CARY — Ask Peter Geiger how he started making guitar sculptures out of license plates and he’ll tell you: by accident.
It goes back about seven years, when he was still living in Long Island, N.Y., and selling cars. One night after work, he was playing guitar and his wife asked him to stop because the kids were asleep. He set the instrument down on his work bench, where there were some old license plates. On a whim, he traced the guitar’s shape on the tags, cut them into a sculpture and hung it on a wall.
Visitors would see the license-plate guitar, ask about it and refuse to believe it was something he’d made. So he made a few more. After the family moved to Cary in 2007, he showed them at a gallery and they sold right away. He kept making them and they kept selling.
Eventually, Geiger’s work came to the attention of an Arizona sports bar owner, who ordered 50. Then people started asking if he could custom-make guitars out of plates from certain states, or with the letters spelling out names or words. Word got out and soon he had famous clients, including country star Brad Paisley (who placed an order after seeing a magazine article about Geiger’s work).
“It’s been a stumble-along kind of art career,” he said. “But once I got to the point where I was listening to what everybody said, that’s when it really took off. I’ll take them to shows and people will look at them, make comments, and it’s like they’re the ones driving the creativity. They come up with the ideas. For an artist, it can be hard to listen to somebody else tell you how to create. But I was able to get past that.”
Geiger was still working as an auditor of car dealerships and making guitar art as a hobby when his family moved to Cary. But over the past five years, the art part has picked up to the point that he was finally able to quit the auditor job this summer.
Rascal Flatts contest
Things will probably pick up even more after his latest coup, winning the “Design Rascal Flatts’ Tour Guitar” contest. The massively popular country band solicited artists to design a guitar for its summer tour, which plays in Raleigh on Friday. Geiger’s winning design features tags from Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee, where the group’s members are from; plus the word “Changed,” title of Rascal Flatts’ latest album.
Geiger beat out more than 600 other entrants, and his design was turned into a laminated decal that has been affixed to an actual guitar. He’ll get an instrument autographed by Rascal Flatts at the show, which he and his wife are attending as the band’s guests.
“Yeah, the Rascal Flatts guitar is the first one that actually plays,” he said. “So it’s a special one to me because of that. Who knows, real guitars could be the next thing for this.”
Whether or not real license-plate guitars ever go into production, making the sculptures keeps Geiger plenty busy. He turns out several a week in his basement workshop, where he keeps stacks of plates organized by state on metal shelves.
Finding the plates
Geiger has a network of people and businesses who supply him with expired plates, and he also buys them online. You might be surprised to learn which state’s plates are the hardest to come by.
“Louisiana,” he said. “I don’t know why, but they’re hard to find and expensive. When I see those on eBay at reasonable prices, I’ll just buy them whether I need them or not.”
Geiger will also use plates that buyers provide. Custom jobs start at $420 and top out at about $1,400 (the most anyone has ever paid), depending on how much detail people want.
Former Cary resident Christine Dymek knew Geiger from when their sons played on the same baseball team, and she enlisted him to make a retirement present for her father – who had asked for a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. That was out of Dymek’s price range. But a Fender-shaped guitar sculpture made of plates from states where her father had lived and worked, from Maine to Alabama, turned out to be just the ticket.
“It cost significantly less than a real Stratocaster, but this has a lot more nostalgic value,” Dymek said. “It charts our life and his career, tied into something he’s really passionate about. Price tag aside, it’s the more valuable gift.”
Geiger cuts and bends his sculpture pieces by hand, fastening them with rivets. That’s one reason why he prefers to work with newer plates, which tend to be more pliable.
“I try to stay off really old tags, like this one,” he said, hefting a 1928 Pennsylvania plate heavy enough to serve as a blunt instrument. “It’s made of real steel, and it’s very difficult to cut. I did a banjo for somebody using their dad’s tractor plates, and those were almost impossible to work with.”
Samples line the walls of Geiger’s living room, license-plate sculptures shaped like Fender and Gibson electric guitars as well as acoustic models. The “Freebird” is made of Michigan and Georgia tags, with small wings on the side cut from Kentucky plates. It does look as if it’s about to take flight.
Not surprisingly, Geiger gets a lot of requests for sculptures based on various college sports teams – UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp’s mother once ordered him a light-blue “Tar Heels” model for Christmas – or patriotic themes. He’s done sculptures for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, memorials, graduations, Father’s days, you name it.
“I could do this forever,” he said. “I never get tired of it, because people’s stories are all different. They’re all interesting, too.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat