Canadian musician Bob Wiseman reunited with hand-painted guitar after 28 years
Truck driver who tracked down artist behind the pawn-shop find decided to return it to its original owner
This article was originally published Sept. 28, 2020.
Bob Wiseman says it feels "quite wonderful" to have his long-lost guitar back in his hands.
Wiseman, a Juno-winning musician and founding member of the country-rock band Blue Rodeo, was reunited with the colourful, hand-painted instrument this month, 28 years after it was stolen from the back of his car.
And it was all thanks to the efforts of a truck driver and fellow musician who found the unique item in a pawn shop 23 years ago and travelled the country with it before finally tracking down its original owner.
"I really enjoy people that are generous," Wiseman told As It Happens host Carol Off. "Doing meaningful things just makes it more worthwhile."
A gift from a fan
In 1990, Wiseman had just left Blue Rodeo to pursue a solo career, and was on tour in Winnipeg when a fan approached him and asked if she could paint his Takamine acoustic guitar.
"I seem to remember he had a keyboard splashed with paint. Perhaps that made [me] think he might be receptive to the idea," Winnipeg artist Cathy Kuryk said in an email.
"It was that kind of moment when you feel a giant hand pushing your body forward and you do something you never planned, and the results of your actions take you by surprise."
Wiseman agreed to have his guitar painted, and the end product was unique — splashes of colour, flames, patterns and animals.
On the back is a tiny self-portrait of the artist sporting a T-shirt that reads: "I am woman. Hear me belch."
Kuryk admits she's a little embarrassed by it now.
"Back then, I wasn't much of a technician in terms of art making. I had no patience. Ideas were the driver of anything I made, and planning ahead almost never happened," she said. "I allowed the images to flow freely."
But Wiseman loved it.
"It's kind of exotic and erotic in places," Wiseman said. "There's a lot to it. It's great. It was a really nice spirit. It was a really nice memory of this woman."
Wiseman says he cherished the instrument for nearly three years, and wrote songs on it often.
"I did a whole record ... with this guitar [Accidentally Acquired Beliefs], and one of the songs was called Ten Thousand Miles," he said. "That's about not being too attached to your problems, which maybe would be apropos."
An unexpected phone call
Then one day, the guitar was stolen out of the back of Wiseman's van in Etobicoke, Ont., along with the rest of his equipment.
"I still remember the gut feeling of going out and it being dark and seeing the windows smashed and everything gone, and just not realizing that about the world, you know," he said.
"And in the following days, everyone asking me if I had insurance. And, you know, I kept having to say no, I didn't have insurance. I have ever since, because of that."
He spent years searching for it in pawnshops to no avail, he said.
"I kind of made my peace with it. Yeah, I moved on," he said. "We recovered all the other equipment through pawnshops. But the guitar remained unfound."
That is, until Wiseman got an unexpected call from Bill Somerton late last year saying he had the guitar and wished to return it.
Somerton found the guitar in Gatineau, Que., pawn shop about 23 years ago, he said. At the time, he was looking for a guitar that wouldn't break the bank. This one was a little out of his price range, but he bought it anyway.
"It took a bit of a sacrifice to pick it up," he said with a chuckle.
Much like Wiseman before him, Somerton loved the instrument. Once an active member of Ottawa's rock scene, he now works as a truck driver delivering special artifacts to museums across North America. He says took the guitar with him on his travels for years, showing it off to anyone who would listen.
"I made a lot of friends with it," he said.
But he was always curious about the artist behind it. He searched for her after he bought it, he says, but had no luck tracking her down.
Now in the internet era, his daughter picked up where he left off. They finally got in touch with Kuryk, and on a recent trip to Winnipeg, Somerton met up with her to show her the guitar and tell her his story.
But when Kuryk told him the guitar, in fact, belonged to Wiseman, he knew what he had to do.
"I'll tell you a story. When I was just a small boy, my brother — who was five years my senior — took myself and my friend to a baseball game in Ottawa. And my friend and I found a wallet and was like, 'Oh, yay! Finders, keepers! There's money, we have money!'" he said.
"And I showed it to my brother, and he said, 'Oh no.' He said, 'The name of the fella's inside the wallet. We have to do our best to get it back to him. The rule is, if you know who it belongs to, you do your best to return it.'
"It stayed with me. So there was no question, it had to go to Bob."
With both men's busy schedules, and pandemic travel restrictions, it took months to arrange an in-person meeting.
But earlier this month, Somerton and and his wife drove from their home in Merrickville, Ont., to meet Wiseman in Toronto's High Park.
Somerton's only condition for returning the guitar was that Wiseman sign Somerton's copy of his latest book, Music Lessons.
"I mean that's the real story," Wiseman said. "This guy being that kind and sensitive and gracious."
Written by Sheena Goodyear and Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Bob Wiseman produced by John McGill.