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Weight Is No Matter

[whitespace] David Chapman
Ken Richardson

Sittin' on Sticks: Artist David Chapman uses willow sticks to make delicate-looking yet durable furniture in his South of Market studio.

The sculptural stick furniture by David Chapman reflects the strength of lumber and the illusion of frailty

By Christa Palmer

Though his delicate furniture appears more suited to the svelte than the stocky, David Chapman's pieces can accommodate the chubbiest of physiques. Like muscle over bone, Chapman stretches willow sticks over an aspen skeleton, creating a sturdy, voluminous form.

At a gallery opening a couple of years ago in Chapman's home state of Michigan, two large women quietly hovered by one of Chapman's handsomely crafted benches. Hesitant to plop their fannies upon the cradled curve of the bench's surface, the women looked at each other with doubt. Could this tiny bench made of sticks possibly hold the weight of two fleshy women?

Chapman assured them that it would.

"By the end of the opening," Chapman explains, "they were sitting side by side on the bench, and they said to everybody who walked by, 'It's so comfortable, we don't want to get up!' "

Still, it's not only the voluptuous ones who are afraid of snapping Chapman's furniture in two. Perhaps this impression of insubstantiality is created because, to most people, sticks are those things that break underfoot during a walk in the woods. With the use of fresh and live sticks, however, the most fragile-looking stick bench can be as strong as a wrought-iron fence.

Using easily bent willow wands harvested from forests in Napa County, Chapman creates furniture that evinces impeccable craftsmanship and inventive design. The flexibility of willow gives Chapman sculptural and ergonomic freedom, while its strength provides structure. Using geometric shapes and angles, Chapman draws lines through space, all the while keeping the human form in mind.

Many of Chapman's pieces look bulbous, like round clay pots, so it comes as no surprise to find he once worked in clay. While pursuing a fine art degree from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Chapman worked primarily in clay but found that he was unable to manipulate the medium as much as he wished. In 1990, after a workshop with furniture-maker Clifton Monteith, Chapman discovered that making furniture from willow allowed him more freedom to experiment with form while still producing functional designs.

More than any other rustic furniture type, the stick style is intuitive and spontaneous. Loosely following a sketched design, Chapman's work quite often takes on a life of its own. "Different patterns emerge in the process," Chapman says, standing on the bright yellow floor of his South of Market studio. "So the piece will go somewhere else than where I thought it would. It's like a conversation with the willow, a give and take. I allow the materials I use to inform and expand its structure. They have an organic-looking volume to them, but they have to be comfortable and functional."

Chapman admits that the function of his furniture takes precedence over the aesthetics. But the balance of each piece can't be overlooked. Like the triangular and hexagonal forms of a beehive or honeycomb, his work echoes the shapes and textures of nature. The sleekness of the stretched willow and the tidy rows of nails used to fasten each branch to the frame also reflect Chapman's eye for detail and order.

In his work, Chapman allows a bench to look and work like a bench while still retaining the grace and variety of the tree itself. The animated energy in Chapman's pieces makes one feel as if the furniture could start walking around at any minute. Perhaps this is why people are reluctant to sit on a bench made of sticks. Or, more likely, it's guilt about carrying a few extra pounds. But whatever the excess baggage, Chapman's mighty willows can bear the weight.

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From the January 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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