The Guardian November 29, 2000


"The Violin Man"

by Donna McLaren

John Godschall Johnson was honoured on October 18 at a special luncheon to 
launch an exhibition at Bankstown Library (Bankstown, Sydney) of his life's 
work as an acclaimed artist painter and master craftsman — earning him the 
Order of Australia (in 1989) and the affectionate name of — "The Violin 
Man".

This is the first of a series of "Living Treasures" exhibitions presented 
by the Bankstown City Council to honour local citizens for their work, 
Business Manager Garry Starr told the lunchtime gathering.

John has become world-famous and, as Councillor Helen Westwood said in her 
opening address, musicians have come from the four corners of the world to 
meet and work with John.

Testifying to his global recognition John's instruments are on display in 
the permanent Acoustical Museum in Mexico, as well as locally at the Power 
House Museum.

Amsterdam is home to a 12-piece Barque orchestra and all the instruments 
were made by John.
ŠAlthough John was not well enough to attend the Bankstown opening, having 
suffered a stroke nearly three years ago, he still holds an interest in his 
violins and the celebrated musicians who play them.

Some of John's paintings, as well as a collection of his exquisitely 
beautiful, hand-crafted violins, were on display at Bankstown Library.

In the 1950s John bought his mother a violin. Contemplating "this little 
box that sings" marked the start of his study into the science of violin 
making, in the tradition of Stradivarius, Cuarnari and Amati, the old 
Italian makers of 300 years ago.

John made his first violin out of a wooden crate for a man who could not 
afford a violin, but wished to buy one.

Enthusiastic supporters

Councillor Helen Westwood spoke of what "a remarkable man John was" as he 
never sold his instruments but bestowed on the new owners `custodianship' 
of his violins, violas, cellos and bows — and engraved into the belly of 
each: "This instrument may be freely given, never to be bought or sold".

Abe Segal, retired from the Department of Physics at the University of 
Wollongong, NSW, spoke fondly of his long association with John and what he 
calls "John's world class work". 

Abe, also Founder and Convenor of the Australian Musicians Academy, once 
wrote that, "Perhaps one of John's crowning glories is the completion of: 
two violins, a viola and cello, collectively known as the "Jessie Street 
Quartet" in honour of a great Australian".

Abe presented the Bankstown Library with a book of the proceedings of an 
international workshop, titled: "The Acoustics of Stringed Musical 
Instruments" which includes a contribution presented by John at the seminar 
in 1982.

He said, "Not only did Johnno give a paper at this conference, he also gave 
a demonstration of the work-bench" for which he is now famous.

John's wife Phyllis, spoke warmly about their 62-year association, telling 
of John's early hardships identifying him with the working class in the 
Great Depression and leading to his joining of the Communist Party in 1932.

She ardently painted a picture of the workshop of "this great man".

"People have come from all walks of life, conductors of orchestras, violin 
makers, artists, singers, writers, musicians; they have come to meet the 
skilled craftsman who makes violins in a little box that sings."  

John experimented in the woods and varnishes, and used his knowledge of 
chemistry to add the component parts, such as extracts from the Madden 
plant which he grew next to the letter box.

Some makers can turn out a violin within a week and use antique furniture 
varnish, but John worked and studied in the traditions of the old masters. ŠHe gouged out the bellies and backs with 100-year-old tools, one as small 
as a man's thumb.

The sole electrical device permitted in his workshop is a machine which 
measures the frequencies of vibrations emitted from the timbers as they 
yield their characteristic sounds.

Phyllis told her audience that John in his 88th year is still a socialist 
and "while many of you have differences with his philosophy" we must 
recognise that it has been an important influence on the various aspects of 
John's work.

"John removed himself from the tyranny of the Market Place".

As John said in an interview in 1993: "I don't accept money... I'm 
interested in young people with talent who haven't a chance to get a 
violin.

"If I think they've got talent, I make them the custodian of a violin. But 
my instruments have to be passed from one player to another."

Young maestro

During the Exhibition launch, Simon Brown, musician, and acoustical 
stringed instrument craftsman, who had done work experience with John as a 
school boy, told some funny stories about his introduction to the Rivenoak 
Workshop, but also paid tribute to John as a master teacher in the making 
of violins.

Simon who won a scholarship to train and work in Italy, ranks John as one 
of his most valuable mentors.

Simon told the gathering, "Immediately I think I realised the greatness of 
the man I had come into contact with that (first) day".

In Cremona Simon said he certainly had some great teachers, "I don't deny 
that, but I never came across anybody with such an immense understanding as 
John."

A five-year-old girl gave a beautiful violin rendition of Bach on a 
miniature instrument as a closing gesture and won the hearts of all 
present.

Bankstown Library then served a luncheon befitting this tribute, including 
two chocolate cakes baked in the shape of violins!

Many accolades were received and read — they all testified to the warmth 
and human qualities of Johnno, as his friends call him; but the most poetic 
and poignant was Denis Kevans' poem.

The John Godschall Johnson photographic exhibition has been on display 
at at Bankstown and Padstow Libraries and will be on view at:

Greenacre Library: November 20 to December 2
Chester Hill Library: December 4 to December 16
Panania Library: December 18 to December 30.

* * *

A MAN and HIS VIOLINS
John Godschall Johnson

Every violin he has made was a little boat
for children to float on the the sea of their dreams,

each string was a thread in life's labyrinth,

he made them with his hands, and his heart,
seeing the joy in a child's face, as the gift
was passed on, and the little violin was launched —

in the garage where he worked
the spiders spun safe, while he
concentrated on his priceless gifts,
hearing him hum an aria or a melody,
from some famous musician, bringing
the whole world into his backyard workshop;

his heart was a children's playground,

he gave them violins,
he gave them music,
he gave them his heart,
and they took his love
everywhere around the world,
from one room,
where spiders spun
and the sunlight lit the busy tradesmen
spinning the silk from their own marrow,
the silken ripples capturing the light.

Such a man, John Godschall Johnson, does not die,
such a man lives by the joy in a child's face,
in the brisk bow playing a heart warming melody,
in the happiness that music brings;

"Johnno", you need no monument,
no leather bound C.V.,
no medallion,

you are alive in each of these priceless gifts,
in the children's eyes that are the mirrors of your soul,
and in the music that never ends.

Denis Kevans

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