Arsenios Corbishley is working up a strangely tuneful beat on his cello, sending thick wood shavings spilling off his work table and onto the floor as he rhythmically scrapes out the inside of the top piece of his latest work-in-progress.
The Oklahoma City artist years ago shifted his childhood interest in playing the cello into a budding career as a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments such as violins, cellos and violas.
As he uses a gouge to steadily scoop away curls of spruce, two smiling men in suits swing through the studio doors and briefly observe, and passersby occasionally pause at the wide windows facing Broadway Avenue to watch him create his elegant, and ultimately musical, art.
“The experience of being here in the studio isn’t like anything that I would’ve expected to have as a violin maker. Typically, in every shop that I’ve worked in, the repair people, the instrument-maker people, are always shoved back like into a corner,” said Corbishley, who also fixes violins, violas and cellos.
“So having a studio that’s on street level with all these windows, I kind of call it a fishbowl. ... But I’m getting used to it.”
For the past 10 months, Corbishley, 30, has been handcrafting instruments in the airy studio in the northwest corner of the Skirvin Hilton Hotel’s first floor. He is the second artist to occupy the space as Skirvin artist in residence.
“For an instrument maker to be in a residency like this is a bit unique, I think. I mean, this particular residency opportunity is unique in a lot of ways. Getting to have a space — and this particular, beautiful space — for a year is kind of incredible,” he said, taking a break from crafting a new cello on a recent Friday morning.
Formally known as the Skirvin Paseo Artist Creativity Exposition, or SPACE, the residency is a partnership between the landmark downtown hotel and the Paseo Arts Association, which manages the formal selection process.
The application process for the 2014-15 residency is to begin Monday, with a July 28 deadline for entries. In September, Corbishley’s time at the Skirvin will end, and another artist will move into the space.
“We are so fortunate to have the Skirvin in our city,” Paseo Arts Association President Joy Reed Belt said in an email. “This program increases awareness of the arts and thereby contributes to quality of life in Oklahoma City to both visitors and residents.”
Launched in 2012, SPACE is modeled after a similar program at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, which, like the Skirvin, is owned by Marcus Hotels and Resorts.
“We very much enjoy supporting the local arts community and also creating an experiential touch point for our guests,” Brett Sundstrom, Skirvin general manager, said in an email.
Along with the studio space, which is open to the public during set business hours, the Skirvin artist in residence receives a monthly $1,000 stipend and free parking and meals in the hotel’s employee cafeteria.
“It supported me for a year ... and I was very productive in that space,” said Oklahoma City visual artist Romy Owens, the Skirvin’s first artist in residence.
“It benefits the Skirvin, of course, by providing their patronage with this very interesting thing to see. People did come in all the time and stop and talk, and I know they do with Arsenios, too. People want to know what’s going on in there, because it is so public.”
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Corbishley was 10 years old when he took up the cello in his school music program. While he carefully selected the instrument he would play, he began his foray into instrument repair at Inter-City Violin Studios with much less deliberation.
“I walked in the beginning of the summer before my senior year of high school ... and was just kind of shooting the breeze with the owner, and she asked what I was doing. I told her I’d have to get a job, and she said she was hiring a repair person. And I showed up on Monday,” he said.
He did repair work off and on for about a decade, and in the meantime, he earned undergraduate degrees in cello performance and political science at the University of Oklahoma and became more interested in the art of instrument making. In 2012, he graduated from the Chicago School of Violin Making’s three-year program and moved back to Oklahoma City with plans to start his luthier career at home.
“I was working out of my house, and I found out kind of the hard way that I don’t actually work from home. I wasn’t getting anything done, and it was really frustrating,” he said.
He was searching for a studio space away from home when Owens suggested he apply for the Skirvin program.
“In some ways, working in the fishbowl kind of environment ... with all the people walking around, I don’t want them walking by seeing me asleep or something,” he quipped with a grin. “Since I’ve only been making (instruments) professionally like on my own for about two years, having this space in a lot of ways has made me treat it more like a business.”
Since handcrafting a violin involves six to eight weeks of work, plus breaks for layers of varnish to dry, becoming established as a luthier takes time, and with the residency, he’s had time on his side.
He’s made about a dozen instruments so far, and as the culmination of his time in SPACE nears, he is in the midst of making a new set of instruments that the Dallas-based Altius Quartet will play at a September recital at the Skirvin.
“I kind of joke that I’m making (instruments) optimistically. Especially at this point, I’m just trying to make as many instruments as I can. ... There’s so many details, so many little things, I can’t imagine anyone being happy — like really, really happy — with an instrument they made. Maybe it’s because I’m really early in my career,” Corbishley said.
“But it is really a good experience to be able to pick up an instrument ... and say, ‘Hey, I made this from big chunks of wood to what it is now.’”
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