It’s hard to imagine enhancing the inherent beauty of a violin or harpsichord until you see what Berkeley’s Janine Johnson can do with one.
Using gold leaf and high gloss paint, Johnson decorates the instruments in intricate, classic designs that make them look like more like art objects than something you’d actually play.
Four of Johnson’s painted violin creations will be auctioned off this Saturday as part of a fundraiser for the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a San Francisco-based group that specializes in performing music from the Baroque, Classical, and early-Romantic eras on authentic instruments—periods when it was not uncommon to see elaborately decorated violins, harpsichords and other instruments.
Today, only harpsichords are routinely decorated this way.
While the instruments Johnson worked on for the auction are fresh from the factory and designed for violin students, the images she painted are true to the period. Lavishly decorated in gold leaf, one of Johnson’s creations—nicknamed “Goldilocks”—is modeled after a 17th century Italian instrument. Two others have been done in the French style known as Chinoiserie—one in gold metal on a black background, imitating Chinese lacquer.
Another sports a white background, a knockoff of a 1702 harpsichord.
Johnson’s fourth instrument design features a faux tortoise shell base with 23-karat gold leaf arabesques—an design of intertwined flowers, foliage and geometrical patterns common to the Italianate tradition.
Adrian Carr, a San Francisco harpsichord designer, painted the fifth violin.
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra—which holds two of its four monthly performances in Berkeley, where many of its members live—won’t play Johnson’s violins, but they could.
“We didn’t do heavy decoration on the fingerboards so that you wouldn’t be scratching the paint off when you put your fingers down on the strings,” says Johnson. “You might wear the gold leaf off of the tuning pegs, but they could just be redone. People have been caring for regular violins for years and years. I don’t see that it would be impossible to play them. I think it would be kind of neat actually.”
The violins look the same as the instruments the orchestra plays, but Johnson points out that they are different—especially the way the bow is designed. “On a modern bow, the strength of your stroke is near your hand and in the Baroque bows it’s actually near the outer tip—so it makes for a very different style of playing,” she says.
Although Johnson realizes that her creations are going to wind up as wall hangings, she still holds out hope for the musical future of one. “I think the tortoise shell one ought to be in a bluegrass band. That would be way cool.”
Despite her enthusiasm for seeing the instruments played, Johnson doesn’t want to encourage anyone to bring her a high-end violin to paint. “If someone brought me a really nice violin to decorate, I would say no because there’s this whole mystique about the varnish,” says Johnson.
“I might decorate the tuning pegs, something that’s not integral to the sound of the instrument, but I wouldn’t want to touch the surface of it. They’re so small that you add paint to it, it’s weight. It’s a different elasticity from what’s there already and it’s going to affect how it resonates.”
Johnson, who estimates each violin took her about 40 hours to paint, volunteered her time on the project. Her real job is working for renowned Berkeley harpsichord maker John Phillips, where she not only decorates the instruments but, using her woodworking skills, helps build them as well.
Decorating and building musical instruments is a pairing of Johnson’s two passions in life—painting and music. She was introduced to harpsichord music as a teenager in the early 70s by a piano teacher and wanted to buy one, but soon discovered it’s not the sort of instrument you can find down at the local music shop.
Undaunted, Johnson convinced her father to send away for a kit to build one. “That kit turned out pretty good,” says Johnson. “I loved playing it and I painted and decorated the whole thing.”
Johnson went on to study piano and art in her hometown at Cal State Northridge and, after receiving degrees in both, founded a harpsichord company with her then husband. In 1977 she moved to Berkeley and after splitting with her husband began working with Phillips. In her spare time she also paints landscapes and even plays the harpsichord.
“In a way it’s been an inner struggle for me,” says Johnson of her music and art career. “I end up focusing on both and kind of exhausting myself. But I love music and I love the visual arts, so I don’t want to give up either.”
The violins will be auctioned off this Saturday night (Oct. 25) at the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s annual auction, “An Evening at the Palace: Florentine Splendour.” The fundraiser will be held at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Tickets are $250. For more information and to view all five violins, visit the orchestra’s website: www.philharmonia.org.