Artists bring unique style to GuitarTown project

10-foot guitars set to be unveiled next week

May 22, 2012

They have different backgrounds, personalities, tastes and visions, but they all share a common bond - a love for art.

This passion will always unite them: They are the 10 artists who designed the 10-foot-tall fiberglass Gibson Les Paul sculpture guitars that will be on public display throughout downtown Waukesha as part of the Waukesha GuitarTown project.

They started as plain, white guitars when they picked them up at the end of February from the Key Westconsin restaurant.

Almost three months and thousands of hours later, masterpieces have been created.

With the guitars receiving a final protective coating last week, all that is left is to unveil the giant pieces of artwork next week at the GuitarTown Gala at the downtown Waukesha Rotunda.

"They're so different, but as a collection they're amazing and so unbelievable," said Jennifer Espenscheid, one of the 10 artists who recently finished her 10-foot guitar. "It almost brings tears to your eyes. There's so much imagination, which is very cool."

Sculpting his way

Some of the artists didn't have to transfer them too far to get clear-coated at Marshall Auto Body in Waukesha, while others such as Bill Reid did. He made his guitar come to life in his studio at The Prairie School in Racine.

Reid was approached by Chuck Wickler, a Waukesha-based artist who designed one of the 20 playable, showcase guitars, about the project.

Reid, whose specialty is sculptural metal fantasy pieces, uses a lot of animals in his work, including his guitar called "Harmonious Heronymouse Bush of Beasts." He finished the guitar, which has steel creatures floating from its sides and its base, in two weeks.

"I knew it would be a good fit for me," Reid said of the project. "It's a real privilege to be asked. You never know who will be looking at it during the GuitarTown (festivities) and where it could lead to."

Two sides of the story

Like Reid, Espenscheid of Bay View comes from outside Waukesha County but also had Waukesha connections. She helps design tattoos for George Wang of the Waukesha Tattoo Company.

Wang told her about the project and her submission was more than creative enough for the Waukesha GuitarTown Steering Committee.

Her guitar includes bone pieces and metal rods sticking out plus pieces of a railroad attached to the back of the guitar.

"It's probably not the safest," Espenscheid said with a laugh.

Her guitar is meant to display the journey and struggles an artist goes through. The front of the guitar is shiny, symbolizing the glamorous end product most people just see. The back, meanwhile, is more beat up with rusted barbed-wire and other artifacts attached to it.

"It shows how it's a painful labor of love," said Espenscheid, who graduated with a degree in architecture from UW-Milwaukee.

After graduating, she traveled the world doing murals and sculptural pieces and now has her own business.

When Espenscheid heard about the guitar project from Wang, she said, "It's hard to turn down a 10-foot guitar. It's been a lot of fun and it's nice that this has come full circle. I'm just so excited."

Guitar blossoms

While art has been an integral part of Espenscheid's life, Marcia Schneider of Waukesha, called herself "a late bloomer."

Schneider, a water colorist, has some of her works in Almont Gallery in downtown Waukesha and just recently became part of the permanent collection of art at the Waukesha Public Library.

"It means a lot to me," Schneider said of being selected a GuitarTown artist. "You go through all the ups and downs and some sleepless nights because you want everything to be perfect. But I can say that I'm satisfied with it."

Her guitar has a blossoming artist theme with a budding red flower as the focus. After researching Les Paul songs she found "Hummingbird" recorded by Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, in 1955.

With hummingbirds attracted to red colors, she used these two items as the centerpiece in her simple and clean-looking guitar design.

Les influences many

Tom Noll's piece was alsoinspired by the late-great Les Paul, but his design and Schneider's are drastically different. Noll incorporated 12 musicians - with Les Paul in the middle looking over them - who are each playing a Gibson guitar. He said he hopes to meet some of the musicians on his guitar.

It's an eccentric piece with lots of bright, splashy colors and much louder than some of the others.

"I wanted to make it very busy and add a lot of people to it and something that pulls in the viewers while creating a pretty aggressive design," said Noll of Waukesha.

This is Noll's style - his "Art that Rocks Series" through his Creative Bone Artwork's business depicts rock musicians showing lots of emotion. Throughout his career, Noll has sold more than 1,000 art pieces to people in many countries.

"It's very cool to realize that people are waking up to a piece of your artwork on their wall and something you did is creating joy to people around the world," Noll said.

Among the portraits that has given Noll the most joy was one of Les Paul - a painting he had signed by Paul when Noll met the music icon on his 93rd birthday. Noll, who also plays the guitar, said it's one of his "prized possessions."

This might now change thanks to his Les Paul-inspired 10-foot guitar, a piece that he devoted more than 200 hours to and painted at all hours of the day saying that at "4 o'clock in the morning was some of my most creative (sessions)."

"It was well worth the hours," Noll said. "I take a lot of pride in the painting and looking at it reminds me of how much work I put into it and how much fun it was. Now, I'm going to turn it loose to the world and hope that it fares well on the street corner in Waukesha."

Bringing family together

It was truly a family affair for the Guthries as Ryan, Jim and Wis Guthrie teamed up on their 10-foot guitar.

"We've never done anything together like this before," Ryan Guthrie said. "It was a neat family experience."

Ryan and his father, Jim, are no self-proclaimed artists like a number of the individuals doing this project, but art has always been important to Wis, 94, Ryan's grandfather, who was an art professor at Carroll University a number of years ago.

For their design, the three paid tribute to Les Paul's nickname "Red Hot Red" and included a harmonica on the guitar, another tribute to Paul.

Ryan, who has a background in clear-coating cars, said he clear-coated the guitar on his own in his garage.

Ryan of Waukesha said he lost touch with his father and grandfather over the years, but this project allowed him to reconnect with them. His father of Mequon would pick up Wis at his Waukesha residence at night and the three would then go to work.

"The guitar project brought us so close," Ryan said. "It was really cool that it brought us back together."

A speedy artist

While many of the artists grew up in the Milwaukee-Waukesha area, another artist, Gene Evans, is from Baltimore. Evans came to Wisconsin in 1996 and opened Luckystar Studio with his wife in Milwaukee in 1999.

Evans, a self-taught professional artist who works in an array of mediums, including painting, silk-screen and sculpture, said he has Les Paul music playing at his studio and like others, he drew inspiration from two of Les Paul's songs. In fact, he incorporates musical themes into many of his pieces.

The songs "Tiger Rag" and "How High the Moon" are incorporated into his design. Tiger eyes are blazing while the animal lets out a loud roar. The tiger, however, has human hands. Evans calls his style "comic book surrealism," which comes from his love of comic books.

Evans, who was probably the quickest person to finish his guitar - completed in 10 days - became interested in this project because of his interest in music.

"I've always loved music and if this project was designing a giant cow I think I would have avoided it," Evans said with a laugh. "When I heard it was a guitar I jumped at the chance."

Others who will unveil their 10-foot guitars next week are Ben Stark of Milwaukee, Ramona Audley of Oconomowoc, Jeff Seymour of Waukesha and Chuck Weber of Delafield.

Without Seymour, this entire GuitarTown Project might not have been possible as he was the catalyst behind the project and helped it get off the ground last year. Seymour, who specializes in plaster paintings, also helped in the design of the Gibson GuitarTown logo.

Stark is an employment specialist at La Casa de Esperanza and has painted murals throughout the building and in various schools and locations in Milwaukee and Waukesha. Audley is a retired art teacher, sculptor and pop art painter.

The inventor

Many of the artists paid tribute to Les Paul in various ways. Weber didn't base his design off a Les Paul song, but on Les Paul, the inventor, who is credited with inventing the solid-body electric guitar.

Simply getting out some paint and his brush could have been an easy way for Weber to do this project, as he is a well-known two-dimensional painter who recently had his Ryan Braun MVP painting auctioned off on the Channel 10 Great TV Auction.

His portraits, figurative works and plein-air paintings, which he does with an impressionist style, have also been honored with more than two dozen national awards.

Weber's guitar is a Steampunk design, a genre that often features anachronistic technology, or futuristic innovations as Victorians might have envisioned them."I'm a 2-D portrait artist, but I was thinking about a theme and Les Paul was a tinkerer, who was an inventor and a genius," said Weber. "Everyone seemed to like the idea and while it was a lot of work, I had a lot of fun.

"I combined lots of ingredients."

In fact, the guitar looks more like a well-oiled machine or the inside of a clock. Weber used bicycle gears and chain, brass and copper sheeting, Kawasaki motorcycle transmission gears, pressure tank gauges, a lawn mower belt drive, solar cell, skateboard wheels for the tuning pegs, a sprinkler hose, vintage hand tools, copper and brass rivets, fiber glass, oak and black walnut, trumpet parts, wood filigree, Plexiglas and a full-size piano keyboard for the neck of the guitar.

Like the other artists, Weber used almost the entire two-and-a-half months to finish it. And like the other artists, he is thrilled with the finished product and can't wait for the rest of the public to see his creation.

"I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I wasn't going to let it go until I thought it was up to a certain level," said Weber.

Like Noll, Weber didn't begin to fully bring out his passion and individual art talents until after he defeated cancer.

"I'm not in the disappointing business. When the committee offered me the opportunity to do this, I didn't want to give them anything but my best."


Who: Waukesha GuitarTown

What: Opening ceremony for Waukesha Gibson GuitarTown - unveiling of 10, 10-foot guitars and 17 playable guitars will be on display at their final locations in downtown Waukesha.

When: 5:30 p.m. June 1

Information: See a listing of all the GuitarTown activities at


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