Mike McElwee has a collection of art pieces that embody his deep appreciation for the beauty of lines.
A menagerie of guitars line the walls in Mike McElwee’s workshop and music room in the barn next to his home. McElwee has been playing for decades, but these days the Jasper resident shifted focus from playing gigs to paying homage to guitars through multi-dimensional sculptures that reflect the power and literalism he admires in art and in life.
“The thing I’ve always been able to relate to is guitars,” McElwee said, who at one point played professionally with Pendragon, a blues-based rock band that toured the southeast. “Guitars are intense, they’re sensual, and elegant. You can tell they were designed by men because they’re made to look like women. Take the Stratocaster; It’s unmistakable that that’s a woman’s shape.”
It was about a year ago when McElwee delved into the world of guitar sculptures, and he now has a series of six that are on display in “O” Gallery in Nashville. Barring “That Feeling We All Look Forward To,” the outlier of the group that’s an explosion of silver steel and electric blue (and incidentally his favorite in the series) the palette is earthy. McElwee uses a combination of old barn wood, 16-gauge steel, and copper in each design.
Each piece is labor intensive, and most have taken over 100 hours each to complete. McElwee estimates “That Feeling We All Look Forward To” took more than 200 hours – but he said every element of his work has intention and purpose.
“I don’t like symbolic art,” he said. “I like literal art. I like art that represents what it is because it is what it is.”
He pointed to “Frequency 175,” made in the body style of a Gibson 175. The body is 100-year-old barn wood with curved steel angular pieces that echo curves of the guitar’s shape.
“All the curves are intentional and all the cycles in this piece agree,” he said. “I have a deep appreciation for the beauty of lines.”
McElwee said his love of lines, and the intensity of and intention in them, he learned from another passion - hot rods.
“I guess I’m an extreme guy,” he said as he pulled up a photo of a man driving a hot rod engulfed in flames - a fire burnout popular in the 1970s.
“Look at that,” he said. “That’s intense, and I love it. I mean, if someone offered you a Smartie would you eat just one? Why eat one when you can have the whole pack? I want the whole pack, man.”
To get more specific, McElwee said he wants his work to have the same vibe as “rat rods,” exaggerations of old hot rods that incorporate pieces from different cars and trucks. They look unassuming, unfinished, and rusted out, and like they could fall apart at any second.
“My art is in the spirit of the rat rod,” he said. “They represent what they are, and that’s it.”
Independence, freedom, ingenuity, and self-expression are all words that come to his mind when McElwee thinks about what he loves about the rat rod.
“All those things, and it’s got that undeniable cool factor,” he said.
Other pieces in the series include the “Relicaster,” which incorporates antique tin roofing in a scale model of a Fender Telecaster; the “Squid-O-Caster,” with its copper barbs and “protective body armor,” a.k.a. the pick guard; The “Serendipitous Strat,” and “In Search of the Wuji,” a harmonious representation he describes as “a transcendent state of all space, time, matter, thought, existence,” and of, “oneness and union before any division took place.”
McElwee has pieces outside the series that are as intense and passionate as they come. The “Gitsum Flying V” is a scale version of Gibson’s famous Flying V covered in leopard print with hand-painted Triple 7s and red dice tuners, and the “Hellbound Dobro” is a wicked piece with a green skull and flames he airbrushed himself.
While McElwee is forging ahead with his own art, he laments what he sees as a gradual dying out of skill and attention to both artisanship and the art of attention. Take airbrushing, which he’s done since the 90s, and hand-lettering. He sees those skills as being devalued and replaced by technology-driven vinyl wraps and applications – and when it comes to music, McElwee said people don’t appreciate it in the way they used to.
“The internet has undervalued everything,” he said. “Music isn’t worth what it once was to people, and it’s definitely because of the internet. Man, I remember getting Sgt. Pepper and just pouring over it, but music is wallpaper to people now.”
Ironically, this musician-turned-sculptor said these days he doesn’t listen to a lot of music in his down time, but looking ahead wants to find that intensity in life to drive his inspiration and work.
“I know it sounds odd,” he said, “But when I listened to music a lot there was nothing else; I was completely absorbed in it. It wasn’t just background music. So, I guess I feel like I understand it from a technical space and am in a different place now. I don’t want to be entertained. I want to be moved and feel passion.”