Musical Chairs: A School Residency Project

Several times a year, I visit schools to work with young people on the development and creation of collaborative art projects.  Sometimes schools seek me out for a particular project. Most often I’m paired up with schools through Pittsburgh Center for the Art’s Artists in Schools & Communities program.  Projects aim for several goals including: 1. Providing students with the opportunity to work under the guidance of a professional artist on a collaborative project. 2. Providing a hands-on art making experience that goes beyond what is generally produced in school. 3. Giving students a stake in a project that involves creativity, trial and error, and decision-making.  Aiming for these goals doesn’t always guarantee a successful, aesthetically pleasing or permanent outcome. More importantly my goals stress the importance of creativity, a quality that is often stifled in a highly regimented and heavily structured school atmosphere.

For the musical chairs project, I arranged to bring old chairs, scrap wood and basic manual hand tools to a rural Western PA middle school with the goal of transforming the chairs into a sculpture.  On my first day at the school students attended a presentation of my work.  I talk about my brainstorming process, inspiration for projects and how to organize a project.  We also looked at other sculptors including Jessica Stockholder, Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso.  On my second day, students made individual sketches to brainstorm what could be created out of a bunch of old wooden chairs.  The sketches were then compiled on one big brainstorm board.

Brainstorming for Musical Chairs project.

My third visit involved teaching the students how to safely use a variety of hand tools.  These included hand saws, clamps, screw drivers, a brace and rubber mallets. Students were tasked with deconstructing old chairs by sawing them apart or breaking them down with the mallets. For construction, various fastening methods were covered including drilling and pegging, using screws and rope work.

Some of the tools used for the project. One power drill was on hand for use by teachers.

By my the fourth visit, we had an idea of what we wanted to create.  We had been experiencing a constant flow of music emanating from the music room across the hall.  One of our brainstorming ideas involved constructing a creative ‘park bench’ to place in the school.  After thinking about music, we were reminded of Picasso’s Three Musicians, leading us to the ‘musical chairs’ theme.  Over the remaining classes, students separated into groups.  Some groups measured and cut pieces.  Others worked on the main structure of the sculpture. Some experimented in creating interesting shapes and some worked on embellishing parts of the sculpture with acrylic paint. The music department even donated some old musical instruments to be deconstructed and reworked into our sculpture.

Constructing the base of the sculpture.

Roughing out the shape.

Embellishment of parts with acrylic paint.


The completed piece installed in front of the school library.

The final piece suggests an ensemble of musicians playing with forms resembling upright bass, electric guitar and keyboard. Colorful wooden chimes give the work a kinetic component. The work was installed in the entrance area of the school library. School rules prohibited photography of students working on the project.

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