General 11-19-2006

Pragmatic Art: The Bedpanjo

Aaron Lundstrom is living in Baudette, thinking about art and what practical role it can have in the culture of rural Minnesota. One of the people he's come across in this process is Frank Stoyka--he'll tell you about it here.

Frank Stoyka
the Bedpanjo

It takes a designer to create and build an instrument. It takes an artist to make it sing.
And it takes a skillful light-heartedness to make a banjo out of a bedpan.

I have never used a bedpan in the usual way. But after meeting Frank Stoyka in Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods, I have played power-chords on a stainless steel beauty of a bedpanjo.

Frank is retired and wanted to do something different. The bedpanjo idea came to him after being inspired by a Canadian entertainer from Alberta who built a violin out of a toilet plunger. After some three years of muse and experiment, Frank eventually produced the bedpanjo from electric guitar parts, a cabinet knob, some carved black ash to hold the pickup and saddle, and a bedpan.

“There’s no hospital without a bedpan. This one belongs to me. Frank’s bedpanjo,” said Frank at an Old Thyme music event in Canada. Frank lives in Arbor Vitae, Canada, near the border town of Baudette, Minnesota. Frank’s instrument won him a contest on CBC radio that gave him the opportunity to strum the “Bedpanjo Waltz” alongside his wife, Pat, in front of 1,500 people in Ontario’s Thunder Bay Amphitheater.

Although having no stage experience, Frank did have some radio experience from many years ago. He operated Station G.I.N: The Breath of Arbor Vitae; an ‘unofficial’ station based out of his home that broadcasted country/western music for the neighbors.

Besides being creative, Frank is also a very practical man. He insists on shaking hands using only the pinky finger so as to prevent spreading a cold or the flu. His wife is a retired schoolteacher and is also practical. She makes great muffins and gives them away. Together they cross into Minnesota weekly to attend the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group with whom they do volunteer work.

The transformation from crude to beautiful is an essential part of art, just as it is in plain old life. Taking something ordinary like a bedpan and making it sing–this is an inspiration, especially so when what we create is used for the benefit of others. Frank has naturally utilized his musical artpiece in elderly care centers and in a program called “Heart to Heart,” which is set up for heart attack and stroke patients to come together and share their stories. The easy smile that the bedpanjo brings to an environment of sickness and difficulty is what makes his art truly beautiful.

Frank himself has endured a heart attack and is now being treated for cancer. He hobbles a little and he jokes often. He loves learning and gives you gas money for driving. His wife, Pat, reads magazines backwards and likes to watch hockey. She’ll cook a meal for you in their home and insist on sending food with you when you leave. They look at the future very positively. They believe that the earth we know today will eventually be restored to a paradise where cancer doesn’t happen, and where lions eat hay just like a bull does.

As for now, they heat their home with a wood-burning stove and survive every day with an aging eagerness, content to be alive. When asked how much his bedpanjo is worth, Frank modestly responds: “Priceless… it is one of a kind.” That is the pragmatic art of Frank Stoyka.