I recently renovated the attic of my 1885 house into my studio. I evicted the bat squatters, took the entire floor with it’s sloped ceilings and odd angles, and molded it into a sprawling space for creating. An artist studio is a critical indulgence in this vocation – to have a space where I don’t have to worry about being messy or what other people might think about my mental state when they glance in. The space is entirely mine. Lots of the things lining the shelves make sense – materials, paints, wood, paper, books. They are the things I actually need to do what I do. There are, of course, things that I simply just love to look at. Rocks collected from travelling, beat up metal figures I found while digging up the garden, old photos and things I don’t even know what they are. I just liked the look of them.
And then there are the chairs.
I have 6 chairs in my studio. At least two of which don’t even work. I love chairs. Particularly old chairs, chairs I find on the side of the road that people are throwing away (hence the non-working models in my collection). If I see a decrepit rotting once-chair as I drive by I will, to the utter horror of my teenager, turn around at the nearest side street and load it into my car.
As I moved into my studio and began carrying all these chairs up the stairs, it struck as me funny and slightly concerning. What am I doing? I was beginning to question my mental state.
As far as I can tell all people in all cultures like to sit. And within our western culture it is on a chair of some kind. Chairs are one of the first things we fill our little box-houses with. They are the most common of commonplace in their function but beyond imitate in their actuality. And most importantly and attractive to me, they are full of stories.
If you go and find a chair at a thrift shop (or side of the road, I don’t judge, I encourage) it is a safe bet that it is old, probably at least 20 years old but more likely 50 or more. For those of you saying no way, let me remind you that 20 years ago only takes you to 2000 and 50 to 1970, so all those beautiful mid-century modern pieces are in fact around 70 years old. That is a lot of years of people sitting in it, living with it, eating dinners and doing homework with it. Family fights, first words, big questions, small moments, comfort and sorrow – they are all there silent and still. That’s a lot of history bound up in those pieces of wood and upholstery.
My favorite chairs are chairs in name only. I find old broken things beautiful, I always have. In university photography class I would waste rolls of film (yes, I said rolls) walking the cobbled alleys of Richmond documenting the decay. I loved it even if admitting it now makes me cringe for it’s sentimentality. There is beauty in something which has been used, has been a part of a life, moving past its function into object. It demands our respect and pause if we let it.
The chair pictured above is one of my street finds. It was clearly used often by people I will never meet. It’s craftsmanship tells me that it is old, it’s wear that it was loved. It is perhaps repairable but then I might not notice the exquisite hand carving, the mortise and tenon joints, the hand drilled holes for the caning of the seat. No, I love this chair exactly how it is. It was thoughtfully crafted, not just made.
Before you get too concerned, let me just say most of the chairs in my house are functional. None of them match (which makes me happy) and I do take the time to repair them if need be so they are safe to sit in. Then comes the exciting part – then I can begin to add my own history. When I look at a chair in my home I am reminded of the common everyday things that happen in my common everyday life; the things I take for granted. I see the meals we share around the table, and the games we play afterward. I see the books read curled in the sunroom. I see gatherings of friends and hours of homework and a myriad of other little things that make up the years. In short, I unsee the chair and I begin to see time.
Time is the one thing we want more of. We want to stockpile it for vacations and hoard it for sunny 75 degree days. But we can’t. We must spend the same amount each day no matter what. So we better make how we spend it matter. When I look at a chair I am reminded that the mattering of days is not only in the Disneyland Vacation days but in all the little things of each day. The time I spend with my son and not my cellphone matters. The time I sit with a coffee and catch up with a friend matters. The time I spend meditating and praying, being still, matters.
So, I suppose, my fascination with chairs is not as concerning as it first appears. We all have our little things that keep us grounded and appreciative of time. It’s a gift to be reminded of the preciousness of time in something so banal and ordinary. Unlikely reminders that though I cannot make extra time, I can craft what I am given.