The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 5, 2013

Time to play: Bethany instructor's handmade instruments on display

By Edie Schmierbach
eschmierbach@mankatofreepress.com

---- — MANKATO — Eric Ouren's creative process starts out simple. He looks for items with interesting shapes — a wooden bowl, an old shovel, a curvey gourd.The Bethany Lutheran College professor then turns them into his "playable sculptures."

"They're fun to look at as well as listen to," Ouren said. The names he picks for the instruments are fun, too — "Flying Fish Ukele" and "Food-Keeper Mandolin" were created for a 2006 art exhibit at Bethany.

Several examples of his craft are now on display at Bethany in Ylvisaker Fine Arts Center.

"Inside and Outside" is the gallery's first exhibit of the new season. The show is comprised of 30 stringed instruments Ouren has built in the last two years, plus eight older ones that were displayed in his first show of handmade instruments back in 2006, also at Bethany. The newer instruments are mostly banjos.

Ouren constructed their bodies out of candy tins and cookie tins — even dried gourds. Banjos are essentially a box, some sticks and some strings, he said.

The sculpture instructor has offered a class that included making a dulcimer from tin as one of its projects. Besides teaching students how to make an object that is pleasing both to the ear and eye, he is about to provide knowledge for several facets of their education.

"It's not just music, not just writing, not just art, not just science — it's all of those things," Ouren said.

As part of tonight's lecture, several instruments will come down off the gallery wall to be played by Ouren's musican friends. Dick Kimmel, Pete Matecjeck from The Wooden Nickels and Bloedel from The Divers, and a fellow instructor at Bethany, will demonstrate the instruments' sounds and offer different approaches to playing the banjo. Daniel Halvorson and Ian Kimmel, both young musicians from the band Barton's Hollow, will join in on the bluegrass performance.

Claw hammer player Dick Kimmel from New Ulm came over to Mankato last week to try out a couple of banjos and he's played other creations by Ouren.

"I love playing his instruments," Kimmel said. "Some have a unique sound; for instance, the ones made from gas cans."

He plans to play a couple of the banjos tonight, so he can get to know them and their tonal qualities. Kimmel will perform one selection with a violinist, but specific playlist has not been decided for the performance.

"Sometimes, when you pick up a banjo and begin to pick, the songs will write themselves," Kimmel said.

Ouren, who took home the Best of Show award from Arts By the River this past June, will display some of his instruments this weekend from his vendor's booth at Rock Bend Folk Festival in St. Peter.

If You Go What "Inside and Outside Tradition: The Stringed Instruments of Eric Ouren" Where/When Through Sept. 28 at Ylvisaker Fine Arts Center, Bethany Lutheran College, 700 Luther Drive, Mankato Gallery hours 1-9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and 1-8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays Reception/demonstration 7 p.m. today at the gallery