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Furniture maker Tim Clark ’85 and Professor Ellery Foutch discuss the ‘relic chair’ that Foutch and her students designed during a winter term course. The novel chair, which Clark constructed, preserves important objects within its construction.

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Students Design a ‘Relic Chair’ to Preserve Objects and Ideas

February 28, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – When is a chair just a chair? And when does it become the emblem of a nation?

What objects do we keep—to cherish, to commemorate, to help us remember?

How does the experience of making an object inform or expand our understanding of it?

Students embraced all of these questions—in the classroom, in a museum archive, and in the wood shop—during a winter term investigation of material culture. At the center of their inquiry: a one-of-a-kind Windsor chair that even its admirers describe as “eccentric,” “idiosyncratic,” and just plain “weird.”

“One of my first couple of months here,” said Assistant Professor of American Studies Ellery Foutch, “I was wandering through the Sheldon Museum looking around at all of the amazing artifacts, and I was really struck by this chair, and the fact that in this one piece of furniture there was this kind of embodiment of different aspects of American and Vermont history.”

The Henry L. Sheldon relic chair was built by the museum’s founder around 1884. Over a lifetime, Sheldon collected pieces of wood from sites and artifacts important to him. These salvagings ranged from something as deeply personal as a piece of his grandfather’s homestead to a chunk of the USS Constitution, one of the original ships in the U.S. Navy and today the world’s oldest commissioned vessel still afloat.

Sheldon crafted each of these “relics” into a spindle, some 24 inches tall. Decorative rather than structural, these spindles run atop the chair’s top two rungs like mismatched candles on a three-layer birthday cake.

Windsors in particular, said Foutch, “are seen as iconic American forms.” They stood witness (and provided seating) for the debating and signing of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And contemporary scholars regard them as “a kind of materialization of ‘e pluribus unum.’”

To bring students deeper into their understanding of both the Windsor form and Sheldon’s relic Windsor in particular, Foutch engaged them in a unique collaborative project: building a 2018 Middlebury College relic chair.

In classroom discussions, Foutch challenged students to consider how ordinary objects can become transfigured by historical events.

“For example, there are ways in which things from the site of the World Trade Center on September 11 have been turned into this kind of reliquary,” Foutch observed. “The New York Historical Society has this huge collection of artifacts which at first may seem quotidian, like Venetian blinds—but they’re twisted—or the clock that you would find in any office conference room that stops at the moment of impact.”

As with Henry Sheldon’s collecting of relics for his 1884 chair, students searched for objects that had both personal and public significance to make into spindles. Among the objects they chose:

  • Gamaliel Painter’s cane, recreated via 3-D printing
  • driftwood from Otter Creek
  • a Middlebury team hockey stick from the 1960s
  • a log from the old ski patrol hut at the Snow Bowl
  • wood chips from the College biomass plant

Sophomore Noah Fine, a history major, chose part of a handlebar taken from a bike he built himself in the campus bike shop.

“This is something that’s really been used by students alone,” said Fine, explaining that the shop helps students build their own bikes for free, using disassembled bikes left by other students.

Trevor Schmitt, a senior in economics, chose wood from a renovation project at the nearby Two Brothers Tavern.

“Thursday nights at Two Brothers is kind of a big thing,” said Schmitt. “It’s something you hear about when you’re younger and you look forward to and when you finally get there it’s always a very, very fun time. It’s also a town gathering place, a beloved tavern where people come together as a community.”

David McDaniel ’19 gleaned some fallen wood from the woods around the Robert Frost farmstead.

“A lot of the debates we had in class were about managing the difference between something local and something with broader, maybe even national, significance,” said McDaniel. “Robert Frost uniquely has that kind of characteristic in the Middlebury community. He taught at the Bread Loaf campus for about 40 years. And he’s also this world-renowned poet with multiple Pulitzer prizes.”

McDaniel also noted that “my dad is very into literature; he loves Robert Frost. So everything kind of came together for me in selecting that.”

To build the main body of the 2018 chair, Foutch enlisted master cabinetmaker/chairwright Tim Clark, a Middlebury graduate from the Class of 1985, who’s built a national reputation crafting Windsor benches and chairs.

“Every project is its own thing, this piece in particular,” said Clark. “The goal when you’re trying to make a copy is to make it look like that chair. And that’s been a really fun challenge.”

Students visited Clark in his studio to get a firsthand look at expert construction processes.

Back in the Studio Art Department’s wood shop, Clark and studio technician Colin Boyd guided students through a hands-on introduction to wood types, woodworking tools, and techniques of spindle crafting. Over two different afternoons, students took turns working at the lathe, trying their hand at making spindles.

For most, it was their first experience with any kind of woodworking.

“It was definitely hard at first, but you kind of slowly ease your way into it,” said economics major Chris Bradbury ’19.

“You’re trying to form something, but you have to take away material rather than add to it, which is kind of unintuitive at first,” said sophomore Colin Flaherty. “I didn’t perfect it, but I realized how much skill can go into such a simple act.”

A math major, Flaherty drew comparisons between his work at the lathe and a recent class in multivariable calculus. “You look at a lot of three-dimensional functions and graphs of those functions and see what shapes they make. So in my thinking, a little bit of that vocabulary kind of crept in. It’s a parabolic arc on the outside of the spindle, that shape that it makes. They’re related.”

McDaniel, a double math and economics major, noted that “it definitely gives you more of an appreciation for everyday objects that you see around you. I look at doors now, sometimes, and it’s not just so simple.”

Looking ahead to future encounters with the 2018 Middlebury relic chair, he then added: “I guess years from now when other people look at our chair they’ll be able to see what we found important and the values that we held, just like we did for the Sheldon chair.”

Story by Gaen Murphree; Photos by Todd Balfour, Ellery Foutch, Brett Simison