by Matthew Crain
Peter Cree is a master woodcarver, master furniture maker, master antiques restorer and refinisher. People the world over know him for his series of “art guitars,” let’s call them: he discovered how to decorate an acoustic guitar’s soundboard (blasphemy to a traditionalist) without ruining its sound. See them for yourself at creestudios.com. And watch a speeded-up version of his process on Youtube.
For three hours in his living room on an October afternoon, we talked about Garfunkel inspiring Simon, Transcendentalism, his family ties to John Woodhouse Audubon’s cross-country trek, San Francisco snobbery, the problem of ego in the teacher/student relationship, and what you do after your dream is dead and you bet the farm and lost.
Peter Cree is lean and wears his hair cut short and combed forward. He sat leaned forward on an ottoman with his fingers laced together between his knees and his glasses pushed up on his head. He didn’t hold back when he cussed. He didn’t mind (but I did) when the dog would wander in to sniff my crotch. He took me upstairs to his office and played some of his compositions on soundclick.com and to the laundry room to show me an important sculpture, but mostly we stayed in his living room where there were several musical instruments: a guitar with a Celtic design featuring knots, braids, and animals from The Book of Kells, an Irish harp done up in a similar treatment, and a quarter-sized, electric 12-string. I didn’t let on that I’d played eight hours every day for 15 years, because then I would’ve had to explain why I quit and the problem of trying too hard. On the wall was what looked like an ice axe with a deadly blade and a sharp rod capping its end. The barrel was carved into a strange, complex, curved braid that looked delicate yet unbreakable; I was listening to him brag about how he can’t read music because, well, he never needed to: he plays by ear. And when he said this, the intricate barrel of that axe made sense: he carved it by ear, if you will: it is a melody, a song in wood.
I didn’t think I’d need a tape recorder—boy, was I wrong—and Mr. Cree talked too fast for my pen and my notebook. So here is what I remember of our conversation.
Is he a patient man? Yes. What about mistakes, say, when you do something you’ve done countless times and then up and do it a shade too much—what then? His fingers broke apart and then fitted themselves back together: “The art I do is like climbing a mountain: miss your step, you die.” What about accidents, your hand slips, the phone rings—he shook his head: “You have to know how to get from A to D without getting tangled up in B and C.”
Was he afraid the first time he scraped the finish off of an expensive Martin guitar? No. What if he’d scraped too much and broke the skin? He said that he wouldn’t have done that, and he looked at me like I suggesting the unthinkable. Has bravery ever led him into something he couldn’t fix and he had to start over? He grinned, “Those places go near the bottom where people can’t see them.” But a guitar’s face shows everything: the finish has to be perfect. He shrugged and said that sometimes you have to be perfect. I said I brought all this up because of what’s on his homepage, the bit from the end of Walden. He clapped his hands and laughed. “That’s the kind of patience I’m talking about.” And for better or for worse it perfectly describes Peter Cree.
“The Artist of Kouroo” by Henry David Thoreau.
There was an artist of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, it shall be perfect in all respects, though I do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and he searched and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromises with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stick in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star: and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times.