Dan Collins on how woodworking brought him purpose, love, Shady Lea Guitars, and a supportive community of local creatives.
In 2000, photography school graduate Dan Collins never imagined that a trip to Vermont, taking snapshots for a family friend’s book on guitar-making, would provide the inspiration to one day start his own guitar workshop, teach classes, and own and manage a live music and event venue with his life partner, Ariel Rose Bodman.
Shortly after graduation, Collins traveled to Vermont to shoot some images of George Morris, who had been building guitars since the late ’70s/early ’80s and wanted to capture his process in a book. “I got there and totally fell in love with the process and with woodworking in general,” says Collins. “I’ve always been a very hands-on hobbyist sort of person, and woodworking was an awakening for me.” Morris offered Collins the opportunity to barter his photography work in exchange for learning how to build guitars, and he jumped at the chance. When he came back to Rhode Island with his new knowledge, he immediately got a job at a woodworking supply store and saved up money to start his own guitar making shop. Shady Lea Guitars was born.
Collins’ approach to guitar making at Shady Lea Guitars is as organic and fluid as the initial encounter that unexpectedly led him to the craft. “Every guitar maker approaches their craft differently; my process and techniques have changed with each guitar I’ve made,” Collins says. “This is because I’ve never made the same model twice. I’m always experimenting with new designs. That’s what keeps it fun!”
“There are just so many parts of an instrument that can be customized,” Collins continues. “Most start as a blank canvas and evolve throughout the building process.”
Collins also runs a guitar school at Shady Lea. “The students really feed off of each other’s creativity, too. Ideas are shared and encouraged here, and because of that, there is no telling what the next guitar will be. It’s always an adventure.”
To help create a space for students and local musicians to perform, Collins recently opened up his workshop to create a performance space. The main structure of the old converted pump house in Wakefield was erected in 1888, with a 1960s addition attached that houses the workshop and a small bar with coffee and other refreshments. Together, the two rooms make up Pump House Music Works. which for just over a year has hosted many of the area’s finest musical acts and the occasional out-of-towner.
Two to three shows take place each weekend, soon to become five, and the Pump House recently hosted a wedding for the first time. Acts such as Julie Rhodes, Ian Fitzgerald, and Arc Iris have recently played the venue. “But we really like giving opportunities to blossoming new music, too,” Bodman says. About 75 percent of the acts are local musicians performing almost entirely original music or jazz. The nonprofit’s biggest and best-attended event, however, is its open mic potluck, a concert-style community gathering with music all night and seemingly endless dishes to share on the last Saturday of every month.