Making labels

Yesterday, my friend Lewis came over to our apartment. Lewis is a luthier who makes (among other things) Celtic bouzoukis, and he wanted me to make some labels for them.

He brought a bouzouki to show me where the labels would go. I talked to him about light-fast pigments and archival papers, while for his part he told me about the instruments he makes:— His Celtic bouzoukis are beautiful instruments, and each one differs slightly in small details from the others — a slightly different bracing pattern, an inlaid piece of ebony inside the sound box with the number of the instrument. When you look at one of his bouzoukis, he wants you to know that it was made by hand, not by a machine. And he wanted each label to look hand-made, beautiful but with small imperfections.

So we sat at the kitchen table, eating home-made soup Lewis brought, and we made labels. I had some 100% rag vellum which I cut into 1-1/2 by 2-1/2 inch rectangles. Lewis signed each one using a magic marker with light-fat archival ink. I carefully wrote the serial number and “CELTIC BOUZOUKI / Oak. CA” under his signature, and then put a band of red watercolor paint along the top edge of the label. I don’t make many things like this any more; most of the things I make are text or photos or videos meant to go on Web sites, things you cannot touch. Real papers have different textures; they feel good under your fingers and hands, the pen moves over them in different ways, the ink soaks in or adheres to the surface differently. Paints are incredibly sensuous: the pigments finely ground into some luscious medium — linseed oil, gum arabic, casein, beeswax, whatever — and you dip a brush or knife into that vivid blob of color, and as you spread it the color changes as it interacts with whatever you’re painting, and you can smell it, and feel it when you use your fingers to smooth or blend.

The tools you use to make things have their own sensuality. To put the paint on the labels, I used a red sable watercolor brush, a gorgeous tiny little cluster of perfect animal hairs at the end of a delightfully balanced wooden handle. I remember one painting teacher, years ago, who used to insist a good watercolor brush should be as firm as a partially tumescent penis (yes, he was a man). The subject of art is always love or sex or death, but making things is all about sex, all about the act of creation. Creating things to be viewed on a screen is very satisfying — I love the way the completed image or text glows with that faintly blue light that comes out of your screen — but you can’t touch it or smell it while you’re making it. If making things is like sex, then making things for the screen is like reading about sex; it all happens in your mind and eyes, not in your body.

But the metaphor has overwhelmed the subject, because all I was doing was making labels. What amazes me is that the labels I made yesterday — cutting out a rectangle of paper, adding some lettering and a spot of color — will wind up inside musical instruments which are works of art and which may well outlive me. Far fewer people will see the labels I made than will see this blog post, but making the labels was far more satisfying.