Lucas Nelson Marvell: a short biography

By Steve Connor

What makes a man want to be a “quality luthier?”

 

“Consequently, a luthier, a really good one, is at once a woodworker, an engineer, an historian, a mechanic, and a shaman.” John Marchese, The Violin Maker

Take a clear eyed look at the mercurial wooden box you possess (which can simultaneously be a source of ‘food or frustration for your soul’) and you will find the alchemy of art, science and craftsmanship. The collaboration of these principles is what attracted Lucas Nelson Marvell to the enigmatic world of violin making and the restoration of fine stringed instruments. Marvell’s own story is a collision of these principles: art, scholarship and craftsmanship, which fuels his passion for the world of a luthier. It may be his ability to live in many worlds that drew him to a skill that demands so many unique facets. He is quite comfortable in the company of international virtuosos in the hurried need of a difficult violin ‘tune-up’  or he is as at home with the anxious mother of a four-year-old toting their Suzuki manuals next to that little wooden box of dreams. You may find Marvell with his wife in the Chicago Art Institute or hiking with his dog Sally in the hills of Southern Indiana. For Marvell, it is the collision of these worlds (art, scholarship, craftsmanship) that makes life satisfying.

 

“I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.”  Pete Seeger 

 

ART:

 

“Art is first and foremost, communication….To this end art tends to center around the most universal of human themes: faith, hope & love…artists pay homage to the higher aspirations of our human journey.” Albert Nelson

 

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” C. S. Lewis

 

Lucas Nelson Marvell has been surrounded by art since he left the womb. He found his passion for sculpting wood in the influence of his father’s stone carving and his mother’s eye for detail.   Lucas’s father is an established sculptor who has dedicated his life to not only bringing reality from the beauty of Bedford limestone, now exhibited and loved all over the world, but the passion for bringing out the artist in of all mankind, especially children.  “I love my art, but that can be expressed through my own creations or the creations of my young students.” Art’s foundational influence was not just on Lucas’s father’s side but also influenced by the attention to detail by his mother who is a utilitarian artist in the world of fabric.  Lucas’s wife Sarah is an accomplished violinist; “Having a musician under the same roof keeps me focused!” Lucas’s brother also is an artist and works at the MOMA in San Francisco as a preparator.

Making violins is an art which gives Marvell satisfaction, but like his father, creating something that can give others the opportunity to express their art is what brings real joy. “I love instrument making because it is the genesis of art. Not only is a violin a piece of art, but it becomes a gateway for the musician to express their own art. This is what I take seriously; I make and restore gateways to the expression of art.” But for Marvell art is only one leg of a stool that holds life together.

 

Scholarship:

 

“It turns out that things that work very well are also very beautiful,” Zygmuntowicz says. “It is sort of an ancient design concept that goes back to Pythagoras — that the universe is designed in … an aesthetic, rational way. That still seems to hold up in the case of the violin.” Sam Zygmuntowicz

 

No two violins are the same; an experienced ear can differentiate between any two instruments. A violin is not merely a painting you hang on a wall. It is a performance tool, a mechanism which has been rooted in utilitarian science. A stringed instrument may seem straightforward at ‘?rst glance’ but they are some of the most comprehensive instruments on the planet, created from more than 70 unique pieces of wood that are (for the most part) formed by hand.  To have a background in scholarship, to understand the science that is involved in an instrument, is an important factor that goes into serving the musicians and the instrument.  Marvell did his post-graduate studies at the prestigious Jacobs School of Music. “What an experience to be around world class musicians and study what you love,” Marvell says. “This is a brilliant time for stringed instrument makers. We will always have the long shadow of the great ‘Cremonese mystique’ to guide us. But now we also have the benefits of a better understanding of auditory sensory analysis, visualizations of resonant modes, almost instant feedback on performance and new scientific discoveries which add to our understanding.”

 

Craftsmanship: walking in a master’s shoes…

 

“The artistic temperament is a disease which afflicts amateurs.” G.K. Chesterton

 

“Those that can do – those that can’t teach.” Anon.

 

So what does the Navy and the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers teach Lucas Nelson Marvell about craftsmanship?  “I have had the amazing experience of working with one of the best bow maker and instrument restorationists in the world. There is a huge difference between being a scholar and a craftsman.  For me craftsmanship is based on tradition and experience,” says Marvell. “I can bring something new to the table, but it is a small layer of my own personality which must be applied on the backs of hundreds of years of skill, knowledge, and discipline. Most of the great violin makers of the past have been influenced by a master; they walk in their shoes. Discipline comes from being a disciple, in fact that is where the root word of ‘discipline’ comes from, being a ‘disciple.’”

Marvell walked in the shoes (apprenticed) for Jerry Pasewicz, a member of the governing board of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers which is a collection of 180 top US artisans. Pasewicz says, “Violin and bowmaking in this country is the best it’s been in US history, and the instruments being produced are among the world’s finest.” “Working in Jerry’s shop was transformative, now that I am on my own rarely a day goes that my methodology is not influenced by the craftsmanship of Pasewicz’s  shop” says Marvell.

 

But there is one more special facet to Marvell’s life which isn’t overlooked: Lucas was a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy. “I have always had a young face and on my ship they called me ‘Baby Doc!” I always wanted to serve our country, but I never wanted to kill anyone, so I thought the medical field was the best approach. Being a corpsman helped me to care for people and have an immense respect for humans. The Navy also helped foster a discipline for hard work!” Marvell speaks with past concern for a boatswain mate that he medivaced from his ship to a lonely Atlantic island due to a heart attack. When you work with Marvell there is a sense of respect for tradition that he resonates in his work but also a healthy pastoral bedside manner that he has for both his instruments and his musicians.

There are many tools an artisan uses for his craft. Before Lucas picks up a chisel or knife to shape his next project he knows he has been blessed by the worlds of art, scholarship and craftsmanship which have shaped him.