‘From These Woods’: UCSC duo honors Santa Cruz guitar makers


"From These Woods showcases a community some might call the luthier capital of the world." --Alex de Grassi

UCSC art alumna Renée Flower and former head of publications for University Relations Jim MacKenzie.
Stephen Strahm explains the design for the top bracing of one of his guitars. (Photo by Renée Flower)
Ezra Koch of Santa Cruz Guitar Company works on a guitar neck. (Photo by Renée Flower)

Where can you find a tight-knit community of highly skilled artisans who, on a daily basis, transform roughly cut pieces of wood—much of it salvaged—into finely crafted objects designed to make music?

Well, Santa Cruz, of course.

A new book by UCSC art alumna Renée Flower and longtime head of publications for University Relations (now retired!) Jim MacKenzie tells the story of how such a relatively large and robust community of guitar makers came to be located in Santa Cruz County.

From These Woods: The Guitar Makers of Santa Cruz County includes 170 illustrative photographs along with 18 profiles of local luthiers, offering a behind-the-scenes look at their woodworking techniques and their instruments-in-progress.

The idea for From These Woods was hatched when Flower and MacKenzie found out that the Santa Cruz County Art of Guitar Exhibit and Festival was being planned to celebrate the work of local luthiers.

Thinking that the exhibit would be a richer experience if visitors could also visualize the people who made the guitars on display, they volunteered to photograph each luthier at work.

It soon evolved into a book project.

Over a six-month period, they did the photography on location in each of the luthiers' shops. Most of the writing was done in the final month prior to printing. The book is self-published and financed, with an initial run of 500 copies.

“It was a labor of love,” said Flower. "We ended up shooting thousands of images, not only of the luthiers, but also of the tools and processes employed by them to produce guitars and details of the instruments themselves.

Fortunately, it looks like we will be in the black at some point very soon!”

They photographed 19 luthiers, ranging from one-person shops that produce a half-dozen to 12 guitars annually, to the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, which employs 15 luthiers and makes 500 instruments each year.

“On many levels, the book is an educational document, introducing a group of artisans that has received little publicity or recognition to the larger Santa Cruz community and the general public,” said Flower. “Some people have marveled that such a significant community of highly skilled, successful artisans could be hidden in plain sight in this small county.”

“The luthiers were thrilled,” MacKenzie added.

Their photographs are now displayed at the Santa Cruz County Art of Guitar exhibit, running through March 15 at the R. Blitzer Gallery. The book was introduced at the opening reception in February.

An exhibiting fine artist and illustrator for more than three decades, Flower has illustrated three children’s books for Harper-Collins and Simon & Schuster, as well as a new edition of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno for Mercury House. The UCSC alumna has additionally created poster art for the San Francisco Ballet, Cabrillo Music Festival and countless other organizations.

In 2001, she returned to UCSC--where she graduated in 1979 with a B.A in Art-- to complete 11 courses in environmental studies.

Both Flower and MacKenzie are avid guitar players who picked up the instrument at a relatively early age.

As preeminent fingerstyle guitarist Alex de Grassi notes in the book’s foreword:

"We should be grateful to Jim MacKenzie and Renée Flower for doing a stellar job of capturing and distilling the essence of this community…Among the exotic woods, the specialized tools, and stringed instruments in various stages of development, Jim and Renée have managed to evoke the smell of sawdust and the excitement of seeing the guitar manifest in a staggering variety of forms: electric, acoustic, archtop, lap, classical, flamenco, ukulele, as well as some very wild hybrid creations. You name it, and you can probably find one of the finest examples of its kind without leaving Santa Cruz County. From These Woods showcases a community some might call the luthier capital of the world"

From These Woods: The Guitar Makers of Santa Cruz County will be available exclusively at the R. Blitzer Gallery during the Santa Cruz County Art of Guitar Exhibit and Festival which runs through March 15. For more information about the book, go to MacKenzie and Flower's facebook page .