A seat of one’s own

Forget the restless wheel. Consider, instead, a certain other, infinitely more stable invention — one which truly defined the onset of rational culture, according to promoters of the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s Chair Show 3.

“Invented to help ease the human condition of walking upright, some form of receptacle for the human hindquarters has been in use since the early Egyptians, perhaps longer. Because sitting in a chair is not actually necessary for survival, the invention of the chair is said to symbolize the beginning of western civilization,” they state in their press materials.

And as Katherine Caldwell, the Guild’s public-relations director, points out, the chair — though quite difficult to build because of its complex joint specifications — is nevertheless the most common form of furniture in existence: “Everyone on earth, at least in this hemisphere, sits in a chair.”

This dilemma has presented few hardships to ambitious American artisans; instead, it has opened up a world of possibilities. From a national outpouring of entries, judges for this year’s show selected 35 chairs from craftspeople in 21 states.

The range of talent exhibited goes beyond impressive, to transcendent — proof not only of how many different ways a chair can look, but indeed, what a chair can be.

Those who lament the now-extinct standards of early craftsmanship will rejoice in works like Walt Schwinning’s “Writing Arm Windsor” — a gleaming walnut replication of that 18th-century design built entirely with hand tools — and John Higgenbotham’s upholstered “Mahogany Corner Chair.” As the latter’s title suggests, this diamond-shaped piece is built to fit in a corner, and appears to have only three legs when viewed head-on (there are actually four).

Amanda Butler’s “Grandmother’s Throne” is no comfy rocking chair, but instead an assertive, sharp-edged sculpture that seems to have assembled itself, in a tussle of insurrection, from the remnants of grandma’s sewing basket: The chair’s legs and back are formed by a giant pair of cherry-wood scissors, and the seat is pincushion-plump and starred with multicolored buttons.

“I’m a Little Princess,” by Laney K. Oxman, is even more personal. This lush divan — which appears to be half armchair, half altar — is paved with glossy, dramatically painted ceramic tiles. The prevalent colors are black and pink, giving the chair an art-deco feel, but the density of figures in the tiles also suggests a collage: Downcast nymphs, embracing couples, a woman with a dog’s head and fat tomatoes all keep edgy company, while a trim of golden tassels hanging from the chair’s arms and seat provides a balancing whimsy.

Some chairmakers, like James Dietz, chose to go back to the land — and stay there. His “Log Chair #7″ features an unfinished “found log” (complete with the scars of an aborted ax-split) as its seat. And Margo Proska’s “Tot Throne” is a meticulous snarl of willow that suggests a bird’s nest.

T.M. Smith and Vincent Rossi’s “Nil Desperandum,” on the other hand, is a chair that seems on loan from another galaxy. Vaguely bicuspid-shaped and painted the color of a hospital hallway, this postmodern marvel is studded here and there with constellations of tiny protrusions. The clusters are grotesque, like warts, but — viewed from a safe distance — as necessary to the piece as stars to the sky.

Baskets and beyond

The 52nd annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands runs Thursday, Oct. 21 through Sunday, Oct. 24, 1999 at the Asheville Civic Center. This season, the fair will feature more than 160 booths displaying fine crafts by Southern Highland Craft Guild members (the Guild represents top-tier mountain artisans in nine states). Everything from pottery and painting to jewelry-making and woodworking will be highlighted; in addition, attendees may purchase a chance to win one of three raffle items created by local craftspeople (donated by Guild members to help fund the organization’s ongoing educational projects): an ornate Santa Claus sculpture from Deep Gap-based woodworker Tom Wolfe (valued at $600); a raku-fired sculptural piece by Weaverville’s Steven Forbes-deSoule (valued at $550); and a mixed-media landscape by Candler fiber artist Bernie Rowell (valued at $360).

Dedicated to presenting the genre’s fresh faces as well as its established masters, the Guild proudly introduces the work of 12 new members at this year’s fair.

As usual, hands-on demonstrations will be an integral part of the event; this year’s emphasis is woodworking techniques. Once you see these energetic presentations, you won’t be able to resist their appeal, declares Guild Public Relations Director Katherine Caldwell.

In addition to crafts, the fair offers mountain-style entertainment — supplied this year by storyteller Sheila Kay Adams, bluegrass bands Split Rail and Hogtown Squealers, old-time trio The Dowden Sisters, vocal traditionalists Brooke Windsor and George Buckner, and fiddle legend Red Wilson (accompanied by Bruce Greene and Rob Levin).

Fair hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. each day, and admission is $5 (kids under 12 get in free). For more info, contact the Southern Highland Craft Guild at 298-7928.

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