Ed Stilley of Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas fell asleep one night and heard the voice of the Lord. The message he was given was to build instruments and give them away for free to the children of family, friends, and neighbors. For the next twenty-five years, that is exactly what Ed Stilley did.
Stilley, born in 1930, and Los Angeles-based photographer, Tim Hawley, met in 2011. Hawley had been on the lookout for a personal project involving people and objects and one day, while in the Midwest, he caught a segment about Stilley on the local news. The instruments he saw instantly struck Hawley as, “sort of a cross between a banjo, a barn, and a well worn Bible.” For the next three years he researched and documented as many of Stilley’s handmade instruments that he could track down, culminating in the 208 page book GIFTED: The Instruments of Ed Stilley.
Many of the instruments were found around Eureka Springs, Arkansas, but the search also led Hawley to Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and all the way to Washington. Although each instrument is ultimately unique and 100% handmade from wood and collected parts such as door springs, saw blades, pot lids, and old medicine bottles, there is one major similarity among them. Stilley inscribed the words, “True Faith, True Light, Have Faith in God,” on every guitar, ukulele, fiddle, dulcimer, or mandolin he made, spreading his message to all who have beheld his work.
Stilley’s hands are tired now, and he no longer makes instruments. It’s estimated that in his lifetime he made 200, each accruing around 100 hours of work; that’s 20,000 hours of service.
The final guitar that Stilley made (slide nine) waited in his shop for seven years until it was propitiously given to Hawley as a gift.
Hawley writes of his good friend Stilley that “although he has barely anything in the way of material possessions, he has found a way to give that which is priceless: the gift of love that inspires the recipient to pass it forward.”