For a period of about 25 years, Ed Stilley—a faithful man from Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas—crafted handmade instruments and gave them away for free to children. Each guitar, ukulele, fiddle, mandolin and dulcimer is charming in its own right, and many are engraved with loving, inspiring messages. Stilley’s mission? To give the gift of love, inspiration and to pay it forward. The instruments aren’t perfect, but they certainly brought joy to the children who received them.
Recently, Culver City, California-based photographer Tim Hawley completed a beautiful, 200-page book that tells Stilley’s story and features engaging photos of his unique guitars. Hawley’s photos—which range from x-ray images to details and overall shots—showcase the labor of love that went into each and every one of Stilley’s instruments. We caught up with Tim to hear more about the project—check out a Q&A and some final images from the book below!
Can you tell me about Ed Stilley? How did you meet/get involved with this project?
I was actively looking for a personal photographic project that would involve people and objects. I had some thoughts as to how to develop the project and was keeping my ear to the ground for strong and compelling stories. One day, while in the Midwest, I was watching a local news station and they did a segment on Ed Stilley and how he created an unknowable amount of instruments over a 25 year period and gave them all away for free. The instruments were just incredible objects to look at. Sort of a cross between a banjo, a barn and a well worn Bible. I knew I had found my project, now I had to find the instruments and people who had received them.
What is your photographic style?
My style transcends categories but I excel at product photography and still life. One visual thread that runs through my entire body of work it the tactile details of the things I photograph. I want the viewer to literally “feel” the textures and surfaces with their eyes.
How does this project fit into that style?
Just look at the images of Stilley’s instruments and all those cracks and crannies, rough hewn edges and carved out letters. Mr. Stilley no longer has the strength to create any more instruments, so I wanted the viewer to be able to know what they would feel like in their hands.
How did the book come about? Was that the idea from the get-go, or did you start shooting and decide to make a book later?
The book was the idea from the start. I wanted to photograph as many of Mr. Stilley’s creations as we could possibly find and document them for posterity. While his instruments are not “fine quality” they are entirely unique and show the dedication and passion of a true artist. By looking at the detail shots you can discern his progress and see the problems he ran into and how he solved them. I feel that his instruments are some of the finest American Folk Art ever found and since they are playable instruments, they are also interactive art!
Were there any challenges involved with this project?
Finding the instruments was the first and biggest hurdle. They were strewn all over the country. Most were found close to Eureka Springs, Arkansas but others were found in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, New Mexico and even all they way in Washington.
Do you have future plans for this project?
Thirty percent of gross receipts will go to Ed Stilley and his wife, Eliza, who are both in their 80s. The only retirement plan they ever had is their belief that “God will provide” so we are hoping that the book does well in sales and helps supplement their tiny Social Security check.
The book is an oversized hardcover (9.25″ x 12″) with just over 200 pages printed on heavy art matte paper stock. To see more of Tim’s work, or to see the full project, visit timhawley.com.