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Old chairs, new art

One-of-a-kind castoffs become a blank canvas to benefit local agency

(John Schoenfeld)
By Nancy Shohet West
Globe Correspondent / April 2, 2009
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People who have fallen on hard times turn to Household Goods Recycling of Massachusetts for all sorts of used items: couches, mattresses, dishes, microwaves. Last year, the not-for-profit organization based in Acton passed along donated goods to more than 3,400 families.

But people don't usually take single wooden chairs. Most households need sets, for a dining room or kitchen table, and when the agency's volunteers checked its inventory recently, they found more than 100 unmatched straight-backed chairs.

Miria Ioannou had an idea: Why not challenge the many artists in and around Acton to see who could turn a plain wooden chair into a work of art?

Ioannou and other volunteers put out the word about the project, which they called "A Chair to Sit On." Artists of all ages - from high schoolers to octogenarians - were encouraged to take a chair home to decorate. Nearly 100 showed up to claim one, and the results will be auctioned May 1 at the Powers Gallery in Acton. The goal is to raise $10,000 for Household Goods Recycling to help pay its overhead expenses, including the cost of delivering items to its client families.

The artists were encouraged to treat the chairs however they wanted, said Ioannou. They could be painted, turned into a sculpture, brocaded, stenciled, even taken apart and reassembled. And that's just what many of the artists did, including Linda Hoffman, who generally makes sculptures out of objects unearthed from the ground around her Harvard farm.

"I took a really fine jigsaw and started unassembling the chair one piece at a time, taking each part off very cleanly," she said. "The way I work is that I start with my materials and wait for them to show me what will emerge."

What emerged this time was a chair-like installation Hoffman calls "All the World's a Stage." The back panel of the chair forms the stage, and a little bronze figurine left over from a previous project is the sole performer on it.

"I'm hoping someone falls in love with it," Hoffman said. "I picture it going to someone at the auction who views the piece with the same delight that I felt in making it."

Cynthia Durost, who teaches watercolor painting through adult education programs in her hometown of Acton and in several neighboring towns, was once a beneficiary of Household Goods Recycling, when she returned home after several years abroad, so she happily grabbed the opportunity to return the favor. Durost and several of her friends dropped by the agency to select their chairs.

"The chair I liked was curvy and had hearts on the back," Durost said. "As I worked with the chair, something appeared in my mind: a photo of Frida Kahlo," an influential Mexican artist, "that I keep on my painting table. She's got pink roses in her hair and a Mexican-style shirt and big wide skirt. I kept looking at the chair and thinking about how I could incorporate some of those elements into it. So I started collecting things: silk flowers, old lace, fabrics, all of which I attached to the chair. On the lattice is a tiny reproduction of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"All the artists I know who worked on this had such a good time exchanging ideas. I'm normally a landscape painter, so this is a change."

Durost's enthusiasm spread to her granddaughter, Avalon Galbreath, 17, who worked on her own chair for the auction.

Several area high schools have also gotten involved, including Concord-Carlisle and Acton-Boxborough Regional. Liz Mackay, an art teacher at Acton-Boxborough, said taking part in the project is the ideal way to show her students how art can contribute to a community.

"I try every year to do something with my students that demonstrates how they can use the skills and knowledge they've gained in art class to give back to the community, either locally or globally," she said.

"I see that as a really important aspect of art. In my classes, some kids might be pursuing art in some form as a career; others will continue it as a hobby. But no matter what, we can all use art to benefit other people, and I want to be sure they understand the significance of that."

When Mackay presented the chair challenge to the juniors and seniors in her portfolio class, they rose to the occasion.

"One girl connected her design with her passion for literature, making a chair based on Boo Radley of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' " she said. "Another did an 'Alice in Wonderland' theme. And one student smashed the chair apart and put it back together differently, with some added elements, to illustrate the idea of adolescent struggles.

"Each student took a unique approach, and that's something we encourage through nearly every aspect of our curriculum. Miria's project simply gave the students a wonderful opportunity to use their art to give something back to their community."

More details about the chairs, which are on display at various locations in Acton and neighboring towns, the fund-raising auction and Household Goods Recycling are available on the organization's website, www.hgrm.org.

Nancy Shohet West can be contacted at nancyswest@msn.com.