Of course it’s art: Tom Shields and his chairs in the trees


by Amber Nimocks

photographs by Juli Leonard

You scan the surrounding trees and spot other chairs likewise suspended, their rungs seeming to run through the trunks, at various heights and angles throughout the small, sparse clump of forest. It takes a few seconds, and then it clicks: Of course. It’s art.

The setting – an oft-overlooked corner of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s park – lends the installation Forest for the Chairs an element of sly surprise. The 32 chairs dot a stand of trees just down the hill from the soaring Thomas Sayre arches, but a speedy cyclist or hyper-focused walker traveling the park’s stretch of greenway might pass by without seeing them.

Frequent visitors to the park may even realize they’ve never noticed this small, sparse patch of forest. But when artist Tom Shields first laid eyes on it, he knew he had found a home for an idea that had been rolling around in his mind for years.

Shields, 41, is an artist in residence at the Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge mountains. His medium is furniture, and he employs a variety of pieces in his artistic vocabulary. Tables speak to him of support and community. Cabinets are boxes for secrets. Chairs are blatant representations of self.

“The chair literally supports the body,” he says. “It is a perfect metaphor for the person: Even the parts of the chair are named after parts of human anatomy – legs, backs, seats.”

For the past few years he has worked almost exclusively with chairs. For the most part, Shields creates contemplative pieces that express complex autobiographical stories and personal relationships. Push Pull features a pair of rockers connected by crisscrossed poles. Upraise 2 is a small chair coming through the seat of a larger one. Marriage ties a pair of tall chairs back-to-back, facing in opposite directions.

But Shields has long wanted to scatter the woods with trees, to make people stop, wonder, and smile at the whimsy of furniture that seems to be suspended in midair. The North Carolina Museum of Art’s latest show, 0-60: The Experience of Time Through Contemporary Art, in partnership with Penland, gave him the chance. The exhibit explores the passage of time, and includes a variety of multimedia works that employ wigs, photography, medicine cabinets and clock parts, among many other materials.

“I knew my ideas behind the piece would definitely fit in with the theme,” Shields says as he stands in the midst of his creation.

With Forest for the Chairs, Shields looks at the life cycle of the chairs and the wood that created them. The installation will remain until the elements take their toll on its components, and they fall to the ground, decay, and return to the earth.


Happy little trees

Shields, who grew up in the suburbs of Boston – and has lived in Albuquerque, France, Italy, and Providence, RI – has called Asheville home for the past 10 years. His Penland residency runs through 2014, and his work has been featured in galleries throughout North Carolina and the Southeast.

He is a lanky, muscular guy with wiry black hair that is laced with gray. His demeanor is subdued, but he smiles readily. He seems like someone who has grown out of taking himself too seriously. Shields says his father liked to joke with him about being an artist by bringing up Bob Ross, the mellow ambassador for painting who soothed a generation on public television.

“He’d say, ‘When are you going to paint the happy little trees?’ ” Shields says. “I feel like for me this piece is almost that. I’m just having fun.”

He uses found, donated and scavenged furniture and materials in all of his work. His studio is crammed with scores of chairs, many brought to him by friends or acquaintances.  “I’ll show up at my studio and there will just be a chair sitting there,” he says. “I don’t even know where they come from.”

In Forest for the Chairs, all but two of the chairs are ladder-backs. A transplant to the South, Shields was struck by the ubiquity of the form in our region. To someone born here, a stark ladder-back might be just what springs to mind when someone says the word “chair.” It’s all about perspective.

For Jennifer Dasal, associate curator of contemporary art at the NCMA, the ladder-back chairs communicate an organic simplicity. She says Shields’ work is a good example of a newly emerging artistic category that results from the intersection of art and craft. Ten or 15 years ago, she says, an installation employing furniture as a medium might not have existed.

“For artists these days, everything is available at their fingertips,” she says. “The border between arts and crafts and architecture is all beginning to be very blurry. As it gets blurry, artists can pick and choose.” She appreciates the playful humor of Forest for the Chairs and how it draws people in once it catches their attention. “You want to move off of the trails and into the trees just to get closer to it,” Dasal said.

Having a vision of forest filled with floating trees is one thing; bringing that vision to life is another. Once the museum gave Shields the green light for Forest for the Chairs, the logistical challenges began. He recruited a friend and fellow craftsman to help. First up was to figure out how long it would take to position the 32 chairs. He carefully plotted the locations to achieve the element of randomness. None is in exactly the same height in the trees. None is at the same angle.

To reach the plotted positions, he and his friend assembled and disassembled a 40-foot-tall scaffold – daily. To make the chairs look as if they are bored through the trees, they took them apart and put them back together, arranging them in holes cut into the trunks. Shields point out the joining points where eventually the trees will grow to cover the leg ends and braces, briefly uniting the dead wood of the chairs with the living wood of the trees.

He stops talking as a mother and two children wander into the stand of forest, their eyes darting around as they search for more chairs. Shields doesn’t want to give himself away. Watching the looks on their faces is all he needs.

Punk in spirit 

On his website, Shields describes himself as a “punk,” but that is perhaps not the best word for his philosophy. He embraces tenets of the punk-rock ideology, but not the drug-fueled nihilism of the lifestyle. Instead, at the core of his beliefs is a rejection of materialism that he traces back to his college days.

“It was very much a sort of political decision,” Shields says. “If I don’t really agree with consumerism culture, then I’m not going to participate in it.” He learned craftsmanship, making furniture by hand, embracing the do-it-yourself attitude popularized by both punk rock and the more recent sustainability movement. He also became passionate about reusing and recycling, incorporating cast-off materials into his work. Gradually, the craft of making furniture morphed into creating art with furniture.

Among his most memorable artistic influences, he says, is an elderly Italian craftsman who helped shape Shields’ approach to life as well as his work. Sustainability was simply a part of this older man’s life. If he were making a bench out of an old door, for instance, he would remove every nail and find a new use for it.

TOMSHIELDS3-W-060913-JEL“He makes his own soap, grows his own food,” Shields says. “It was very inspiring to know that all these old-time Italian folks are doing what this D-I-Y culture in the United States thinks is novel. It’s organic without it being a big deal. Shields remains dedicated to reusing and repurposing materials, but his attitude toward consumerism has softened somewhat. He owns a house. He buys food at the grocery store.

“I think it was just graduating and getting old and knowing I need to look out for my own financial future,” Shields says. “In the punk-rock community, it’s called selling out. I don’t buy a lot of things. I don’t have a giant flat screen TV. I don’t go to the mall.”