, he’d gotten the idea during a dream. The way he tells it, God instructed him to start making guitars and to give them away free of charge to kids.
For the next 25 years, Stilley made guitars of every size and shape, as well as dulcimers, violins, and other stringed instruments, from his home in Arkansas. He learned to soften the wood so he could bend it and figured out that a guitar’s neck needs a metal rod through it so it doesn’t break. He collected saw blades, springs, and other cast-off items and incorporated them into his designs. The finished results, as photographed by Tim Hawley in Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley, which was published in December by Press Syndication Group, are as spectacular as they are unusual.
“They sound like they look,” Hawley said.
Hawley heard about Stilley through a story on a local TV news station after moving to Springfield, Missouri, in 2010 from Los Angeles. The pair became fast friends in 2011, and Hawley soon started searching far and wide for the craftsman’s creations. By reaching out to friends and putting ads in a local paper, he was ultimately able to track down 40 of them. In addition to photographing the guitars with their owners on location, he also shot the instruments in a makeshift studio. Against a neutral background, the images highlight each guitar’s idiosyncrasies.
“Some people treasure these items and are very proud of them. Others pulled them out of barns, covered in dust and dirt. I thought that was part of the whole story. Rather than clean them up, I wanted to let that be,” Hawley said.
Due to health issues, Stilley hasn’t made new instruments since 2005. But Hawley was desperate to have one, and after several people turned down his offer to buy one from them, Stilley finally gave him a guitar.
“His guitar, I swear, would rather play gospel music more than any other. It doesn’t want to play jazz. I play a gospel tune and it comes to life. Maybe there’s something in there.”