I moved to a studio apartment at 5200 North Sheridan Road in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago in the fall of 1990, just ahead of my sophomore year at the School of the Art Institute. I’d lived with a crazy Russian pensioner for a roommate in Brooklyn and a whole floor of art kids in a dorm in downtown Chicago, but this was the first place I’d have all to myself.
The building was old and fraying at the edges. It had likely been a residential hotel early in the century, judging by the small apartments and the ornate Orientalist décor in the lobby. But in the last decade of the twentieth century its carpeting was matted and worn and some of the hall light fixtures flickered ominously. David Lynch could’ve used the place in Blue Velvet, it had that kind of vibe. But perhaps I only saw the place this way because I’d watched that movie so many times that its look was imprinted on my psyche. Art can have that kind of all encompassing effect, especially on a young man’s mind.
I set about filling the place with thrift-store and alley furniture. The only thing I had was a futon mattress which I just put on the floor. On Lincoln Avenue near Roscoe Village there was a sprawling used furniture place presided over by two ever-bickering sisters. Their domain stretched over two storefronts with a lot glutted with merchandise in between. The place was more junkyard than Marshall Field’s but if you put in the time you could find some treasures and not pay an arm and a leg. I scored a kitchen table there, as well as a ceramic Abraham Lincoln lamp which I read by in bed. A few blocks away on Belmont Avenue there was a bunch of antique and resale shops. Among them was one store which had no sign but furniture and flotsam piled to the ceiling visible through the window. Out of the chaos inside I was able to extract a set of four old wooden chairs. An octagonal Art Deco design was hand-stenciled on to their backs and a zigzag cross-brace supported their legs. They were solid wood and barely all fit in the taxi I’d flagged to get them home.
That year was my first using oil paints on a regular basis. I had made some tentative tries in high school but had mostly stuck with gouache, acrylic, ink, and charcoal. Oils were intimidating not only for their technical peculiarity but also for the nearly five hundred years of others using them better than any art student could ever hope to. Nevertheless, after full days of making mud on canvases in school, I’d come back to my studio apartment on Sheridan and do it all over again. After dabbling in the usual teenage-angst-inspired expressionism for the requisite amount of time, at twenty, I was starting to settle into the subject-matter which continues to draw me to this day. What I wanted to paint was what I could see with my own eyes.
Caroline and I got together a couple days before I left Brookline, where we’d worked together at the movie theater all summer, to go back to school and move to this studio apartment on Sheridan. She came to visit in September for my birthday, then moved in the following January, but that fall I lived there alone, pining for her. The painting of the two chairs in front of the futon on the floor is undoubtedly about that longing. It was the first oil painting outside of school which I didn’t throw away. After I graduated and moved back east I gave the painting to my parents and it’s been hanging over their fireplace ever since.
I’ve lugged the chairs with me to Boston, Indiana, and back to Chicago. They’ve made appearances in countless paintings and drawings. Sometimes in the foreground, other times in the back, stand-ins for people in one picture, nothing but furniture in another. Twenty-six years on, I’m in another little apartment by myself. I’ve graduated to separate living- and bedrooms and the rent is more than double what I paid on Sheridan, but much is essentially unchanged. The carpet could use vacuuming, most available surfaces are cluttered with books, papers, napkins, and things which should’ve been thrown away weeks or months ago. The walls serve as an ever-shifting display of work in progress. I keep trying to paint what I can see nearby. But it’s entirely different too. I’m not looking forward to anyone moving in here with me. After trying to live with women and failing each time, I have to believe we’re all better off with me in my own place with these old chairs. I didn’t arrive at this conclusion through self-pity or despair, though getting to know yourself better is certainly an unpleasant slog more often than not.
Could I have predicted when I found them in that Belmont Ave junk shop that the chairs would still be with me? I never thought much about the future. I still don’t. Nor do I ascribe any magical meaning to objects, no matter how long they’ve been in my life. The Lincoln lamp and the rotary phone and the futon are long gone, but the chairs are still here. When I look at them now they don’t always send me down this or that memory spiral but they always have the potential to. One minute they’re just hunks of wood, the next they’re portals to the past.