Music Meets Visual Art in “Fantastic Fiddles” Print
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Johanna Welzenbach-Hilliard   
Tuesday, 01 March 2005 18:00
Although Steven Sinner is best known as an artist – making turned wooden vessels airbrushed in gold and silver acrylic paint – he also loves music, playing bass clarinet in the Black Hawk Community College Band and the Bettendorf Park Band. So when the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO) approached him about creating a work of art out of a violin for a fundraiser, it was a perfect marriage of two of his passions.

Unlike the majority of the nine artists selected for the fundraiser “Fantastic Fiddles,” Sinner didn’t paint his violin; he stained it on the sides and back with two different colors. “Since the back of the fiddle is made of maple, which is a wavy wood,” he said, “when the light strikes it, the color changes.” As I walked around the violin on display, it showed an array of colors, such as indigo, blue-green, and mauve, glinting in the sun.

Sinner gilded the violin’s front entirely in silver leaf with a chemical patina. According to him, the gilding was the easy part; doing the patina took him a week. As an expression of his regard for classical music, Sinner used the patina to put images of three different violin-concerto scores – by Saint-Saëns, Beethoven, and Bruchner – on the violin itself.

Deb Sandry, the QCSO’s development director, called “Fantastic Fiddles” the symphony’s “best-kept secret.” Although symphony season-ticket holders and concert-goers have seen the nine artistically embellished violins on display at every concert given so far this year, the general public might not be aware that these festively decorated instruments exist.

These unique works of art will be sold in a silent auction at the Symphony in Bloom’s preview celebration from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 3, at the RiverCenter. All but two violins have already been bid upon. QCSO decided to pre-sell the violins as a compliment to the artists for donating their time and effort. Interested buyers contacted the QCSO to bid a minimum of $1,200 on their violin of choice. Bids are still being accepted at this time, and at the silent auction, bidding will begin at $1,200. In other words, even if there are no interested bidders at the preview event, violins will still be sold.

Named “Fantastic Fiddles” by the QCSO board of directors, the project was presented by board member Joyce Bawden as a way to raise money for the QCSO Music Education Program. After reading an article in Symphony magazine on fundraising, Bawden looked on the Internet to further research the topic. Here she found that many symphonies across the U.S. have used this creative concept to make money for their organizations.

For instance, the LaPorte County Symphony Orchestra in Indiana hosted a special Valentine concert with “Vacationing Violins – a Noteworthy Exhibit” on display to be raffled off that evening. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra commissioned 12 violins to be painted and to tour Georgia beginning in November 2004, with a few violins raffled off at each tour venue. Even the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra hosted a fundraiser called “Art of Note” featuring eight painted violins.

Our own Quad City Symphony Orchestra commissioned nine area artists to paint nine violins, one for each decade of its existence. The violins were supplied to the artists in their unfinished, unassembled forms. Board members personally hand-delivered them to each artist. The artists had the violins in their possession for about six months, and finished them in September.

Bawden was enthusiastic about “Fantastic Fiddles.” “I just can’t say enough nice things about the artists,” she said. “They were very gracious about the project. I have been really impressed with the level of artistic ability in the Quad Cities.”

The artists, too, couldn’t say enough nice things about being chosen to paint the violins. Artist Corinne Smith said, “I had fun and I really appreciated being asked, because I consider the symphony to be a ‘high level’ group.”

Smith drew upon her background in painting and collage to create an explosively colorful abstract fiddle. She chose an interesting mix of purple, chartreuse, red, and orange, and she used textures ranging from rough matte to a raised floral pattern on what is possibly wallpaper.

She found, as did many of the nine artists, that the violin shape was a challenge to work with. Her paintings are “strictly 2-D,” she said, and moving to a third dimension was difficult. She found it hard to the paint the back side and keep the painting together (tying the back to the front).

Kathleen Van Hyfte, whose violin La Mer is featured on the Symphony in Bloom brochure cover, echoed Smith’s words. “The hardest part is the shape and trying to keep the composition all together without having to turn it constantly,” she said. However, she works in acrylic paints, which dry quickly, so she was able to work around the problem.

Because she considers the violin to be a traditional instrument, Van Hyfte wanted to do a traditional painting of the ocean and was inspired by Debussy’s composition La Mer. She finds the ocean to be calm and healing. In addition, she thought the symphony’s audience would appreciate a more traditional theme, and she wanted to be sure that her instrument would sell. Her violin is indeed calm and tranquil, painted in soft hues of blue and green with lavender, white, and purple for the clouds.

Susan Katz found the violin to be “extremely challenging.” “It’s that hump in the middle that throws the scale off,” she said. Katz wanted to create a design that was contemporary with the era in which the symphony was founded, so she chose early Art Deco. Using silver, gold, deep red, and gray for colors, Katz strove to bring the illusion of motion to her violin entitled Earth Song. “I think of music as having motion/movement,” she said. “I wanted to tie the two together.” Her violin has an electrical energy about it. There appear to be bolts of lightning and leaves swaying in the wind. She even painted a vine up the violin’s neck.

One of the reasons Katz accepted this unusual assignment was because her father played in the symphony years ago. She felt nostalgia for her father (now deceased) and painted the violin in his honor.

Akiko Koiso, a ceramicist, said the violin was “very small.” Before starting in ceramics, Koiso painted, but she was used to working on a large canvas. “Every aspect of a violin is very curvy, sensual,” she said. “I had to work in a small, tight area.”

Koiso used acrylic paint, handmade Japanese papers, and colored pencil to create her simultaneously graceful and austere piece. She used colors sparingly (predominantly gray with a complement of green and splashes of red and blue) and kept her oriental design simple, yielding an elegant effect.

“Originally I was going to add small pieces of clay elements, but because nothing was flat, I had a hard time incorporating them,” Koiso said. Although her work is untitled on the QCSO Web site, she did in fact name it Adagio to reflect its quiet, serene mood.

Unlike the artists mentioned above, Teresa Mesich did not find it difficult to paint the violin. “The paint took really well to the wood,” she said. She did, however, join the consensus by saying the violin’s shape is “unusual.” “I’d never really worked on a 3-D thing like that,” she said. “Once I had my idea, I just had to sketch it out and think of where to place the components.”

A figurative artist, Mesich likes to paint women. She painted the violin to reflect the personality of her paintings. That personality is bold and sensuous. She uses bright colors and she loves curves. Because the violin is “an extremely feminine shape,” she wanted to paint a woman on it. The woman’s curves coincide with the curves of the violin. Her shoulders and breasts fill the top half, her waist the middle, and her hips the lower half. She sports a bright red bathing suit and has full red lips, heavily painted eyes, and long black hair that flows up the neck of the violin in a braid.

Mesich wasn’t the only one to paint a female subject. Mardi Howell chose to copy one of the master painters who lived at the time the symphony got its start. She thought a Degas ballerina was ideal for the violin. “The ballet is so connected with symphonic music,” she said. “So I thought, ‘What better thing to portray music than dance?’”

Howell also found the violin shape a difficult one, but the ballerina’s figure fit nicely on her fiddle, which she named after the master himself. Also, working in oil paints as she does, she waited a long time for them to dry. Like Smith and Katz, she was happy to help the symphony with this fundraising project. “It was a privilege to do it.”

For three-dimensional artist Lisa Mahar, who paints furniture and found objects, the violin was not a technical challenge. As she said, “Painting and putting it together was more of a challenge than the shape.” She had to paint a bit, let it dry, and then be careful setting it down.

Mahar named her violin The Splendor of the Sirens. Like Mesich, the shape of the violin inspired her to paint a woman with her hair coming up the neck, so she painted a mermaid on the front and a “moth woman” on the back. On the sides she painted small pictures and symbols – a design that she calls “tattooing.” She used all colors of the rainbow in her work, and her pictures are filled with different kinds of images – from faces to fish.

Bill Wohlford is an accomplished sculptor of wood, so his challenge was a little different from everyone else’s: he needed an idea that would allow him to work in three dimensions on the violin. That is to say: He did not want to just paint it. Instead, he cleverly added three-dimensional figures of a man, woman, and child to the instrument.

Wohlford was given to believe that the silent auction would occur at Christmas, so his theme was a parody of “The Gift of the Magi” – O. Henry’s story of a struggling young couple who each sells a prized possession to buy the other a gift. The wife sells her long hair to buy her husband a watch fob, and the husband sells his watch to buy hair combs for his wife.

On his violin, entitled Marital Discord, the female figure is painting one half of the violin green for the male figure, and he’s painting the other half red for her, “and when they get to the middle, there’ll be a problem,” Wohlford said.

And where did QCSO get the violins? Jim Reck, owner of Reck Violin Shop in Coralville, Iowa, was contacted by Concertmaster Allen Ohmes to donate them. Reck said that finding the violins took him a while because the QCSO wanted unused, unfinished instruments. He made a few calls and cashed in some favors, and was able to provide the nine violins, which together were valued at $2,000. Impressed by the project, Reck was happy to support regional arts and music.

Reck also has a more personal link to the symphony. While a student at the University of Iowa, he played for the QCSO and he has maintained a friendly relationship with orchestra members over the past 25 years. A professional cello player, he occasionally functions as a substitute musician for the symphony. In fact, he played in the organization’s most recent concert.

Dennis Loftin, the QCSO’s principal percussionist and program-notes writer, said, “I wish he could play with us all the time. He’s an excellent cellist.” Alas, operating a music shop is a full-time concern, but Reck likes to play for the symphony at least once a year to keep in practice.

For more information on Symphony in Bloom, visit ( For further information on the Quad City Symphony, go to (

Sidebar: About Symphony in Bloom

The “Fantastic Fiddles” silent auction on the evening of March 3 kicks off the Symphony in Bloom (SIB) festival at the RiverCenter, running through Sunday, March 6. The public can admire a wide range of splendid gardens designed by professional landscapers, florists, amateur gardeners, sponsors, and volunteers. General admission is $6 for adults, $1 for children, or $5 in advance at the following locations: Green Thumbers, Iowa Machine Shed, Northwest Music Shop, Quad-City Times, Wallace’s Garden Centers, all Whitey’s Ice Cream stores, and Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO) headquarters. Tickets are also available by calling (563)322-0931.

The 2005 Symphony in Bloom gardens are many and varied. “Fiddlin’ Around” in the main concourse is a “larger than life” bass-fiddle-shaped garden featuring a pond, a bridge, and flowering plants. The “90th Anniversary Garden” displays the QCSO 90th-anniversary logo created completely with flowers. Relax in the “Sounds of Silence” garden by strolling under an arbor, down a flagstone path to a brook.

The “Oriental Garden Café” features the latest in Japanese and other Asian gardening, and the “Nine Fantastic Fiddles” garden is a violin-shaped garden created by the Garden Club. Here will be displayed the nine violins painted by area artists and commissioned by the symphony in honor of its 90th anniversary.

Don’t miss “Reflections in Art” – the quintessential art lover’s garden – and “Hosta Patch” – a tribute to old-fashioned gardens complete with a potting shed and water pump. These are but a few of the 19 gardens on display at SIB.

Beginning with its preview celebration on Thursday evening, SIB is hosting a series of special events for each day of the festival. On Friday morning, March 4, parents and children can enjoy “Family Time at SIB,” sponsored by LaFarge North America and Piper Jaffray & Co., and, later that evening, listen to the Quad City Youth String Ensemble and Bix Youth Jazz Band.

On Saturday, March 5, SIB offers “Toole Time,” a free seminar about new garden-tool products sponsored by Trissel, Graham & Toole. Also, help QCSO celebrate its 90th birthday from 5 to 8 p.m. Arrive during those hours and receive half-price admission and a special treat for the first 200 visitors.

The special events culminate with the Sunday morning Jazz Brunch Buffet sponsored by Quad-City Times Plus 60 Club and catered by Centro. There are two seatings, at 10:30 a.m. and noon, at the River Music Experience, 131 West Second Street, Davenport. The cost is $24 per person, and $22 for members of QCT Plus 60 Club. Also, artist Ralph Iaccarino will be giving live demonstrations at Art in the Garden – from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

– Johanna Welzenbach-Hilliard
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