Doug Unger
  • Stringed instrument builder, recognized especially for decorative work: pearl inlay (engraved) and neck carving of banjos and mandolins
  • He also does some restoration valuable, vintage instruments
  • Numerous OAC grants and fellowships
  • Ohio Heritage Fellow, 2004

Biography:
Doug Unger proudly identifies himself as Appalachian. His family is from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and he grew up as a farm boy in rural Ohio. When he was in high school, he met a strong-willed art teacher and flowered under her teaching. With her encouragement, he went to visit Cleveland Institute of Art, and decided to attend. It was in art school, he says, that he became a workaholic. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cleveland Institute of the Arts, went on to further study of art (receiving a Master’s from Syracuse University) and taught for 35 years at Kent State University, at which he now holds the title Professor Emeritus. Unger is unusual as a traditional artist in that he is trained as a fine artist. His traditional craftsmanship is only tangentially related to his work as a painter (currently a watercolorist) focusing primarily on landscapes, yet his artistic sensibilities and aesthetic are present in all his work.

Unger’s interest in instrument making stemmed initially from his interest in fiddle music and the banjo. Around 1970, someone he knew gave him a banjo, and he decided to try and build his own. He is truly self-taught, driven by curiosity to see if he could build an instrument he could play. After building that first instrument, he took it to a shop to show it to the owner who examined it and told Unger he thought he could sell it. He did, and from that point forward Unger has developed his expertise as an instrument builder who employs finely detailed decorative techniques to finish his instruments. He has been recognized for his work by the Ohio Arts Council, which in 2004 named him an Ohio Heritage Fellow, and musicians in the U.S. and at least seven countries outside it own and play his instruments.

As one walks through Unger’s workroom and the outbuildings on his property in Peninsula, it is clear that Unger means what he says when he describes himself as someone who “makes things.” He built the studio where he paints, behind his home, itself a work of art. He incorporated reclaimed wood and windows, creating a space abundant with natural light and cozy enough that it invites visitors to pause for a moment on the vintage couch and absorb the creative energy. His workshop, off the back of his home, was originally a summer kitchen, and he’s redone it as the instrument workshop, filled with parts of instruments he’s building, instruments to be restored, and his tools. In the center of the room hangs a shelf filled with bottles of finish and paint. Next to the shelf, hanging side by side, are a mandolin and a dulcimer. Ornately carved necks and instruments in various states of repair hang from pegs spaced around the exterior wall of the room. On one of the workbenches, a photograph of a carved neck rests next to a neck Unger is in the process of carving. On another lies a banjo with a detailed inlay on the neck. From the instruments in various states of repair or creation to the seemingly hundreds of tools present in this studio he has constructed, Unger’s passion for making things cannot be denied.

As both a fine art painter and traditional craftsperson, Unger thinks often about his position as someone with his feet in two creative worlds that are perceived very differently by outsiders. “I’m an artist who does traditional crafts.” As such, he believes it is possible for one’s artistic identity to exist within a particular genre of traditional crafts. Having taught himself to build instruments, he brings his artistic sensibility into his work, incorporating details from his taste in design. He regards himself as a Victorian revivalist craftsman who builds instruments.

Not just a craftsman or fine artist, Doug Unger is also a musician. He’s a jack-of-all-trades, and his work with instruments is driven by the beauty of music. “Fiddle tunes go through my head all day long.” Not surprisingly, his friends are all musicians, not artists. He finds musicians “more eclectic.” He does not believe in isolating himself from the real world, and his interactions with musicians and passion for music are as much a part of his conversation as is his work with the instruments. In general, the community of musicians is important to him. He also believes that music festivals are an important way for musicians to get to know and play with other musicians, and an avenue for instrument makers to learn more about their craft. Just as his interest in instrument building began with the music, Unger continues to not only build, design, decorate and restore instruments, he also plays with a Contra dance band at the Peninsula Library and in the historic Boston Township Hall, both right down the street from his home.

Unger has worked with the Ohio Arts Council’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program several times over the years. Amongst his apprentices through the Arts Council, Bob Anderson has continued to work with his craft and makes his living as a banjo maker in North Carolina (RM Anderson Banjos). Anderson’s beautiful inlay and engraving owe a debt to Unger. Another apprentice, Kevin Enoch, also makes his living as a luthier, specializing in banjos designed for clawhammer playing (Enoch Instruments). As Unger notes when talking about traditional craftsmanship and art, the identity of the artist can exist within the traditional craft. The detail work of Anderson’s and Enoch’s inlay, engraving, and carving differ stylistically from Unger’s Victorian vision, yet they share similarities found within the tradition of building and decorating.

In addition to his teaching as a master with OAC’s apprenticeship program, Doug Unger has shared his craft in other venues. Returning to his Appalachian roots, he has taught at the Augusta Heritage Center workshops of Davis & Elkins College, in Elkins, West Virginia. Unger continues to work on his own with young instrument builders, particularly those interested in pearl engraving. He estimates he has done as much teaching of his craft outside the apprenticeship program as through it. The teachings include work on the crafts itself, discussion of philosophy, and even trips to places in Ohio’s Amish area to look at appropriate types of wood for building. These days, students still find him in hopes of learning from a master, and he gladly works with them, not for money, but for the desire to support them and maintain the traditional craft of building and decorating handcrafted instruments.

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