Folding Chair

Five years ago Joel Sisson's blend of art, social work, and lawn furniture was the talk of the town. Now the founder of the Green Chair Project is sitting on a pile of dreams and unpaid bills.

Joel Sisson is poised to take on the world. "The Adirondack chair is a symbol of Americana, right?" he begins. "So we'd use the World Wide Web and all that to connect with youth groups in other nations, to find a symbol like the Adirondack in their country. Maybe it's just each country's idea of a chair. In some nations that might be a stool, in other countries it might be a stump or a throne."

The pitch of Sisson's voice--especially when he's enthusiastic about something--moves randomly high and low without ever dropping at the end of a sentence; it's a speech pattern that seems to match his free-flowing imagination. "And then, right under the 185 flags outside of the United Nations in New York City, we'd set 185 creations, each symbolizing a country."

You want to say: Earth to Spaceman Sisson, do you read me? Have you looked at your measly bank balance? Do you remember that your Green Chair Project is being evicted from its storefront because it can't pay its rent?

That you'll soon have power equipment spewing sawdust into your kitchen because there's no place else for the project to go? That your youth crew has been cut from 20 to seven because you have no money to pay them? That even your staunchest supporters are talking about your organization in the past tense?

But you don't say that. You know he'll just snatch another saltine from the pack on the table, rib the kids about the hip hop that just started blaring on the shop boom box, and say something like, "I know in my gut that there's so much potential here. It's still possible. It's just a matter of money."

Sisson's unflagging optimism, along with his boyish appearance--long, wavy hair in a ponytail, paint-spattered coveralls that hang on his lanky figure--make him seem younger than his 37 years. His chutzpah is contagious, especially when combined with his humble approach: People who used to give him money still remember the way he'd take them to his shop and explain that if they wanted to see what their dollars could do they should talk to any of the kids at work here. Some almost wrote checks right then and there.

In its heyday just a few years ago, the Green Chair Project was the darling of local media and nonprofit foundations--a symbol of urban renewal, neighborhood spirit, and teen self-determination. During its peak summer, in 1994, the organization employed about 40 kids to make nearly 1,000 chairs painted its signature shade of mint-milkshake green. The chairs popped up on the lawn of the state Capitol; in D.C. near the Washington Monument; on a Public Broadcasting Service documentary about Sisson's project, and in the news

from Houston, Texas, to Bonn, Germany. Corporate executives made chairs in team-building seminars led by Sisson; the Walker Art Center set up a larger-than-life chair outside its front door.

But lately the magic has worn thin. As 1999 begins, the Green Chair Project's checkbook balance is near zero. Sisson and assistant director Mike Hoyt have cut their wages and supplement them with outside contract work (Sisson does welding and house renovation; Hoyt is a set designer). Since midsummer, Youth Supervisor Kayeng Lor, 21, has been limiting himself to one meal a day, usually scavenged from friends who know what he's going through. The project has been asked to leave the Chicago Avenue storefront where it's been operating rent-free since April 1997; Sisson says the equipment will be moved to his loft/home in the former Hertz Truck Rentals garage on Nicollet Island. "My bedroom is going to be the office, and the shop's going to be in the whole work area and bleeding around into the kitchen," he announces, anticipating the flying sawdust. "I'm making myself a bed that will be more like a tent than anything else."

Sisson's voice turns subdued as he admits he has been "vacillating between depression and the highs from the potential of this project." Financially, the highs have been few and far between, except for an unexpected $7,000 donation from an anonymous charitable trust in December. The money allowed Sisson to pay the back rent on the Nicollet Island space and could keep the Green Chair Project going for a month and a half--two if they really skimp. He calls it "a little reprieve from a death sentence."

The story of the Green Chair Project's downfall is fraught with unique complications, conflicts, and personalities. But it's also a familiar tale, repeated over and over in the world of nonprofits--that peculiar industry that amounted to $10.4 billion worth of economic activity in Minnesota last year, according to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. A greater percentage of the working population is employed by nonprofits here than almost anywhere else in the nation; in certain parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul, it's hard to go five blocks without encountering some well-intentioned outfit seeking grant money. And just as in business, for every entrepreneur whose idea takes flight, many others crash and burn.

 

Sisson's idea was hatched in 1991 on the 3100 block of Pleasant Avenue, where he lived at the time. The way he tells it, he was painting the trim on the house he rented; some neighborhood kids wanted to help, but Sisson worried about splotches on the siding, so he put a wooden Adirondack chair in the yard and they all painted it together. The color was Valspar tint 257-3, now known as Symbolic Green.

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