Seats for Students

Chairs embellished by artists will be auctioned off to raise funds for the Trenton After School Program.

By:Hilary Parker
   Mona Lisa’s smile wouldn’t have been as bewitching if Leonardo da Vinci had carved it from marble instead of painting it in oil. Likewise, there was a reason people chose to visit Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s "The Gates," rather than look at photographs of the Central Park creations. Film might not have done them justice, but it was the perfect choice to capture true romance in Robert Doisneau’s "Kiss by the Hotel de Ville." In the language of art, the medium an artist uses often speaks as loudly as the creation itself. So, what do 28 child-sized chairs — some sprouting sculptures, others bearing brightly colored paintings (veritable art-museums-on-chairs) — have to say?
   "It’s really an analogy," says Kay Roberts, who "chairs" the Trenton After School Program’s "Chairs for Children" fundraising campaign. Owing much to collaboration from local artists, the exhibit on display through Feb. 24 at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion is testament to the power of hard work, determination and generosity.
   "They represent the fact that we want to offer more seats in our after-school program for children," says Ms. Roberts. After their stay at Ellarslie, the chairs will be on display throughout Trenton and Princeton, and will ultimately be auctioned off on April 1 at Educational Testing Service’s Chauncey Center in Lawrence. The proceeds will be used to provide more spaces, more chairs, for children in TASP.
   Last April, TASP created a planning committee to organize the fundraiser, and from the brainstorming sessions came the idea of the Chairs for Children project. Al Aronson and Trudy Glucksberg, two well-known local artists and members of the planning committee, and Brian O. Hill, executive director of Ellarslie, were charged with recruiting local artists to turn small unfinished chairs into works of art. The chairs themselves may be small, but the project’s success has been nothing less than enormous, and the artists’ generosity with time nearly larger-than-life.
   While all of the artists were enthusiastic about a project that would ultimately benefit the children of Trenton, some took time to warm to the little unfinished chairs they temporarily adopted.
   "I approached it as I would approach a painting," explains Ms. Glucksberg. "I’ve never in my life done a chair, and I had little interest in painting furniture." The little chair grew on her over time, though, and came to take up a special space in her home, and her heart. "I actually got attached to it," she says. "It was sitting in my living room, and I miss it."
   Mr. Aronson wasn’t quite sure how to relate to his little chair either. Known for his large pieces of abstract art, a tiny chair was very much outside his artistic comfort zone, and for a time it sat, unfinished, like a child waiting to be acknowledged.
   Then, one night at 3 a.m., the idea came to him — he would do an art show on a chair. This led to his creation of 10 little abstract paintings all over the back and legs of the chair, plus a large painting on the seat.
   After retiring from a career in aerospace engineering, Mr. Aronson was a tutor with TASP for 10 years, and a board member for four. Though he gave of his time as a tutor, he felt as if he received so much personal satisfaction from his interactions with the children that he was pleased to have the opportunity to give even more to the program.
   "I felt like I was giving back something," he says. Although he doesn’t always love his creations — "I have a love/hate relationship with my work; sometimes I like ’em, sometimes I hate ’em" — he will admit to being pleased with his chair. "I guess I feel more good about it than bad," he says, like a proud parent trying not to brag.
   Just as children often take on characteristics of their parents, as Mr. Hill unpacked the chairs upon their arrival at Ellarslie, he found that the personalities and styles of the artists had passed on to the little chairs.
   "The interesting thing is, I do know quite a few of the artists and their style of work, and when I unwrapped them and looked at the chairs, I knew whom they were by," he says. "It was perfect."
   The chairs were perfect in form, and also in timing. Upon hearing about the Chairs for Children project, Mr. Hill was eager to have them on display at the same time as the biannual K-12 Trenton Public Schools exhibit, Trenton Public Schools: Children’s Art from Soup to Nuts, on view at Ellarslie through Feb. 26.
   Visitors now have the chance to view 500 works of art by Trenton youngsters — many of whom have participated in TASP — downstairs. Then, they can head upstairs to view the 28 chairs waiting to be auctioned off to help fund arts education, and other programs, through TASP.
   "The art aspect of a child’s development is just way too underappreciated," Mr. Hill says. "Because art gives you the creative difference in solving problems as adults. That for me is what it’s all about."
   Though Ellarslie is often home to works by noted adult artists, Mr. Hill admits a soft spot in his heart for the artwork of children. Children are not yet tainted by the world, he says, and they’ve not yet adopted the edge that life — especially the tough life many of Trenton’s children face every day — gives them.
   He is thrilled to host the chairs that will, ultimately, make life just a little bit better for many children. There will be more seats for them in TASP, and they will look forward to their time at the after-school program. The work with tutors on academic subjects is important, of course, but the satisfaction that comes from creating art, and crafting a happier life, is paramount.
   "Life is tough — art is fun," he says.
Chairs for Children are on view at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Trenton, through Feb. 24. Hours: Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m. Ellarslie on the Web: For information, call (609) 989-3632. For information about the Chairs for Children fundraising campaign or to purchase tickets to the April 1 auction at the Chauncey Center, call (609) 921-3596. On the Web: