Considering Beth Ireland’s “Personal Essay” Ukulele Through the Eyes of Art History
March 14, 2017
Beth Ireland is a working wood artist living in Rosindale, Massachusetts, when she is not travelling around America on various initiatives. In the Fall of 2016, Beth agreed to make a ukulele for me, with all creative decisions left to her discretion. She completed the work early in 2017, while simultaneously teaching and building a ukulele and strum-stick manufacturing studio with her sister. This essay is a consideration of this object in terms of its historical artistic roots.
Ukuleles originated in Hawaii in the late 19th century, based on similar Portuguese instruments brought by sailors. King Kalakawa was a big fan, and encouraged its use in the arts in Hawaii. The “uke” first showed up on US shores at the Panama Pacific International Exhibit in San Francisco in 1915, and it was almost instantly a popular success. Portable, easy to play, and relatively inexpensive, it was a perfect creative diversion in a time of loosening constraints on mixed-sex socializing but limited mass entertainment options. Gathering to play and sing songs together was an affordable and fun pastime. Tin Pan Alley songwriters picked up on the trend and spread it more widely through sheet music that included ukulele tablature, long before guitar tablature was even considered.
Originally, and most often still, ukulele bodies have the familiar figure eight shape. The Kamaka company pioneered the pineapple shape in the 1920’s. Beth Ireland’s ukulele is historically rooted in that shape, but is also recognizable as related to the evolved shape of Magic Fluke ukuleles produced since 1999. However, Beth’s ukulele is asymmetrical, unlike both of those precedents and most other ukuleles. Asymmetrical guitars bodies have been popular since at least the early Rock and Roll era, for ergonomic, aesthetic, and tonal reasons, but asymmetrical ukulele bodies have been less common (with the exception of the cigar box era of the early 20th century, when, for a brief time, enthusiastic amateurs colored outside the parallel lines of market-driven convention in designing their own ukuleles. This approach is currently experiencing a revival on the craft school circuit, in part due to Beth).
Perhaps because it is difficult sometimes to try to explain something as it is, human endeavors often come to be explained in terms of what they are not. In the case of art, until the late 20th century, many observers felt the need to argue about a distinction between art and craft. Some still do, but the argument is tiresome by now. The historical distinction between art and craft, based on differing goals, methods, and education, no longer applies. As the director of a major craft school expressed succinctly regarding the two tribes of makers, “At this point, they all went to the same art schools”.
Beth Ireland’s “Personal Essay” ukulele is both art and craft. In terms of craft, Beth was a professional wood turner for over thirty years before deciding to return to school to pursue her MFA. She is nationally recognized as a fine wood worker. This ukulele is essentially utilitarian – a tool for a musician. Unlike the neo-Arthur-Godfrey plastic body of the Fluke, the materials and techniques would be recognizable to Hawaiian makers 100 years ago. Beth’s uke is finely executed, demonstrating her mastery of craft. The pattern created by the lines of text provides a pleasing contrast to the underlying wood grain.
But this ukulele is also an artwork. Most of the flat surfaces on the ukulele have been ink-inscribed with a personal essay about how Beth became an artist. It is written in Wing Ding, a Microsoft-originated alphabet based on alternative symbols. Artists have experimented with adding language to visual art since the Cubists started pasting text into their pieces in the early 20th century. Decoding the ukulele is a labor of love and patience. While Beth used digital Wing Ding symbols, she inscribed them by hand, and some of the symbols are hard to interpret until one has the context of the symbols around it. One feels very much like a child with a secret decoder ring, or a romantic childhood vision of an Egyptian archeologist. And there begins the playful mystery of shared exploration between maker and viewer.
The viewer/decoder is a kind of voyeur or sleuth, trying to unravel personal secrets. Decoding is a kind of ritualistic experience, which evokes Monks poring over old manuscripts for religious insights. In this case, the task is complicated by the addition of tuners over some of the text, as well as other obstacles. One is reminded of interpreting broken hieroglyphics, with their fragmented revelations.
I will not reveal the “secret of the tomb” inscribed on the ukulele. Suffice to say the narrative takes place entirely when Beth was a child and tells how she became a creator through her experiences with her gang of friends. Through the glacial process of decoding, one feels properly hazed and initiated into the close-knit group Beth leads. The experience is fundamentally optimistic.
On the other hand, the inscribed writing on the ukulele continues inside the body of the ukulele, with much of it visually inaccessible, such that even the most dedicated of sleuths cannot learn everything Beth has documented. Though told through a straightforward linear narrative, ultimately it is a Modernist psychological tale, based on insightful glimpses into the interior, with some pieces of the story missing.
Having examined the exterior carefully, in order to learn the “rest of the story”, one would need to strip the strings, maybe break the neck, remove the pegs, pry open the body, expose the underlying skeleton, and ultimately destroy the work. Even doing this, one might not find what one would hope or expect- in fact, maybe additional meaning is impossible. That would be very Post-Modern. However, this artwork lives with me now, and my wife assesses it as “so damn cool”, so performance artists seeking exploding ukuleles need not apply.