Sound and color: Local artist’s creations on display at New Canaan Music
NEW CANAAN — Julie Rosenberg’s guitar bodies stick out on their stands atop the counter of New Canaan Music’s Elm Street showroom.
Their porcelain white frames — painted carefully with varying patterns of geometric designs in bold reds, greens, and blues — are an optical departure from the wooden acoustics and monochromatic electrics lining the walls elsewhere in the store.
Rosenberg’s intricate designs have been her distinguishing trait since she painted her first guitar bodies in the 1980s. It’s a style that requires a precise, exacting brush, and one that can take months to complete.
“I have this whole technique I developed, from taping down the outline to painting, to sanding. It’s very labor intensive. It could take a very long time depending on the intricacy of the design,” said Rosenberg, who not only paints guitars but plays them as well.
In her design work, Rosenberg primarily uses two models of Fender guitar — the Stratocaster and the Telecaster — though she recently painted her first jazz guitar. In terms of design space, each guitar body offers different possibilities.
“The Stratocasters feel so open. There’s so much space, whereas a Telecaster felt a little confining,” said Rosenberg who lives in Katonah, NY. “The Telecaster is flat, but a Stratocaster has these indentations. It’s just a different feeling.
On a recent Thursday, not long after unloading the bodies from her bag and setting up their displays, where they will remain for sale indefinitely, she watched with muffled horror as a curious shopper brusquely swept up one of the Alder wood bodies in his hands, testing its sturdiness and exploring its contours for some indication as to how it might sound amped up, not realizing for some minutes the concerned artist was standing mere feet from him.
The customer, as it turned out, was already a fan of Rosenberg’s, having previously encountered her work elsewhere. According to New Canaan Music owner Phil Williams, this particular patron was not the first to take note of Rosenberg’s creations since the shop first exhibited one of her guitars last March.
“We try to support local artists as much as we can. We’ve had it in the front window placed as prominently as we can,” Williams said. “They’re getting a lot of attention. People are checking them out.”
A fully built and painted Rosenberg guitar — like two that are on display in New Canaan — cost $3,200. For just the painted body of the guitar a customer will pay $2,500.
For Rosenberg, the attention has been a long time coming. She produced her first two guitar bodies as a recent Ithaca College graduate in the 1980s, though she put away her paint soon after their completion.
“I painted the guitars, finished the guitars and literally put them in duffel bags and put them away. I didn’t touch them,” Rosenberg said, now 52 years-old. Instead, she opted to pursue a longstanding interest in human anatomy and earn a degree in physical therapy. For 20 years, while she operated her own private practice, she neither painted nor played guitar.
“I always felt I had two halves,” says Rosenberg, who was influenced in equal measure by her athletic father, on the one side, and her artistic mother and older sister, on the other. “Maybe it was the left brain, right brain thing.”
Still, Rosenberg defies common thinking that people are more in tune with the impulses of one side of the brain over the other.
When Rosenberg was a kid, her mother encouraged her artistic exploration, allowing Rosenberg and her two siblings to paint their doors in any way they chose and cover the walls of the family’s basement with graffiti. Rosenberg was also a high school rock n’ roller, who revealed in the experimental nature of the bands with which she played in her basement, at the same time that she excelled in sports.
Her contrasting interests have long been a source of friction, and her desire for a sense of consonance is perhaps a reason for her interest in the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, whose work she cites as a leading influence.
In the later part of his career, Kandinsky, an innovator of abstract art, used complex geometric patterns and striking colors that captivated the young Rosenberg. Kandinsky also believed firmly in the union of sound and color as a means of transcendence, a concept for which Rosenberg seems to have found an application.
Only in 2014, after closing the doors of a second private physical therapy practice did Rosenberg start seriously focusing again on her art and music. She recently joined a classic rock band, with whom she plays once a week on one of her hand-painted, Kandinsky-inspired guitars.
And, for at least the time being, Rosenberg is determined to produce increasingly more guitar bodies and pique the interest of increasingly more visitors to the shop.
“Being on both sides of the instrument I think is how I’ll be living for a while,” Rosenberg said.