THE BLACK CHAIRS
The black chairs. How many pieces of wood? Do we need to count them or assess the number of joints?
The first time I saw them was in 2007 on my first visit to the Springfield Museums with Brady, my then three-year-old grandson. After a light-hearted morning at the Seuss Sculpture Garden, we focused on the chairs. Musical chairs. As I noted the cluster of kids in the room, focused on the plethora of paintings on those five beige walls, the long unemployed teacher in me thought of the chairs as being in a classroom. That would explain why they were painted black–to hide the fingerprints of children who could have cared less about the art.
Subsequent visits, alone or with the boys, caused me to pause and rethink the blackness of those eighteen chairs. Were they clustered to separate naughty children from those who were quiet and studious? Then, in a throwback to my college years when I had my first friend of color, Were they merely guilty of being black? My friend Cookie, a tall and lanky girl from New Jersey, would understand this fleeting rear window view of the 60’s that has brought us to our current political racial divisions. She is a middle school principal now, keeping peace as retirement and freedom beckon. God keep her safe in Trenton.
I take a moment to count the chairs again. Still 18. I count the chair legs, some have the standard four while others feature a whimsical three. Like many of my generation, unable to stand alone, they need conjoined seats. What are the demographics of conjoined seats?Race – black and non-black ? Age – over 30 or under 65? Gender – women, married or single, or men? Religion – spiritual or agnostic?
Would a carpenter consider these conjoined seats as needing to be dovetailed? I move from chair to chair, testing the stability of each seat and trying on the personality of the person sitting on it.
There is one pair with four conjoined seats and nine legs. Immediately, I think of Bob and Christine, a couple since our freshman year at Worcester State College. The first and maybe the only couple that will celebrate a golden anniversary this year. Their arms and legs alternately stronger, physically or metaphysically, with each dip in the roller coaster of life. Christine lost the use of her left arm following a violent assault by a middle school student some thirty years ago. Her medications are industrial strength. Her surgeries continue on an almost annual basis. Until recently, it had become difficult to visit them because of my discomfort with the compromises that they both make on a daily basis. However, since the deaths of my daughter and mother, I have learned the art–and the value–of compromises in my life. I will visit them in Florida soon.
I rise again from my seat on the floor and read the signage on the wall. Seventy-Two Legs by Thomas Shields. Meant to seat eight to ten people. How curious to be viewing this work and reading this card when I had mentioned the black chairs to a classmate just two hours ago. Thomas Shields views the world as flat, he says, and that may have been my own opinion eight years ago. Now, I call him a liar.
Having photographed and pondered these chairs, I am now in a different place. Hopefully more mature, and–dare I say–smarter.
I don’t own any black chairs. My six dining chairs have blue denim seat covers. My two desk chairs are Ethan Allen maple, and my Daddy’s antique desk chair is a swivel on casters.
A final glance at the Shields chairs brings a new reality. Non-confirming seats and legs, and yet all of the seat backs are separate. Eighteen seat backs for eighteen souls with separate perspectives, distinct lifestyles, and individual personalities.
Such a minor detail and yet such major truth.
To see more of Thomas Shields “used wood” art installations: go to http://penland.org/programs/resident%20artists/shields.html or click on the image of his “Seventy-Two Legs” above)
Lydia, our resident Renaissance woman, shares her unique views and experiences with BOLLI members in this regular BOLLI Matters feature. Lydia also serves as co-facilitator of the BOLLI Matters crew.