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.

Sisson and FORECAST sent out mailings about the chairs; newspapers and TV stations ran stories, and soon the orders began pouring in. All the Adirondacks were sold for between $40 (unpainted) and $50 (painted); before delivery, Sisson and cohorts hauled them to the Capitol, where buyers were invited to participate in a group photo.

It may have been Green Chair's golden age. "The project had a spirit to it that was charismatic, intoxicating," recalls Cuthbert. "There was this surreal absurdist quality to it. It was neither fish nor fowl, but we looked at it and thought, 'Why shouldn't youth training programs enliven and excite the imagination?'"

"The green chair became a symbol for people--an Adirondack bumper sticker in a sense. People, organizations, coffeehouses would have green chairs out, and it meant that you supported a sort of spirited urban activity."

It also meant that you got an inexpensive piece of lawn furniture. Assembled Adirondack chairs typically cost more than $100. There are no figures on exactly how much each Green Chair costs to make, but those involved freely admit that the project couldn't have lasted without subsidies. In 1994, the project's budget was $67,000; of that, about $30,000 came from chair sales, while the rest were public monies and foundation grants.

To some, that fact alone means the project failed the low-income, often minority kids it set out to serve. Shelby Steele, a scholar affiliated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author of The Content of Our Character, has studied the role of charity in race relations. "On a larger level, this kind of enterprise is what I call iconographic reform," says Steele. "It's an icon of white virtuousness, white concern: You can buy chairs, and have the illusion that you're doing something. 'I'm a good person because I bought a green chair.' But the fact that the organization doesn't make a profit sends the message that these kids are surviving by charity."

Sisson, for his part, didn't mind that his project could not survive on chair sales--on the contrary. By late 1994, he was worried about becoming "just a chair-making factory. People started looking at us as a source of cheap chairs. But there was a whole lot more involved." He was dreaming again: What if the symbolic aspect of the chairs were blown up to gigantic proportions--if they lost all practical purpose and became pure public art?

In the fall of 1996, Sisson, Becker, two more adults, and nearly a dozen kids associated with the Green Chair Project piled into cars and headed to Washington, D.C., following the biggest U-Haul available. The truck was loaded with two 14-foot-tall green chairs and 55 regular-sized ones, each adorned with the outline and motto of a U.S. state or territory. With the help of students from Duke Ellington Arts High School in D.C., the chairs were set up first in front of the U.S. Capitol and then at the foot of the Washington Monument.

The chairs instantly became a landmark, recalls Becker: "People would look around, they'd look for their state's chair, and they'd go sit in it. They'd ask: How did these chairs get there? Who are the kids that made them?" Sisson, he says, had tapped into a powerful symbol: "If you actually climb up in [a big chair], you feel like a kid. Joel readily admits that he was inspired by Edith Ann, the Lily Tomlin character. And it's a great photo opportunity. People like to have their photos taken in the big chair. Joel has a great intuitive sense of that."

In a way, the Washington Monument installation was the culmination of Sisson's found-art vision for the Green Chair Project: "You put stuff out there and let things happen," he says. "You can't dictate what happens. One of the things that we found in D.C. is that most of the monuments are very dark, stoic. We saw hordes of people, as soon as they saw our chairs, run toward them like kids."

Walker Art Center chief curator Richard Flood says Sisson's vision fulfilled "the best ambitions of public art. It's about a bigger issue than something that's dumped on a traffic median. You have a celebration of human endeavor in the best possible way. And it also reflected a sense of community that's rarely evident in public art."

 

Greg Mason, 25, digs through a pile of chair parts, sorting them into stacks of slats, legs, and armrests. Lined up along the walls are newly made chairs, carefully labeled parts, and "jigs"--pegs and guides set up on a work table so each chair will feature the same slat spacing, the same angle of seat and back. Sisson came up with the jigs, and workers have altered them over the years in an effort to make the chairs more sturdy. The kids run this shop, says Mason, who proudly notes that he's written references for four of the workers he supervised last summer.

No one was asking Mason for references in 1996, when he was fresh out of jail in Gary, Ind. His mother put him on a Greyhound to Minnesota, where his father lived; a friend told him that he could make money building green chairs. He arrived at work on time every day, worked hard, and last year was promoted to mentor. He supervised 10 summer workers, most from low-income families, many speaking Spanish, Lao, or Cambodian in addition to English. The place is full of stories like Mason's--prototypical Green Chair tales of hope, work, and self-respect.

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