Bob Gustafson, known simply as "Gus," is an artist. His favored media are clay and music, and he's found a way to combine them: He makes ocarinas.
Gus' mother taught ceramics for 57 years. From her he learned techniques for working with clay. Gus also liked music, so he decided to start making ceramic whistles. He figured he was making something new, until one day someone told him about ocarinas, a type of whistle that's been around for hundreds of years.
According to the information Gus gave me, ocarinas - whistles with 10 holes - were first made in Italy in the 1800s. In the 1960s a mathematician developed a four-hole fingering system for the ocarina that allows the player to blow an entire scale, including sharps and flats.
Once Gus learned that system, he worked three more years to develop what he considered to be an acceptable instrument, and he began his long career as ocarina maker.
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Gus makes ocarinas in all shapes and sizes. Gus and his partner, Heidi Haggerty, invited me to come by their home in Midland to see the variety of ocarinas: fish, birds, pigs, whales and owls, each one hand-sculpted and ready to be played.
When he sculpts an ocarina, he said, he tunes it. But when he fires the clay, everything gets shrunk by one-third, and the tones change. Before he sells an ocarina, he checks the pitch of the instrument and can make adjustments to re-tune it.
Most of the ocarinas Gus showed me were small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, but he does make big ones. Heidi told me a master ocarina maker is one who can make a big instrument that plays well.
For 25 years, Gus has been traveling the country, selling his ocarinas. For many of those years, he sold ocarinas primarily to musicians in folk bands, to churches, or to schools looking for an easy instrument to teach to children.
But then a popular video game series released an installment featuring an ocarina in its title. Suddenly, Gus no longer had to explain to people what an ocarina is, and sales jumped.
Last year Gus traveled to 32 craft shows, and considering that he doesn't fly, that means he has seen a lot of this country. The day I met Gus, he had just returned from two months at the Arizona Renaissance Festival.
Gus says he's ready to start slowing down, and he's passing his craft along to an associate, Emily Moyers. She and Heidi help Gus make all the ocarinas he sells.
Anybody can play an ocarina, Gus and Heidi assured me, and from them you know you're purchasing a high-quality, even custom, product.