Fusing the joy of music and art on a painted fiddle

Katy Bailes normally plays a mean violin, but last week she took up a paint brush to put the finishing touches on a dark blue "fiddle."

For the 17-year-old Blythewood High senior and her orchestra classmates, the plywood fiddle has become a representation of the fusion of music and art.

To orchestra director Chris Corde, the messy collaboration of students, music, paint and plywood is simply "the Painted Fiddle project," a resourceful blending of music and visual art that took him out of his comfort zone and energized his students.

"It has taken on a life of its own," Corde said.

Now, nearly a dozen of the painted fiddles hang at the Village Artist cooperative gallery at the Village at Sandhill. They will be there through April 15.

Artist Sherry Larson, known for her elaborate painted murals in Richland 2 schools, has overseen the project, helping students with designs from tennis shoes to license plates and beach scenes.

The project, reminiscent of the S.C. Philharmonic Orchestra's Painted Violins project, which turns real instruments into objects of art, began when Corde invited Larson to talk about the relationship between music and art.

She came to his classroom about a week before his fall 2009 music camp with a plywood instrument painted with Blythewood High's Bengal tiger mascot. She suggested the students sketch out scenes to paint on other musical cutouts.

The ideas came fast and furious. Five were selected to paint during the camp.

"They were just supposed to be decorations for his (Corde's) classroom," said Larson, whose 15-year-old daughter, Sydney, is in the orchestra program.

But parents who attended the camp's closing concert wanted to know whether they could buy the painted fiddles, and an idea was born.

The original five painted fiddles - two violins, a viola, cello and bass - remain on Corde's walls, but as students continued to paint, patrons eagerly snapped them up at $50 apiece.

So far, Larson said, 15 have been sold or given as gifts. Even Blythewood principal Keith Price has one hanging on his wall, depicting the Blythewood Bengal and the Clemson Tiger.

The 11 that hang at Sandhills also are for sale. The proceeds will help pay for the orchestra's spring trip to Atlanta, to hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

But Corde said the money isn't the reason the project is so successful.

What he sees is a greater recognition of the interplay of the senses, an appreciation that, he believes, will strengthen the work of his 70 orchestra students.

"I have three different levels (of orchestral expertise) here, and it blurs all these lines," he said.

Larson said she'll keep on encouraging the painting as long as the teenagers are interested and her friend, Brad Robey, cuts out the plywood shapes for her.

Zack Wankowski, 14, has painted his share of fiddles through the project and now has a fiddle - a Bengal tiger - hanging in his bedroom. It is a gift from his grandfather, Richland 2 board member Dan Neal, who loves the off-the-musical-path concept.

"They are giving all the kids in orchestra - not just some kids - a chance to do something they wouldn't normally," Neal said.