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Would-be junk makes beautiful music

Former machinist creates unique stringed instruments

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HILBRE -- The stand of maples outside a cozy old farmhouse. A banged-up old Laura Secord cookie tin. A bent pitchfork, a rusty rake, a coat hanger.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/08/2010 (4386 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

HILBRE — The stand of maples outside a cozy old farmhouse. A banged-up old Laura Secord cookie tin. A bent pitchfork, a rusty rake, a coat hanger.

When Lorne Collie looks at these things, all this would-be junk, he hears music. "Can you imagine," Collie asks, twirling a big, black umbrella around his warm and wood-panelled living room, "popping one of these things open and it’s a violin?

"Anyway," he adds, pulling the umbrella closed and turning to his wall full of old family photographs and musical toys, "that’s in the planning."

David Lipnowski/Winnipeg Free Press A shovel guitar, moose antler guitar, rake guitar and self-playing guitar.

This is Lorne Collie’s art. Unsung, unknown and — until now — mostly unseen, the 73-year-old builds stringed instruments from pretty much anything. Frying pan fiddles, a walking-stick violin and a peace pipe you can play country music on. All have come off the cluttered workbench in his homestead here, about 224 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

For years, Collie laboured in happy obscurity, content with the herd of 21 horses that nibbles at his lawn; content with his life with Helen, his wife of 51 years; content being a father to seven children and a grandfather and great-grandfather to 21 more.

So things might have stayed. But in July, Collie schlepped some of his favourite creations to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It was the first time he’d ever ventured to the Birds Hill Park fest, and once he got there he didn’t even make it in the gate. "I never even got a chance to go in and see anything," he chuckles. "Once I got all the instruments out there, well, how long do you want to leave things like that?"

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Lorne Collie plays one of his most eye catching creations, the moose antler guitar.

Instead, the great-grandpa sat in the parking lot, cotton-tuft beard blowing in the wind, plucking away on a moose-antler guitar. People noticed. On Facebook, dozens of brand-new fans posted photos and videos of his display. "It’s certainly some original ideas there," says Keith Muracz, who works at Mother’s Music in Winnipeg. "I’ve been collecting instruments for 25 years. I buy odd pieces and look everywhere and I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like this."

Every so often, Collie pops into the music store to show off his latest "toy." "The first thing he brought in was a rake guitar," Muracz recalls. "At first glance, I didn’t think it was something that was even playable. But he passed me the guitar and sure enough, it was tunable and everything else. It’s not just novelty stuff. These are real playable instruments."

Playable instruments, made by someone who doesn’t consider himself a player. Collie isn’t much of a musician, he says: A machinist by trade, he started tinkering with instruments in 1991, one year after smashing his ribs in a motorcycle accident and three years after a brain aneurysm almost killed him. "My head blew up," Collie chuckles now of the 1988 aneurysm, which forced him into early retirement.

He wasn’t cowed by the health scares — today, he still rides his prized, hard-bucking rodeo mare — but he did find himself with more time to build things. His first project: turning a bright blue shovel into a playable guitar. The instrument worked. "That was the beginning of the toys," Collie says.

Now, they line his wall, hung up on pegs in the corner of a living room dominated by a cast iron stove and a lovingly worn piano. The "toys" shapes are as diverse as their inspirations. For a son working on road construction, a stop-sign guitar so he could practice his chords while flagging down traffic. For Clifford Maytwayashing, a Manitoba fiddle icon who died in 2009, Collie made a tomahawk fiddle, just like the one he taught himself to play while crossing the Rockies on horseback over 15 years ago.

There are more out there hoping to nab one of Collie’s creations. Muracz offered to buy the moose-antler guitar; Mother’s Music wanted to sell a Collie creation on its shelves. But Lorne, blushing from the attention, turned them down. "I enjoy my hobby," Collie demurs. "I don’t want to get into making them and selling them. If I start making them to sell, I’d be working harder than I was when I was working hard and doing all I could to put food on the table."

Some of the guitars have gone to friends and family as gifts; Collie made about 30 cookie-tin ukuleles for a children’s bible camp in Lynn Lake where he and Helen first raised their family before moving to British Columbia and back. Other instruments have made pit stops along the way. "I just went down to New Brunswick for my granddaughter’s graduation and had a chance to see some of the foot-stompin’ musicians out there," he grins. "I came back without any of my ukuleles. So I must have given some away."

For now, the best place to hear Collie’s homemade twangers is at his home. He plays the instruments often, noodling around with old-time melodies and quiet chords. The practice staves off the arthritis that has long threatened his fingers. It might come in harder, someday, and take away the dexterity he needs to create the guitars. No matter. After 73 years on the planet, after a lifetime of adventure, after a family settled across Canada, Collie is content. "I’ve been very richly blessed," Collie says. "I’ve got so much. The house is paid for. The car is paid for. The horses are paid for. What else can I ask for?"

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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