Ken Butler wields a tennis racquet like Isaac Stern plays the violin, but he's no threat to Andre Agassi; it's just that he tucks the racquet under his chin and uses a bow to coax music from the strings.
A well-regarded artist whose work has been seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (and in Ripley's Believe It or Not! museums), Butler, 51, makes—and plays—some of the oddest stringed instruments on earth. An old cowboy boot, a tar-encrusted roofer's broom—even plastic replicas of submachine guns—are the starting points for cello-, violin-and guitarlike mutations that actually do produce music. Butler cut a CD, Voices of Anxious Objects, in 1997. "He recycles found objects that appear to have no future into really beautiful-sounding and wonderful-looking musical instruments," says Laurence Libin, a curator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan.
The son of Jack, a psychiatrist, and Marjorie, a classical singer and pianist, Butler, who led a peripatetic childhood, made his first foray into the weird world of what he calls "hybrid instruments" when he was living in Portland, Ore., in 1978. He came across a hatchet in his basement and realized that it had some of the same proportions as a violin. He used parts from a violin, a guitar, a microphone and—voila! Viola! "I was pretty shocked by how much it sounded like a violin," says Butler, who lives in Brooklyn, near his girlfriend, painter Jenny Lynn McNutt, 48. "Maybe I'm goofy," he admits, "but a tennis racquet seems perfect as a guitar."
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