Not A Chair Sculptures

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Story by the Horse’s Mouth

(Thank you Joyce Cary)

One unrecorded day in 2020 I ventured into the upper loft of the studio to fetch some dry old barn-siding for splitting into kindling. While ascending the ladder I spotted a cluster of wood chairs in storage…all oldish ladderbacks and Windsors. Some were waiting for a repair — for years — others were pretty much old wrecks that had not quite been thrown out. Some were made by myself, and others made by whoever/wherever/whenever. Perhaps eight chairs in total.

Suddenly an a-ha moment…These old chairs are exactly what I didn’t know I needed to be the materials for my continuing exploration of painted wood sculpture.

Downstairs I took a good look at This Old Chair. I’m guessing it could have been made between 1930 and 1960. It wasn’t pretty, so there was little harm in transforming it into something new. Wobbly joints. Straight back. Clunky proportions. Never was comfortable. I had no idea what to do next, so I stared at the old chair — on and off —for several days.

I began to realize that I would be sawing the chair into pieces, and then reassembling the pieces into something entirely non-chairlike. I had the tools and techniques to move forward., having made chairs and taught chair-making for forty years, I used a handsaw to yield almost random pieces. As I sawed, I began to like the new pieces. They ‘became mine.’ I started holding and clamping the pieces in different ways and at almost random angles, looking for relationships that were visually pleasing, interesting and not usual. I like surprises.

Chair pieces sculpture can utilize the same construction as for making a conventional wooden chair— cylindrical mortises and tenons — like Tinker Toys. Mortises are drilled holes; the paired tenons are basically short dowels. Back when the chair was made, connecting tenons were turned on a lathe, along with the other cylindrical parts — the posts and rungs. My sculpture tenons are made with a hollow auger, a chairmaker’s device that attaches to a hand-held drill.

A major discovery was finding that paired pieces can be rotated or twisted, changing the joined angles and the overall appearance from being … a chair to … a sculpture.

There is some fussing getting the Tinker Toy joints tight enough to hold in place, and also loose enough to rotate the pieces until I like what I have. Glue has a role once I get to where I’m going. A saw or rasp is also used to further modify the pieces. With old chairs repairs are sometimes necessary. The sculpture project gets interesting when several pieces are connected.

I was inspired with a name for not-a-chair #1 — Circus. Other names appeared as I worked on each sculpture.

After glue-up comes painting —always with a critical eye. I use a water-base primer followed by multiple coats of metallic acrylics. Often I’m unhappy with the painting at some point. I push onwards until I’m pleased. The finished sculptures no longer look like painted wood, and metallics help with that. (A few of these have a clear oil finish; the wood was too attractive to paint over.)

I wanted Circus to be just right, and at the same time to be unique, and always interesting. Like the leaves of a tree, or a basket of lemons, everything is random and yet perfect. Or close.

When successful, the sculpture will maintain that impression when the viewer comes back later. Persistence is a good test for quality of any art. You should love it, and not wonder why you have kept this thing for so long. When looking at Circus you can— and should — pick it up and rotate it. Circus will also change in appearance with changes in lighting. This is especially true with metallic paints.

When I like the painting — again, after looking for several days — the sculpture is sprayed with a protective coating. Early pieces like Circus are sprayed with a clear satin enamel. More recently I’m using a flat finish that is protective but less visible.

I decided that Circus would not have dedicated base. Circus has no front view. It can be set onto a table or a sculpture stand in any orientation. If successful, the viewer will find interest looking from any angle. Your hands can also explore Circus as you explore new perspectives. I am curious to know what blind folks think when they look at my work.

I live with each finished sculpture while moving ahead with future work. Like parenting, after a while each each sculpture can go out into the bigger world. What’s next?