Go sit on an axe: ISM's Fearless Furniture 

click to enlarge Hongtao Zhou, "Axe Chair"
  • Hongtao Zhou, "Axe Chair"

It looks like an oversized axe rising from a tree stump. Hongtao Zhou's "Axe Chair" is no ordinary chair. But you can sit in it, and even lean back against the axe.

The Honolulu-based Zhou, who received his Ph.D. in furniture design and manufacturing from Purdue in 2008, is one of 24 Indiana-connected artists whose work is part of Fearless Furniture, an invitational and juried studio furniture show opening Oct. 5 at the Indiana State Museum.

"A good number of artists are from Indiana or still practicing here, but we also have artists from different parts of the country [Ohio, Maine, Michigan, Hawaii] who trained here and then moved on," says Mark Ruschman, chief curator of fine arts at Indiana State Museum. "So these are people who were born here trained here, or went to one of our significant schools. And so that 'Hoosier' is there, but you have to believe they're influenced by their surroundings as well."

Twenty-one artists were selected through a juried process overseen by internationally renowned artist Wendy Maruyama, professor emeritus of woodworking and design at San Diego State University. Three other artists were invited to the exhibition.

While there isn't a stridently Hoosier theme to the studio furniture that Maruyama selected - no corncob chairs, for example - the show does highlight the place of the Midwest in the art of furniture making, according to David Buchanan, curator of decorative arts and furniture at Indiana State Museum.

"A lot of people tend to think East Coast/West Coast - and not Heartland - when it comes to studio-made pieces," he says. "Indiana has a huge tradition of furniture making. It goes way back to the 1840s. It still continues today. If you look at the Dunbar Company, they've got a worldwide reputation. They no longer exist, but their furniture is incredibly well known. Karges, which is still making furniture in Evansville, has a worldwide reputation for quality. That's one of the aspects of the show: we're showing it still goes on. It's not ended yet. Plus, Indiana is the top producers in veneers in furniture."

A piece by Forestville, Wisc.- based Jim Rose, "Galvanized chest," refers to another long-standing Hoosier tradition: quilting.

"In this case Rose purchased scrap metal steel from a grain elevator from his neighbor's farm," says Meredith McGovern, arts and culture collections manager at Indiana State Museum. "And so he worked with that steel and he overlapped the pieces to create this quilt-like look. And you can see where he's working with the natural patinas of that steel to create the look of the quilt in addition to the pattern he designed. How cool is that? He's looking at his neighbor's farm, the grain elevator, and says, 'I want that steel.'"

McGovern had the opportunity to visit a number of artists' studios and to see them practicing their crafts. A video, which documents her visits, will be a part of the exhibition.

Another highlighted artist, Randy O'Donnell, is based in Brown County.

"His work is just incredible," says Buchanan. "He does it all in the traditional style and methods of the 18th century. He's trying to highlight that you can have art pieces that are fully functional and it's not necessarily ultramodern that's always art. It's just high quality craftsmanship, no matter what style."

Fearless Furniture's exhibition space is designed to look like a house, complete with faux windows that you can look through. You'll find Zhou's "Axe Chair" in front of the one real window in the space, looking out onto the tree-shaded exterior of the museum

Zhou's piece uses part of the tree that's typically wasted in tree harvesting. It's title is "a play on words," says Buchanan. "Where we're placing it you can look straight past it to the trees outside, so there's a connection to the functionality of it."

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