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”Keep Rolling or You’ll Stop:” Matt Hempel’s Musical and Medical Journey

Written By The Mountain Eagle on 2/8/24 | 2/8/24

By Michael Ryan

HENSONVILLE - A well-travelled guitar tells a more-than-musical story that interweaves Matt Hempel with instrument makers in the town of Windham and elsewhere…and the Man Upstairs.

The tale is told by Joanne Puccio, whose husband, Ivan Balura, is one of the instrument makers along with Robert “Cue” Gerhard and Rick Mullen, collectively creating the “Owl’s Smorgasbord.”

This is a condensed version of her writing titled, “Turning One Guitar - And .One Man’s Life - Into a Work of Art,” which goes thus:.

“When Matt Hempel bought a Les Paul-style electric guitar kit five years ago, he could not have foreseen that its completion would entail it going through several hands,” Puccio writes.

“For those of you who may not know, a guitar kit includes a body of raw wood that must be sanded, sealed and stained, a separate neck and fingerboard that must be filed, finished and properly attached.”

The kit also contains, “a slew of electric parts and hardware that require installation and connection. It’s no easy task, all of which Matt was set to do until worsening kidney failure and blindness intercepted these plans.”

Those medical circumstances also “put an end to a career he loved as a correction officer at Columbia County Jail. Ongoing medical care will be required throughout his lifetime,” Puccio writes. 

“Matt’s medical problems are the result of diabetes he developed at the age of one. In the past eight years, Matt has undergone 19 major surgeries, a medical journey that has also been one of resilience and faith.”

Those procedures include, “life-saving open-heart surgery for a triple bypass and transplant surgery as Matt, now 40 years old, was thankfully the recipient of a donor kidney and pancreas,” Puccio writes.

“Matt and [his wife] Adrienne are dedicated members of Living Water Church in Poughkeepsie. At church, Matt and Adrienne often sit next to Ivan Balura, an artist and former longtime resident of the town of Ashland.

“Matt asked Ivan if he would paint something beautiful on [his guitar]. He requested a little owl, the kind that lives in a hole in a cactus.

“Ivan realized he would need someone else to do the prep work on the wood prior to painting it. He put the guitar into the hands of Rick Mullen, musician and guitar expert at the “Axe Shop” in Wappingers Falls.”

Mullen, “sanded the guitar, glued the neck and filled the frets,” Puccio writes, returning it to Balura who then “put the guitar into the hands of professional luthier and musician, Robert “Cue” Gerhards of “Gerhards Guitarworks” in the town of Windham.

“After Cue sealed and stained the guitar, it was Ivan’s turn to paint the custom owl design. Using acrylics in all shades of brown to simulate a wood burning, Ivan painted an owl sitting in a hole in a tree.”

The design also included, “seven critters that such an owl would eat: a spider, cricket, mouse, moth, bee, caterpillar and a diamond needle,” Puccio writes.

“Now, for the amazing completion and glorious transformation of the guitar, “Cue Gerhards applied multiple coats of polyurethane, with multiple sandings in-between, resulting in a high gloss stunning work of art.

“He connected the electronics and hardware, putting on the strings and tuning them. After its lengthy and difficult journey, this instrument was finally able to perform the task for which it was created; to make beautiful music.”

What was “once raw wood and a bunch of parts is now a veritable masterpiece,” Puccio writes.

“One can’t help but think the journey of this guitar is much like the journey of Matt Hempel. Long and difficult. Personal and unique.

“And yet, all of that, born in faith, is required for the transformation. All of that is required to create an instrument of such unparalleled beauty.

“As is written in Ephesians 2:10, “for we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ, so we can do the good things he planned for us, long ago,” Puccio writes.

“Once a correction officer, Matt’s desire to care for prisoners has now been transformed into ministering to prisoners at Greene County Correctional Facility through a prison ministry program called Kairos.

“Dealing with extreme hardships and challenges has led Matt to reset his priorities and path in life. Matt’s motto is, ‘keep rolling or you’ll stop.’”

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