‘We told the artists to do whatever they want with the chairs; we asked them to please turn their chair into a work of art,” says Kay Roberts, chairman of the board for the Chairs for Children program, and member of the Board of Trustees for the Trenton After School Program. With a remarkable twist on the typical fundraiser, Chairs for Children began with a simple child-sized wooden chair. Actually, 28 of them, each becoming a unique canvas for 28 area artists.

The chairs are currently on exhibit at the Ellarslie Museum in Trenton, through Friday, February 24, and will be auctioned off at a benefit on Saturday, April 1, at the Chauncy Conference Center at the ETS corporate campus in Princeton. ETS is also the sponsor for the event and program. The Trenton After School Program, established 19 years ago, serves 110 at-risk children from the West Ward of Trenton both during the school year and the summer.

The chairs, which, now transformed, represent a wide variety of artistic styles and interpretations, were given to the artists in early October with a December 1 deadline, allowing the artists a little over two months to develop and execute their ideas.

One of the artists participating in the event, Ricardo Coke, is a native of Colon, Panama, who came to the states when he was two years old; his father worked as an artist as well as a mechanic and contractor, his mother now runs a private school in Panama. Coke has lived in New Jersey for the last 26 years and currently resides in Trenton. He supports himself with his art and has taught art for the past five years with various organizations, hoping to inspire children and keep the local art scene alive and thriving.

Coke also teaches art to the children in the Trenton After School Program. “For me it’s a reward to tap into their minds openly thurough art. I’m happy to be able to teach art, to open a different channel of communication with students that allows them to be more confident and perceptive to their evnironment.”

“Calypso,” the chair Coke created for the fundraiser, retains its functionality. It is painted black with the exception of the seat, on which there is a colorful, linear, abstract composition in primary colors with black and white. Coke says: “Inspiration is a beautiful thing. Often times I find that music inspires me to paint. The expressions captured on that chair are calypso — a music and dance of passion, freedom, and life.” Coke is a musician himself and studied Jazz at William Patterson University in Wayne, New Jersey from 1996 to 2000. “Most of my art is inspired by music and scenes of everyday life. I do a combination of abstract, surreal, and a little bit of symbolism. I try to concentrate on the more positive aspects about life and what life is about.”

Arlene Milgram, the recipient of a 2005 Dodge Fellowship, teaches art to sixth graders at the Montgomery Middle School in Skillman. She was born in Philadelphia and received a BFA in painting and art education from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in 1969. She is primarily a painter, working in coldwax and oil on wood, but she also draws and makes assemblages. Her chair, “Portrait of the Chair as a Young Artist,” utilizes one of her drawings from a series of biographical portraits. Though the title is a play on the title of James Joyce’s novel, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Milgram says that there is no Joyce reference in the artwork, but rather personal reflection. “Working on the chair unleashed a lot of memories.”

To create the chair Milgram, who resides in Ewing and has been living in New Jersey for the past 20 years, took a drawing of herself at age four, a time when she remembers having a similar wooden chair, ripped it up, and affixed it to the chair, almost as if a child were sitting in the chair. “From a distance it looks cute, but up close it isn’t. I like art to be surprising or intriguing, to draw you in.” Milgram also drew on the chair with crayons in order to add the sense of smell to the experience of the work. She says that process harkened back to the first time she held a crayon “like a tree trunk” and made her first mark and how magical the experience was and is for all children. “[The chair] came out really fast because of the emotional subject, and I was very pleased with the result.”

Charles Ilich, who recently moved to New Jersey from Maine, considers himself to be a part-time artist — he pays the bills working as a finish carpenter for Baxter Construction in Princeton. The son of a framing carpenter for Republic Steel and a retail clerk, Ilich grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and received a masters in ceramics in 1990 from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Ilich literally as well as figuratively transformed his chair to create “tree/house/chair.” The seat of the chair is painted with a simple, stylized, and exaggerated landscape, a theme that Ilich describes as “a twisting, leaning, dancing movement,” which he often uses to decorate his ceramic work. Utilizing his carpentry skills he removed a leg of the chair and replaced it with a tree branch “in order to add some organic element.” On top of the tree branch is a bird house in which there is a nest and four letters from a Boggle game, t-r-e-e. The bird house and letters are examples of items that Ilich collects from the his job sites. He often finds interesting items that people are discarding and uses them to create mixed media sculptures. In replacing the chair leg with a branch, Ilich took great care to retain the integrity of the chair so that it could still function. The height of the birdhouse is such that an interested child, either by kneeling or standing on the chair could reach the birdhouse and investigate its contents. Ilich says he is very interested in fostering an inquisitive nature in children, urging them to investigate their surroundings.

Another artist who physically transformed her chair is Joan Needham, who morphed the chair into a sculpture. “Once I knew the chairs were not necessarily meant for children, it opened the doors for me. I wanted it to be eye-level, so I just started adding rods to it until it was.” The sculpture, “Tic Tac Toe,” stands approximately six feet high with metal rods that create a flat black linear, airy tower. “I started low and kept adding pieces until I felt it was right. I work in a minimal way. The shapes I create are strong shapes. I painted it flat black because of the lines — it had to be strong.” On exhibit at the Ellarslie Museum, the lines are magnified by the museum lighting, casting beautiful shadows on the walls behind it.

Needham grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of a shoe designer/manufacturer and a homemaker. “I grew up watching my father just doodling shoes, and my parents often took me to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.” She also says her mother would pick her up from high school early about once a month and take her to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

A Hopewell resident for the past 32 years, Needham, a professor at Mercer County Community College for just as long, is now retired, dedicated fulltime to her art. She is an accomplished paper-maker and welder and creates mixed media sculpture. She earned her BFA from Moore College of Art and Design and is a recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowship in sculpture. Her lobby installation at the Richard J. Hughes Justic Complex in Trenton is part of the New Jersey Public Arts Program.

A stroll around the Chairs for Children exhibit at the Ellarslie reveals the obvious: all of the artists seem to really have enjoyed the project, taking these small ordinary chairs and doing whatever they wanted with them. It is an eclectic group of artworks created for a good cause. Says Roberts: “The Trenton After School Program has the opportunity and the ability to expand and support more children. We need to do this. We need to help these children.”

Chairs for Children, Saturday, April 1, 6 p.m., live auction of 28 child-sized wooden chairs, hand-painted by area artists, to benefit Trenton After School Program, Chauncey Center, ETS, Lawrenceville. Live music during the cocktail hour and speakers during dinner. Visit www.chairsforchildren.org. or call 609-947-9679.

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