In 1979, Ed Stilley was leading a simple life as a farmer and singer of religious hymns in Hogscald Hollow, a tiny Ozark community south of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Life was filled with hard work and making do for Ed, his wife Eliza, and their five children, who lived in many ways as if the second half of the twentieth century had never happened.
But one day Ed’s life was permanently altered. While plowing his field, he became convinced he was having a heart attack. Ed stopped his work and lay down on the ground. Staring at the sky, he saw himself as a large tortoise struggling to swim across a river. On his back were five small tortoises—his children—clinging to him for survival. And then, as he lay there in the freshly plowed dirt, Ed received a vision from God, telling him that he would be restored to health if he would agree to do one thing: make musical instruments and give them to children.
And so he did. Beginning with a few simple hand tools, Ed worked tirelessly for twenty-five years to create over two hundred instruments, each a crazy quilt of heavy, rough-sawn wood scraps joined with found objects. A rusty door hinge, a steak bone, a stack of dimes, springs, saw blades, pot lids, metal pipes, glass bottles, aerosol cans—Ed used anything he could to build a working guitar, fiddle, or dulcimer. On each instrument Ed inscribed “True Faith, True Light, Have Faith in God.”
True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley documents Ed Stilley’s life and work, giving us a glimpse into a singular life of austere devotion.
“True Faith, True Light is a stunning book, both witness and testament to a singular body of work. The author leverages his personal friendship with Stilley to showcase historic photos of the Stilly family, joined with extensive gallery-quality photographs of his instruments by Kirk Lanier. Robert Cochran’s sweeping introduction sets the frame for Stilley’s place in the pantheon of great Southern folk artists. The book’s final achievement is the inclusion of fascinating X-ray photos of Stilley’s instruments by Dr. Dennis Warren, revealing the native, intuitive genius Stilley applied to his interior reverb structures of springs and saw blades. Ed Stilley’s life and work turn our own notions of craft upside down and inside out, both in his lutherie and as an authentic expression of folk or outside art. We who struggle in our personal transformations and pursuits of fit and finish are reminded here that the truly authentic can rise above technique. Ed Stilley’s work is finally and ultimately authentic, but more importantly, it was unquestionably devotional, and Kelly Mulhollan’s beautiful book amplifies that devotion, creating a lasting record that belongs on a luthier’s bookshelf.”
—American Lutherie, Fall 2016
“True Faith, True Light should be in the collection of any instrument fan or builder. Mulhollan’s portrait of a man driven by faith and the gorgeous photos by Kirk Lanier make this a winner. The book is as much an art piece as Stilley’s guitars. In an era of perfection dictated by Autotune and CNC machines, the world needs Ed Stilley. This book is essential.”
The Arkansas Character
A series jointly sponsored by the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies in the University of Arkansas’s Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History.
Robert Cochran, Series Editor, is professor and chair of American Studies at the University of Arkansas and director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies.