Tuesday, December 2, 2008

[Country Roads] Tom's Fiddle & Bow

In the December 2008 issue of Country Roads

Tom's Fiddle & Bow
The circuitous art of finding yourself

From a shipyard in Portsmouth, Maine, to a storefront by Bayou Fuselier, Tom Pierce found a new outlet for his innate creativity amid the spruce and maple, tension and balance, of violin-making.

On the way out to Arnaudville to check out Tom’s Fiddle & Bow, one of the recent additions to the burgeoning artist colony out in St. Martin parish, my seven-year-old daughter was busy in the backseat making a word search for me to solve when we stopped for lunch. She and I share this need to seek out the methods behind the things we enjoy—it’s not enough to read books, we want to write them; it’s not enough to know about places, we want to go there. it’s not enough to know about places, we want to go there. This line of thinking extends to the holidays, where you start to consider the value of a handmade gift and the experience of making it or watching it get made, as opposed to the point-and-click approach most of us take with gift-giving. Nice as Amazon gift cards are, they are no artisan-crafted fiddle.

When we stopped at Crazy ‘Bout Crawfish in Breaux Bridge (I had the soft shell crab poboy and she the “Cajun Critters” plate) I commenced to circle the list of ten or so words in the dense snare of letters in her little notebook. She didn’t quite have the hang of lining up everything in a grid, but she did make a perfectly serviceable word search. While I was searching for “wolf,” I asked her if it was more fun to make puzzles than it was to solve puzzles, and she shrugged, “Ah, it’s about the same.” I think she likely meant that the two activities were equally fun to do, but in wanting to make meaning out of words rather than just hearing them, I took her answer to say the activities themselves were the same, that the same thread ran through the careful crafting of a thing and the enjoyment of a thing.

Arnaudville is a perfect destination en route to which one can have these thoughts. I have been there a couple times now, yet I still get lost every time. The little 200-yard jag you have to take on 355 when trying to get from 328 to 31 in Cecilia throws me off every time. This time I pulled up the Google map on my phone, but I had failed to zoom in close enough to catch this minor detail in the route, and at the first of many turnarounds we had to make to get to Tom’s Fiddle shop, my daughter asked “Are we going to make it there in time?” I told her “I think it will still be there when we get there.”

I suspect that if you haven’t lived in Arnaudville all your life, the road there is necessarily circuitous. It’s not on the way to anything, unless you are trying to get to Opelousas the hard way. It’s the kind of place you just find yourself in, both literally and figuratively. The painter George Marks found himself there when he made a pit stop back home on his way to seek his fortunes in New York. His father took ill, and George stayed behind to help the family, opening a studio in what became Town Market Centre, the hub of this strange little artistic alcove nestled around sleepy Bayou Fuselier. When I interviewed Marks back in October, 2007, I asked him what his motivation was behind creating an arts community out here, and he responded “We want to be true to the area without being contrived.”

Tom Pierce couldn’t have possibly mapped out his road to Arnaudville in advance. “I was working in the shipyard in Portsmouth, Maine,” he told me as he took a break from the informal Sunday jam session taking place in the front room of his shop. “I got into Cajun and bluegrass music in the mid ‘nineties and I met Lori [his future bride] at a dance in 1999 in Long Island. Our first date didn’t work out, and we went our separate ways for three years.” Tom at the time was working his way out of a drinking problem and the two met up again at a coffee shop in 2002, and this time the relationship clicked. “Soon as we met, she told me ‘I’m moving to Louisiana’ and I told her if you wait until I retire, I’ll go with you. In 2005, I retired, we got married, and we moved, just like that. “

On a 2002 trip to Louisiana to look for houses, the couple stumbled upon Arnaudville. “Driving around, we got lost here. I looked around and saw a quiet sleepy little town and thought, ‘This is a nice place.’” The couple eventually bought a rustic place in Hidden Hills in Arnaudville and rented it, as they were still living in the Northeast tying up loose ends. They also bought a fixer-upper in Lafayette where they lived after Katrina, helping out the relief efforts in that part of the state.

While in Maine, Tom had started studying violin-making after realizing his limitations playing the instrument, and after George Marks showed him the store front just over the Bayou Fuselier bridge, everything fell into place. Lori moved her art studio into the building and Tom opened a fiddle shop in the front. Both of them had retirement to support them, and found a place in Arnaudville where they could start living the lives they always wanted. Tom took my daughter and I into his workshop in the back where the walls were lined with racks filled with violin bodies in various states of repair. His work tables were covered with chisels, clamps, boxes of parts. He showed the violin he had made from scratch, a pristine assembly of bent spruce and maple ringed with meticulous hand carved inlays. “When I started doing this, I thought that carving the curls on the head would be the hard part, and it takes some time, but the real difficult part is carving the f-holes,” Tom explained. The f-holes are the ornately curved holes in the top of the instrument that allow the sound to escape from the resonating chamber. “I think it’s because you’ve labored for so long getting this thing just right, bending the wood and getting the panels precise like that, and now you have to punch a hole in it!”

Tom went on to explain some of the further geometric intricacies of the instrument, things like the three-degree angle in the joint between the neck and that body of the instrument which created the tension necessary for the instrument to function. Looking at so many violins in varying states of completeness, I remarked that it was all tension and balance; everything had to be shaped exactly so and connected in the right place for it to work. “It’s amazing how much pressure you have on that bridge,” he said pointing to the small wedge of wood that hoists the high-tension strings at the precise angle over the fretboard. “There is something like 140 foot-pounds of pressure at this one point!”

Tom leads an enviable life back there in the shop, laboring away at his instruments. On Sunday afternoons, he plays host to what he dubs the “organic jam” —a jam session where things are a little more free form than your typical Cajun jam, letting country, folk and rock seep into the edges. “Some days we have a bluegrass band up front and a French band going out here” referring to the breezy porch overlooking the bayou. The music saturated the building as my daughter plays with two small dogs that belong to one of the participants and Tom fiddled around with his fiddles. It is precisely the kind of bucolic situation we all hope we find ourselves in some day.

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