Features

Local artist spruces up city with StumpChairs

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, October 29, 2012

It is fitting that Providence’s own artisanal vigilante – working in a city known as “the creative capital” – concerns himself not with vandalism, but with woodworking. Under the nom de guerre “Johny Chair Seed,”  a name coined by a Providence blog and embraced by the artist, he roams Providence at night, transforming ordinary tree stumps into extraordinary chairs, including at least one stump on campus.
Two to three hours before daybreak mark prime stumping hours. Johny, who asked to remain anonymous to encourage others to build StumpChairs of their own, must build his guerilla artwork unnoticed by the eyes of the general public. Armed with a bag of drill bits, he has learned to stump efficiently: drill, glue, screw. In those three steps, a StumpChair is born. He and members of the select circle of those who know his secret install the chair and leave the scene in fewer than 10 minutes.
For Johny, a college student who currently resides in Philadelphia, “stumping” is as much a late-night pastime among friends as it is an art. “If we don’t have anything else to do, I say, ‘Hey I feel kind of stumpy. Do you want to go out?’ or ‘It’s getting kind of stumpy out. Do you want to go stumping?'” Johny paused. “There’s a whole adjective, noun and verb.”
Stumping is generally a spontaneous act that depends on Johny’s supply of chairs. In the beginning, he said he foraged for his supplies on Sunday nights, the night before trash collection, biking along streets teeming with abandoned chairs. Now, he receives enough emails from local residents offering their unwanted chairs for his purposes that he may consider retiring his bike, he said.

Transforming ‘eyesores into Windsors’
StumpChair’s roots in the University community run deep. In its fifth year, Brown’s A Better World by Design conference featured the work of StumpChair as an example of sustainable, socially responsible design. Joanna Zhang ‘13.5, a member of the 2012 committee for the conference, said she sees StumpChair as a “wonderful piece of whimsy.”
This August, a StumpChair appeared on George Street, directly across from Barus and Holley. The fungus-speckled stump now dominates the sidewalk, its massive roots having ruptured the herringbone pattern of brick long ago. The chair itself is simple: a round backing encircling spindles, Windsor style. It attracts the gaze of the occasional rubbernecking driver or rushed student but is mostly left alone.
The chair is also comfortable – it was designed that way. When a StumpChair is installed, a volunteer sits on the stump to locate the prime spot, which will be the seat of the chair, according to a documentary about StumpChair. For the stump in front of Barus and Holley, one half is mushy, and the other is firm. The back of the chair rests on the division between the two to ensure the sitter’s comfort.
Often returning to the scene of the stump to observe his work, Johny said he sees more people photographing his work than actually utilizing it. “It should be a functional chair before it is art,” he said. In accordance, StumpChair’s motto is “Making eyesores into Windsors.” Michelle Johnson ’15, who passes by the George Street StumpChair frequently en route from Perkins, never noticed the chair until one of her friends pointed it out to her. “It’s surprisingly comfortable,” she said “I have a new sitting spot now. It’s a good place to reflect.”

Providence: A prime seat for stumping
There’s just something about Providence that makes it the primordial soup necessary to bring StumpChair to life. Johny cited two principle reasons: the city’s compact size and its abundance of stumps.
In a smaller city like Providence, it is easier for StumpChair to become a landmark of the local culture, the artist said. While StumpChairs have become an institutional quirk of this artsy community, they face less favorable conditions elsewhere. Other cities expedite stump decomposition with potassium nitrate, clearing the city of the stumps and offering artists like Johny precious little  StumpChair real estate. The first chair installed outside of Rhode Island – in Philadelphia – was swiftly removed.
“Here, it’s easy to find stumps,” he said.
But StumpChair didn’t take off right away in Providence, either. The first StumpChair Johny ever built was removed from Power Street within a matter of days of its debut, he said. From the remains – specifically the nubs of a spindle of the late StumpChairJohny built a miniature StumpChair on the same stump, which was also removed.
But while the first StumpChair in both Providence and Philadelphia may have been doomed, most other chairs have survived, some for more than a year. Johny estimates his current legacy to be 20 StumpChairs, he said.

Secret, but not protected
While Johny has occasionally been discovered by others in his clandestine work, he is rarely confronted about his actions. When Johny installed a StumpChair on Power Street, officers from the Department of Public Safety discovered him, observed him for a minute, and then smiled, waved and left, he said. In fact, almost all of the few who spot Johny in his element do not say anything. One man who discovered Johny working on a chair in broad daylight asked him if he was the artist behind StumpChair, he said, but Johny told him no – he was just fix
ing the chair.
“He’s not very protective of the secret,” said Jimmy Rudolph, who attended the Wheeler School with the artist, marking his place among the elite few privy to the artist’s identity. He is often asked if he knows the artist, but rarely reveals Johny’s identity.
The artist chooses to remain anonymous to the public so others do not feel as if they are “infringing on his ideas” if they choose to make a StumpChair, Rudolph said. The legality of installing StumpChairs is also still in question, he added.
Rudolph released a 10-minute documentary entitled “A Good Night for Stumpin'” online Sunday, which he hopes will encourage more people to follow in Johny’s footsteps. Essentially an instructional video regarding the installment of a StumpChair, the video preserves Johny’s anonymity while revealing his wiry frame and dexterous control of a screwdriver.
Two anonymous citizens have already paid homage to Johny’s work. A StumpChair was erected on Sixth Street by a fan of the franchise, which has square spindles instead of Johny’s preferred round spindles. In an affectionately inverted tribute, another fan placed his creation – a chair whose back comprised gnarled tree branches sprouting from its seat – by a StumpChair.
StumpChair may also branch out to worldwide communities. Johny has been in talks with StumpChair enthusiasts in San Francisco and Berlin who hope to introduce the art of stumping to their respective communities. He keeps in contact with StumpChair fans via Facebook and a StumpChair-designated email account.
StumpChair has also nurtured an association with poet Shel Silverstein’s book “The Giving Tree,” which concludes with the image of an old man resting on a stump, all that remains of his arboreal friend.
“A tree stump can be more than an ugly thing sitting on the side of the road. It can be useful again,” Rudolph said. Through StumpChair, Johny breathes new life into the stumps of Providence and beyond, offering respite and reflection to passersby.
Johny returns to Providence in December, when he will stump again.