Shawnee Mission Faces: Mark Franzke, artist luthier and realistic perfectionist

Mark FranzkeIt’s been 15 years since Mark Franzke began crafting stringed instruments. As a lifelong artist, he sees himself as much more than a luthier of guitars and mandolins. His hobby eventually grew into a living, as musicians have sought after his products and requested custom orders. He worked for Hallmark for many years before devoting full-time attention to his work as an artist luthier. He lives in Prairie Village with his wife, Mary Franzke. The musician-couple often plays bluegrass and folk music together.

I call it a blessing and a curse in some ways. The drive to create or the drive to make art… it haunts you night and day. I mean, on the one hand, I love when I finish something and I love the beauty of it, and even though I know maybe you don’t see any mistakes or that sort of thing, I know what I would like to do better the next time. And that’s what drives me. That drives me to try and make something that’s perfect, knowing that perfection can never be achieved.

You wake up in the night and you think about that little part of the dovetail neck joint that you didn’t quite get the right way and what you’re going to do to make it fit better. Or you’re constantly thinking about how you’re going to approach the finish or how you’re going to go about cutting the mother-of-pearl design that you’ve created. It never stops. When I’ve talked to other artists about it, it’s something that’s just really difficult to explain if you don’t understand it.

It’s more about who I am than what I do. What I make are musical instruments, so I’m a luthier because that’s what I make. But I feel like I come at it as an artist and not as someone who is just making an object or a product. I’m not trying to make a product; I’m trying to make art.

As an artist, it’s more about the process of creating something than it is about having a product in the end that drives me to create. I just love the work. It’s difficult and frustrating trying to fit a perfect dovetail. It’s also a part that no one will ever see, but I know it’s right, and that’s very satisfying.

When I was a kid, my dad was an artist, and I wanted to do what he did, and I worked at it. No matter how well you do something, you always want to try and do it better. And you know that you can do it better the next time.

This year I’m going to hit number 100. I will have made 100 instruments since I started in 2005. So in order to get to 100, I had to make 1 through 99 — knowing that each one is going to get better.

I’ve refined my design to where I really like where my design is now, and each one is fairly similar as far as the structure of it goes. I make about four or five different mandolin styles. I feel like I can get there because I have mastered all of the processes that go into it. I don’t even know how many different processes there are: There’s carving and there’s bending wood, there’s shaping, there’s cutting mother of pearl. There’s all these different things, and you have to master each one of those parts of the process.

With number 100, I feel like I can take liberties with the design, make some changes and I know it’s still going to be good. But you can’t get there without going through it. A lot of people will start something. They might start a drawing or they might take a painting class to start a painting. They get halfway through and they think, oh, this is terrible, I’m going to throw this one away and start over. But you have to finish it. That’s what the drive is that is hard to explain. I don’t know why I’m driven to go ahead and finish, but I have to.