GuitarTown strikes another chord — this time in Waukesha schools

Chris Kuhagen
As Maddie Roubik (left) works on the front of St. Joseph's 10-foot guitar for the Waukesha GuitarTown project, Abigail Sheetz and Michael Naze work on the back of the guitar.
Published on: 6/2/2014

Abigail Sheetz would fit right in with music icon and inventor Les Paul.

"I like being creative and inventing new things," Sheetz said. "It's very fun to me."

So it's no surprise that Sheetz, a sixth-grader at St. Joseph in the Waukesha Catholic School System, had a role in helping design the school's 10-foot guitar as part of the ongoing Waukesha GuitarTown project.

Like many students from across the city, Sheetz and her classmates have been hard at work the past few weeks creating their Les Paul masterpiece.

Their creations will be unveiled to the public on Friday, June 6, during the kickoff of the third installment of GuitarTown, a community art project that sees artists paint model Gibson Les Paul playable guitars and 10-foot fiberglass sculpture guitars.

Students' bigger role

Unlike the first two years of GuitarTown, no professional artists were involved in painting the white guitars this time. Instead, the free-standing art is solely the work of students.

"We were trying to change the focus," said Norm Bruce, president of the Waukesha Downtown Business Association and a member of the Waukesha GuitarTown Steering Committee.

Some schools participated in the project last year, but Bruce said the Steering Committee invited every public and private school in Waukesha this year to the project.

Bruce said the idea to bring GuitarTown back to Waukesha a third time started last winter, when Waukesha GuitarTown Inc. made the student proposal to Gibson Guitar Corp.

"(Gibson was) very receptive to that pitch," Bruce said of including all students. "With the success we had last year with schools being involved it was a whole new adventure for Gibson, but they liked that idea."

The 30 student-painted guitars will be featured this summer in the front window of the Almont Gallery in downtown Waukesha before they are returned in the fall to their respective schools to be on display.

Through the partnership with Gibson Guitar Corp., the three public high schools will also receive 10 guitars each from Gibson for students to use in guitar classes, which will be offered for the first time this fall.

The three public high schools (North, South and West) as well as private St. Joseph School (grades six through eight) also had the challenge of painting the 10-foot guitars.

Shorter timeframe

Catholic Memorial High School turned down an offer to paint a large replica guitar due to the short turnaround that the schools were given this year.

In the past, artists have had two to three months to work on their guitars. But Bruce said there was more of a time crunch this year tied to when the guitars could be delivered.

"There were a couple snafus and hiccups along the way," Bruce said, noting that one of the factories mistakenly sent "finished guitars."

Bruce, however, didn't feel the delay was too much of a problem for the schools that had art teachers who were already familiar with the project.

"Art teachers (who) had done the project last year ... said 'we can do this and make it work,'" he said.

The St. Joseph students were among those who made it work in a four-week time frame.

Enjoyable experience

St. Joseph's art teacher Rose Lange, who instructed a group of students painting a regular-sized guitar last year, said about 30 students got involved after school.

Their guitar models the artwork of the late New York-based artist Keith Haring.

"I think it's such a great opportunity for the kids and it's a great opportunity for the school," Lange said. "It allows them to be a part of the community. It's really neat."

Eighth-grader Michael Naze agrees. He came into the project just looking to accomplish some service hours and didn't think of himself as the most artistic guy. But gradually he became invested in it.

Naze won't be able to make it to the unveiling ceremony due to an eighth-grade field trip but Sheetz is full of anticipation.

"I love art and it's just amazing to see what's happened to it from the beginning, when it was all white, to now," she said. "So I'm looking forward to seeing the other ones."

So is Lange, who is proud of what her students accomplished and that they get to be a part of a very select project — only seven other cities in the world are Gibson GuitarTown cities, and Waukesha is the only Gibson GuitarTown to have three installments and to include students.

"It's not easy to keep my hands off," said Lange, an artist herself. "... But I'd have to stop and think it's not my work, it's the students' work and (realize) this is really awesome for middle schoolers. I think it looks great."