Sunday with Zin: Furniture as Art

"Palimpsest Bench" by Seth Keller and Michelle Janssens Keller, photo by Mike Krivit, Krivit Photography

“Palimpsest Bench” by Seth Keller and Michelle Janssens Keller, photo by Mike Krivit, Krivit Photography

The Furniture Society and Maine College of Art present an exhibition of collaborative works: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is an exploration of work in all mediums by pairs and/or groups of artists at different points in their career, ranging from emerging to established artists through collaborative projects.

Hello, I am Zin! Until I saw this exhibit at the Lewis Gallery in the Portland Public Library, I never thought of furniture as art! Furniture is something you sit on or put your books on, and sometimes it is pretty (I have a beautiful roll-top desk and some barrister bookcases I am quite fond of) but art? Yes, art! I only regret that the exhibit was named after one of my least favorite stories of all time! But I very much enjoyed the exhibit!

My favorite was the piece shown above, the Palimpsest Bench by Seth Keller and Michelle Janssens Keller! A palimpsest is a text, usually a very old one, that has been written over, like a re-used canvas for a new painting, and this happened a lot in ancient and medieval times. The most famous one is probably the Archimedes Palimpsest, which started out when an 11th century scribe in Constantinople copying some works by Archimedes (from about 212 BCE) onto parchment; then 200 years later a Christian monk reused those pages for a Greek prayer book! That is quite a statement, yes?

The Palimpsest Bench presents one text carved lengthwise and one crosswise and if you try hard you can read both! You can see in the above detail the letters are carved in different fonts, and the lengthwise text is painted white. You can see a better picture of the overall bench here.

I was lucky enough to connect with Seth by email, and he gave me some additional background about the Bench, and the Minneapolis arts/literature community from which it sprang:

The bench was completed in 2009 as a part of a collaborative project I did with 6 writers from the excellent Minneapolis/St. Paul writing community. You may want to search Talking Image Connection out of Mpls. put on by Alison Morse, to shed more light on the project. I believe there is a nice video on 3-Minute Egg, a video blog about the arts in MN.
I cut the tree down myself, and milled it too, and then waited 2 years for the wood to dry. The construction and carving probably took 3 days??? I chose the fonts mostly based on the contrast. I painted the white into the first set of carving, sanded the paint off, and then carved the second set of text, and then finished the whole thing.

I found the 3-Minute Egg video especially exciting, not only because Seth explains where the trees came from, but because I happen to know one of the writers he worked with, Marc Rapacz, from Zoetrope Virtual Studios! See, we really are all connected! Sometimes a bench reaches all the way from Minnesota to Maine!

Then Michelle told me a little bit about the text:

I did write the text…originally it was part of my graduate thesis for my MFA in creative writing at Hamline University. I cut it down to fit this project. It is actually about my grandfather, who was an immigrant from Belgium. I never met him, and he was a man of mystery to my entire family. I also was working with refugees and immigrants at the time of the project, which further inspired my exploration of story/myth, immigration/migration, home/identity/displacement, and most importantly the idea of an immigrant as palimpsest. Here is the text:


Take the dark-eyed immigrant back further in time before the teenage run-away and give him a baby writhing blue then red with rage as a different wife’s blood pours away. Take him further back into the story before that wife dies, before they meet in the New Country and marry. Put him alone on a boat, starboard set for America, position him hunching over the corpse of the first wife, rain ruining the glint of his medals, weighting down the fabric of his dark woolen uniform. Make him stand alone as the Atlantic paws the ship like prey.


If this water were human it would be insatiable. A constant roar swallowing shore in gulping bites. But also conflicted. Choosing half its life to surge forward over borderlines, running thin with this flooding, seeking to cover. Then the hesitation and the reversal to the other side. The revelation. Half a life spent receding, leaving the inevitable hard bits of its underbelly exposed to be picked over and scavenged by beachcombers and gulls. Such a burden to be divided like this. Did he love this place, walk these dunes, touch this sea? Yes, I’m sure of it. But did he love them? I’ll never know. You can crave something and not love it. You can know a void un-crossable yet obsess along its edges. The sea. A life. A grandfather.

— Text by Michelle Janssens Keller

The idea of the immigrant as palimpsest… is that not an amazing concept? It is absolutely brilliant, and adds a depth of understanding to the project as a whole that I had not seen at first! In fact, there is so much more to this piece than I saw at first, I am in awe of the project!

There were other wonderful pieces as well, like the Rivers Series by Bill and Saer Huston of Huston & Company Furniture:

The Rivers Series evolved out of a desire to explore the inherent connection and interaction between furniture design and the unique grain patterns in wood. Using the naturally flowing lines of the wood grain, a pattern is carved into the surface. In one design the lines increase in depth, allowing the form to catch light and cast shadows, changing the appearance from different viewing angles. In another design the pattern is carved into the entire surface, creating texture and evoking emotion.
The table forms are classic, built with American hardwoods and precise joinery. But by allowing the surface designs to be created by the wood’s natural grain structure, there is a free-form spontaneity and creation from intuition that brings out tension, drama and surprise.

Wood is so beautiful, when it is handled like this! One piece turns into water! Another looks like carved ivory!

A furniture maker named Charles Radtke teamed up with silversmith Sarah Perkins to make a cabinet they called “One of One” (sounds sort of Borgian, yes?) that included enameled silver panels. Peter Handler and Karen Singer made a Coral Reef Table (I think the captions on the website pictures are reversed) which put coral seascape under a glass table top, it was very beautiful!

Then at the end of the exhibit if you walked through from the entrance was a fun piece by Aaron Miley and Steven Sandler, called “Note to Myself” – I could not find a picture, but it was a simple table with the top covered by pads of sticky-notes and tiny pencils sticking out of holes in the tops of the legs so people could write a note and leave it on the pedestal the table was set on!

I left a note: “This made me very happy, thank you!” It was the perfect way to end a wonderful exhibit!

One response to “Sunday with Zin: Furniture as Art

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2014 : Sabine Heinlein, “Portrait of the Writer as a Rabbit” (non-fiction) from Iowa Review, Spring 2012 | A Just Recompense

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