Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Billy Griner Interview by Eric Ewing

I first met Billy Griner in 2014 at Dixon's Gunmakers Fair, where a horn he made had taken 3 different ribbons from the judges.  I was immediately impressed by the unique style, flow and the subject matter of his engravings, and the crisp lines and colors of his southern banded horns.  As I set out to learn more about his work, and traditional southern banded horns, I realized there was story to tell about his his work,  southern horns, and the relationship between the contemporary maker and the source of their inspiration.

How did you get started?
I began working with horn at a young age; 10-12 years old.  My grandfather made blowing/hunting horns for neighbors and friends.  I learned to carve using a pocket knife to make simple hunting horns.  It was just something that I learned from my grandfather.  That would have been during the early to middle 1960’s.  Then in the early 1980’s I built a squirrel rifle while in college.  I needed a powder horn.  I looked at some pictures in the first edition of the Book of Buckskinning.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that a powder horn was basically a hunting horn with a wooden plug in the big end.  So, I bought a horn and started…It looked horrible, but it worked like a charm.  By the late 1980’s I was making powder horns as a way to help pay for the Rendezvous bug that bit me when I first got interested in reenacting.

Did anyone in particular influence or teach you?
I would say that Ron Elhert had a big impact on me.  He guided me along with little bits of  gentle criticisms (for those who knew Ron) in my early days.   Roland Cadle once goaded me into a little contest that actually started me making banded horns.  He also helped me develop an eye for what works and what does not, and why the elements do or do not work together.  Frank Willis taught me horn architecture.  Frank has the best eye for the type of architecture that makes a horn pop.  He taught me to avoid the pitfalls of clunkiness and the importance of line in a horn.  Art DeCamp influenced me by instilling an attitude of “no fear” when it came to trying something new and figuring out ways to make things work.  All three men are great teachers.  Sometimes they teach far more than they realize at the moment of discussion or in class.  They are about the best.

When it comes to making Southern Banded Horns, there is one person that I have to give a huge amount of credit:  Mark Ewing.  Mark is one of the finest makers of Southern Banded Horns around.  He has an incredible eye for what works.  Mark makes a much more traditional horn than I do.  But he really understands line and fit.  No one makes a better Salem Horn than Mark Ewing.  We spent many hours in the shop talking turning details and tool marks, interviewing collectors and going to museums to look at original horns.  The discussions were always of line and flow or a myriad of other small details that most people never notice…how a period maker had to use particular tools to product the work.  As a result of working with Mark and our studying of original horns, I use only 3 tools for the majority of my turnings.  I truly thank Mark for every discussion we ever had.  Those days in the shop made my work much better.

When did you first become interested in banded horns in particular?
The first time I ever looked at a banded horn was at a discussion being held at the annual meeting of the Honourable Company of Horners way back when the meeting was held at Old Salem, in Winston/Salem, NC.  I thought it was the coolest powder horn I had ever seen, and it was distinctly Southern.  From that point on I began studying them at any opportunity.

Do you find yourself staying true to original work or do you let your own style take over?
The majority of my work is more contemporary in style.  Most original Southern Banded Horns are a bit rough and clunky.  Most were home made by men who wanted what they thought was a fancy powder horn, and are really not pleasing to the average person.  I started out making horns that were very much like original horns.  Then I came across some examples of what we call Salem Horns.  These were horns usually made by professional furniture makers in Salem, Bathabra, or Bathinia, NC.  They tend to be very pleasing to the eye.   Almost slick… 

Starting there, I took a more contemporary tact with my work.  It had to hold true to the original horns in style and decor.  The lines had to be made pleasing to the modern eye.  By working out the idea of the lines of the horn being more contemporary, the decor had to remain within the context of the original horns.  As the idea of what a contemporary Southern Banded Horn is grew in my mind, an idea formed that has become the basis of my contemporary work:  What I am doing is a continuation of the Old Way.  This is not a new idea.  It is simply holding true to the original form in a modern context.  I have been asked how my contemporary horns work with traditional bags.  I answer that question this way:  Jeff Bibb makes the most original southern shooting bags around.  We have put several of my contemporary horns on his bags.  They work very well.  It’s not about the shape of the horn.  It’s the details that make it work.

Do any other contemporary makers influence your work?
Yes.  Mark Ewing I have named.  But also Jeff Bibb, and the others that I have named.  And then there is this fellow named Ian Pratt.  If I can make contemporary Southern Banded Horns that can work correctly with Ian Pratt contemporary Southern Rifles…well, what can one say.

Do you teach or instruct at all?
Yes, I teach.  I love to teach anyone who has an interest in making powder horns, especially Southern Banded Horns correctly.  All of the students of the Southern Department of the Honourable Company of Horners (and I am one, by the way) have been taught by both Mark Ewing and myself.  I think the classes we taught on Southern Banded Horns were of some value to those guys.  If someone wants to come and work with me in my shop to learn how I make horns, they are more than welcome.  And by the way:  My way is not the only way.  As a teacher and mentor, I’m not that brash! 

You often show a wide range of details in your work, from different materials like pewter and antler and different finials and plug shapes/styles.  Where do the concepts for these come from? 

All of my ideas come from original horns that I have either examined or photographed.  Make note here:  I DO NOT COPY THE WORK OF ORIGINAL MAKERS.  Rather,  I use the original makers as inspiration to create an continuation of the art form that started in the late 1700’s Southern Piedmont.  If I turn a base band and rings en suite as many original makers did, I don’t copy.  I am careful to change details in the work so that it is not “a tracing”.  And I don’t do bench or museum copies.

Where do you get the inspiration for your horn engravings?
My engraved horns are purely contemporary.  I get my inspiration from being out of doors.  I live in the deep South near the Okefenokee Swamp.  Whether I am sitting in a deer stand, turkey hunting in the spring, or just out for a day walking back roads and woods trails, I am always photographing, drawing, and observing what I see around me.  I save those images…or bits of them.  I draw my patterns from  them.  I use lots of snakes and dragonflies as symbols of hunters and hunting.  Vine patterns are used for continuing or long life.  Briers and thorny bushes represent the trials of life.  Ferns are used for the quiet and reflection.  

Do you find that you have to switch work habits or mental process when you move from one horn style to another?
The basic design criteria for an engraved horn with an engraved throat is very different than a Southern Banded Horn.  With an engraved horn you are working with dimensions related to the Golden Mean.  The throat is so much of the total length of the horn, etc.  It is not so with a banded horn.  However, with the way I lay out a contemporary Southern Banded Horn, I have a set of dimensional relationships that I use.  It’s about balance.

Often we hear the term "southern" applied broadly and in general terms to describe different items.  What are some common misconceptions when the term "southern" is applied to horns in particular?
The biggest “misconception” is actually mistaken identity.  There is Southern and there is Appalachian.  The two are not related.  Southern begins in the 1700’s and carries well into the 1800’s in the southern Piedmont and reaches to the coast.  Southern includes parts of GA, SC, NC, and VA (well into the Valley of Virginia).  Southern can range from rough to very polished and decorative.  Usually very well made or with attempts to make it appealing to the eye.  From certain regions (Savannah, Charleston, Charlotte, Winston-Salem for example) it can be very highly finished.  Such areas contained trained craftsmen, generally of German or English origin. Appalachian begins in the early to mid 1800’s.  It is restricted to the Southern Appalachian regions of GA, TN, NC, VA, and even up to PA and into OH.  It is most always home made.  It has just enough work to allow it to function…it is built for hard use and is used hard.  Not much time was taken in the creativity department.    

 Are there any styles of powder horn than can be attributed to a specific region and time period in the Southern United States?
The only Southern Horn that I know can be so attributed in such a way is the Salem horns.  And those only that they were generally made in Moravian settlements.  Some students of the Southern Horn have begun to notice similar characteristics with in groups.  These are usually associated with river drainage and not with county designations like their cousins from PA.

What is your favorite style of powder horn to build, and why?
I build a good many Southern Banded Horns.  I am perhaps best known for them.  But, if I were to have to truly say what my favorite style is, it would be a contemporary banded/engraved horn.  They use aspects of traditional engraved horns and the Southern horns.  They have to be carefully thought out so the engraving flows as well as the horn.  Then the turnings must compliment the design of the engraving.  They are an exercise in balance.  I usually do about two a year.  They don’t come quick.

What is your approach to creating a horn?
If there is such an approach, it is to learn to listen to the horn.  The horn will tell the maker what it wants to be.   If the maker listens, the artistic elements of the horn will flow out and the construction will be a joy.  Through the years, I have learned to listen to the horn rather than to preconceived what I think the horn should be. The horn knows what it wants to be.  I as a maker, have had to learn to listen to the horn.   To make a horn is such a manner is not work.   As the horn is scraped, cut and drilled, it will speak to the maker.  It will fill his mind with what wood for the butt; what medium for the spout, band, and rings, and how these elements should be shaped and assembled.  It will flow out of the makers hands by means of his tools.  It will be a joy to make and an even bigger joy to use.  The approach, I guess, it to let the horn bring itself to life.  And to anyone who truly understands folk art:  Yes, they live.

What advice can you give to someone who wants to study and learn more about banded southern horns?
Available sources are currently limited.  There are collections in museums, a few scattered writings, and the Internet.  Take what ever you can find and continue to dig.  Talk to makers of Southern horns, find like-minded students and interact with them, go to museums that specialize in Southern Culture (such as MESDA).  Understanding of Southern Banded Horns is just really coming out of the dark.  If someone is interested, they should get involved and be part of the awakening of Southern culture…

Interview by Eric Ewing with photos supplied by Billy Griner and Jan Riser.

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