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More 'gossip bench' than ever

An artist turns a relic into a real conversation piece for charity, as other chair transformers are doing.

Published May 28, 2004

DAVIS ISLANDS - When artist Joan Allyn stumbled across a quirky old "phone chair" at a local antique store not too long ago, she knew exactly what to do with it.

Her instinct was to paint the chair with the bold, colorful images she sees while on her daily walks around Davis Islands: sun, moon, sky and water.

"I like to resurrect things, bring them back to life again," Allyn explains. "Most of the time I don't paint on canvas."

In fact, nothing escapes Allyn's paint brush.

Not the driftwood she collects along the island's sliver of urban beach, not the buckled, rotted plywood she plucks from Seddon Channel, not fallen palm fronds or branches from the gangly schefflera that towers over her brightly painted house.

She has painted on X-rays, wine crates, even the chunks of wooden fruit on her dining room table.

So when the organizers of "Chairs for Charity" asked Allyn to join 100 or so Tampa Bay area architects, builders, artists and contractors turning ordinary chairs into unique works of functional art, she happily agreed.

Her chair, known in a previous life as a "gossip bench," consists of a seat and small table that are connected, a clever innovation from the era when phones had cords and one per household was enough.

Whether they're shaped like peacocks or pears, like swirls of abstract sculpture or 1950s metal motel furniture, great chairs make for great conversation pieces.

Consider the round, metal, ultramodern chair in the style of Jean Royere in the current issue of Metropolitan Home. Or the zany blue and black dining room chairs from the '80s postmodern design movement in the spring issue of Oprah's O at Home magazine. In the May Better Homes and Gardens, a former floral designer decorates her porch with thumbprint-shaped wicker chairs from Ikea.

"Historically, many artists and architects like Frank Lloyd Wright have designed chairs to go in houses," says Jay Goulde, executive director of the Outdoor Arts Foundation, which is partnering with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to put on the "Chairs for Charity" event. It's the third in a series of large-scale community art exhibits that have included fiberglass turtles and dog houses.

About half the chairs will go on display at Reeves Import Motorcars by June 22. In July, the chairs will appear at malls, movie theaters, hotels and other visible locations throughout Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

All of the chairs will be auctioned off at a gala party in January.

Goulde, a collector of funky chairs himself, says the notion of artist-decorated chairs is not only fun but savvy from a fundraising standpoint: After all, he reasons, people need chairs to sit in.

And they will buy them as art.

Artist Cindy Arriola of Temple Terrace designed a chair for the event that she describes as "cartoony, psychedelic and pop."

She found it in the mark-down room of a furniture store at the University Mall. She thought the chair's perfectly rounded back looked a lot like a face, possibly a cat's. Inspired by her own three kitties, Twiggy, Chuckie and Maynard, Arriola cut cat-shaped ears out of plywood and soaked them in water overnight to make them malleable. When she attached them to the back of her whimsically painted chair, the result was a smiling-Cheshire-meets-Keith Haring, the late pop/graffiti artist.

Arriola then painted the legs with layers of bright polka dots and stripes, a look, she says, that was inspired by Mexican design "and a lot of other stuff in my head." She upholstered the seat in "groovy" pink fabric that looks like it came straight from the set of a Doris Day movie.

Arriola, 34, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, admires the work of Bauhaus era architects Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Le Corbusier, who also designed chairs.

"My goal was to create something that was both artistic and comfortable," she says, "something you can really sit in."

Joan Allyn's chair is also meant to be functional. Her design reflects the influences of Spanish surrealist painter Joan Miro and abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Her studio is her entire 1,900-square-foot, 1950s ranch house, which sits across from the Peter O'Knight Airport runway. She bought the house from her mother in the mid 1990s and has since transformed it into a soulful, art-splashed space. Her art, mostly "found objects" that she has painted and turned into things of beauty (like the serpentine tree branches that now look like walking sticks) to fill walls, corners and tables.

She even swirled her blue and green paint on the terrazzo floor, creating the sense that a great wave of saltwater somehow lapped in the front door.

Allyn typically works at her kitchen counter or at a large drawing table in the front room, where she can look outside and see a hint of airport runway.

A respected massage therapist with a large word-of-mouth business, Allyn spent 14 years farming on a kibbutz in the Israeli desert. She then spent eight more years living in Jerusalem before returning to the United States with her four children.

A cactus garden in the front of the house reflects her love of the desert, as does her art.

She holds out a piece of wood she painted, as if it were a primitive map:

"This is how I saw the desert where we lived and the road that went through it."

She also is profoundly influenced by the Davis Islands channel, which she calls "mysterious and changing."

"I love it at night," she says. "I love to look at the water, the colors, the patterns, the way the water changes."

Like the rest of her art, her "phone chair" comes with a real message.

From her heart.

Allyn painted it with the things she sees while out walking on Davis Islands as well as the abstract faces of children and adults talking.

"I think everybody is connected by good intentions," Allyn says. "Because it's for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, this chair is all about people connecting across land and sea."

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 11:52:05]

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