August 17, 2009

Portraits of Chairs

I was 11. It was November. And the Monona Police Department called my mother to tell her that her brother, my uncle Paul, was dead due to suicide, due to shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun. But before they told her that, they asked her if her husband was nearby and they told her it was best to sit down. I did not know who had called, but I very distinctly remember her running from the kitchen, through the living room, and into her bedroom, phone in hand, calling out for my daddy. And I even more distinctly remember the sound she made when she cried out in what I can only imagine was pure agony. I ran in fear to my bedroom and sat on the floor in front of my bed. Later Daddy took me into their bedroom where I found Ma sitting on the green loveseat with brown leaves, crying. You see, sitting is comfort. And the chairs are the support.

So here I am, sixteen years later, sitting at my computer, sitting in my chair. I’m doing the boring part of Photoshop – cleaning all the dust from my negative – and I’m thinking to myself I better come up with something really profound because this is an important show. Really important. I start fiddling and I look down at my arm and wonder, “Why the hell did I just tattoo my favorite chair to my arm?” Permanently. I will now have the pleasure of this particular chair forever in my life—not to mention the mixed look of disbelief and disappointment when I answer the eager question “What’s that one mean?” with “It’s my favorite chair. I just like chairs a lot.” I look over at an old photograph pinned to my wall. My uncle Garry sits in a highchair and Grandma is feeding him breakfast. Ma sits there too, with pigtails, and Great-Grandma, my own namesake, is tending to Ma. This is my highchair. All four of us – Paul, Ma, Garry, and me, grew up in this highchair. And in time, my kid(s) will grow up in this chair, too.

I remember the hideous gold colored rocking chair Ma used to rock me to sleep in. This is also the same rocking chair that Daddy taught me to tell time in with a clock puzzle. I remember the stick that the piano bench held against my bare legs. I remember the creak Daddy’s leather office chair made if you moved even a centimeter. And I remember the blond colored pressed wood table and chairs set I had as a little girl. There I sat and played such games as grocery, library, and office. This set stayed in my bedroom through high school, and even then I was attempting to sit in the chairs that no longer fit.

I was around age 20 during my first major furniture purchase. I went to the Salvation Army in south Oklahoma City with Ma. I got a lime green, cream, and black striped low-to-the-ground 70s burlap sofa. I also found a metallic dark olive green recliner that I hoped would be as comfortable and nostalgic as the gold recliner I grew up in, but it was not. In fact, I never sat in it. This chair belonged solely to my bookbag and my cat. But my most prized purchase, the thing I simply cannot let go of, is an incomplete kitchen set. Pressed fake wood table, round, with rusted bolts that keep the legs on. And three chairs. The middle bars under the chair legs are now falling apart, glue unhinging, and one of the chairs is split down the middle of the seat (caution: pinched thighs). These three are my special chairs.

My early years in college were when I began to sit a lot (due to chronic hip and leg pain), initiating my love affair and possession of my computer chair. I was paralyzed by the kind of depression that facilitates eating only $1.50 Mexican TV dinners, watching middle-of-the-night TV, and definitely only leaving the house to go to Wal-mart and buy more Mexican TV dinners. Sitting ameliorated the pain by a marginal fraction, but even a marginal fraction felt better than not.

To cope, I began a self-portrait project, including one of the kitchen chairs with me in the photographs. It was always the same one—the one that still had the most polish on it and least amount of cracks and breaks. I rarely sat in the chair—I mainly stood or sat next to it. My body became a ghost in those images, but never my chair. It was solid and visible, something stable and unmoving in what was my unpredictably emotional disaster of a life.

The summer I left for graduate school was the same summer that my photography mentor and close friend, Andy, was forced to move his studio space. While I only felt complete disorder and chaos—I had to climb over boxes, camping supplies, and tools to reach his couch—he felt inspired, at home, and comfortable. This was his space for over 20 years, and he was forced to move to a new studio a fraction of the size. There was no room. And thus, I inherited several of his chairs. His studio chairs became my studio chairs.

But the point is—and the truth is: I just love chairs. Mine especially, but also others. The first napoletan word I learned was chair. I like sitting. And I love stories. And the comfort that come from both of those actions. I love the person that gave me nearly every chair I own, and I love the people that now occupy them. All the stories that happen in them, like the ones I just told you. All the breakups and movies and books (facebooks and real books) and gossips and dinners, conversations, laughings, quick goodbye kisses, nailbitings, and wall-starings. All in this chair. My chair. It’s really important.

Portraits of Chairs