In the lobby of the Arvada Center, an eighteen-foot figure crafted entirely from chair parts stands guard. “The Sentinel" is one of ten pieces in Victory, a series created by Steve Farland and Brian Sartor; it now serves as the introduction to the Arvada Center’s chair-themed exhibit, In SITu, which opens on Thursday, January 18. According to Farland, the message behind the soldiers is more monumental than their size: They inspire “the human spirit to go forward through all adversity.”
In SITu is designed to showcase furniture as art. One part of the exhibit displays chairs by prominent figures, including a Frank Lloyd Wright piece on loan from the relocating Kirkland Museum. In another section, you can sit in chairs lifted from studios of Colorado artists — such as Stephanie Kantor or Carlos Frésquez — whose art you can study in replicas of their workspaces. For the third part of In SITu, artists have decorated or otherwise reimagined fifty donated IKEA chairs.
But before visitors see any of these works of chair art, they encounter "The Sentinel," and then two more of Farland and Sartor’s Victory soldiers, each one compiled from up to 24 chairs over the span of four or five months. (Sartor designed them to disassemble like a puzzle, so they were easy to transport to Arvada from the Englewood studio where they were made.)
The chair soldiers at the Arvada Center were constructed recently, but Farland traces the project’s origins back to 1990, when he was newly wed and had two small children. He was trying to sell cardboard tubes meant to anchor bolts of fabric to the Shafer family, who owned a chair business and sold upholstery. The Shafer patriarch showed Farland into a dim warehouse, where, in the light filtering in from the door behind him and the swirling dust motes, he saw the outlines of gargantuan soldiers. Then the warehouse owner flicked on the light switch, and the shapes were revealed to be thousands of precariously stacked chairs. Looking back, Farland calls that moment a ”unique and spiritual event."
But the dream of the chair soldiers didn't become reality for more than a dozen years. In the interim, Farland got into the chair business himself, selling seats through his store, The Chairman, that musicians like Graham Nash and Bob Dylan had used for shows.
Then, in the summer of 2014, another member of the Shafer family, Byron Shafer, contacted Farland and took him to a warehouse filled with 5,000 or 6,000 chairs.“What am I going to do with all those chairs, Stephen?” he asked. Farland bought the lot.
Chairs secured, Farland turned to Craigslist for an artist who’d execute his vision from start to finish. As Farland sorted through the nineteen respondents, he had a simple test: Who wanted to work on this project the most? That person ended up being Brian Sartor, a Canadian Coca-Cola truck driver. When they met, Sartor told Farland that he’d prayed several weeks before that “God would use me and my hands and my art to make a statement,” Farland remembers. Sartor even volunteered to do the project for free.
Farland refused that offer — he’d been planning to pay — and at the end of that first meeting, Farland says, “I handed him the key to my warehouse and said, ‘Let’s begin.'”
Over the past three and a half years, Sartor has crafted eleven pieces (or 10.5, he says, if you only half-count "The Sacrifice of Creation," a sculptural pile of chairs that represents Sartor and Farland’s initial intention to create soldiers out of chair building blocks). The soldiers’ meaning has solidified as time’s gone on, too: Originally conceived as guardians against elder abuse, to which Farland’s mother-in-law had been subjected, “the pieces really represent all of us,” Farland explains. “When the broken pieces go together, they make for a stronger whole.”
How did the works become Victory? Farland didn’t want the idea of a chair army to come with warlike connotations; he describes his soldiers as “peaceful” and “soulful.” He landed on a gesture that his mother-in-law, a World War II veteran, used to make: two fingers held up, a simultaneous V for victory and a peace sign.
“Our job as citizens of the earth is to figure out how to share peace with others,” Farland explains. And because Victory is intended to foster unity, he and Sartor are careful to rid their figures of any hint of political or religious iconography.
Victory’s unique concept has gotten noticed by everyone from sculptor Ed Dwight, who told Farland it was “the first work of its kind,” he recalls, to judges at the 2016 Grand Rapids Art Festival; the soldiers were displayed in August 2016 at the Denver Art Museum. Last summer, the soldiers caught the attention of Collin Parson, curator and director of galleries at the Arvada Center, who found an online video about Victory in which University of Denver adjunct professor Jeffrey Keith praised the project and its goal of sparking a healing process. Farland soon got a call from Parson, who wanted to see the soldiers himself, and the Arvada Center installation was born.
The soldiers tend to evoke strong reactions. Farland recalls viewers in tears; Sartor once had shocked teachers tell him that they’d never been able to get a student to speak before the child asked a question about the soldiers.
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Seeing "The Sentinel" just fifteen feet from the door at the Arvada Center “stops people in their tracks,” Sartor says, adding that they're amazed by the sight of a humanoid figure made entirely out of chair parts towering halfway to the ceiling.
"It is unusual," he admits.
In SITu and the three Victory soldiers will be on display through April 1 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada; an opening reception for the show will run from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, January 18.
You can see more soldiers and the studio where Victory was created from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays or by appointment; it's located at 4201 South Navajo Street in Englewood. Admission is free with a discretionary donation. To learn more, visit thevictoryart.com.