Moon Gazing & Sunrise Awaiting: A Study in Time
Categories: 9/11, art, nature

By: Michelina Docimo

Clifton Monteith with a handcrafted lantern.

Michigan native and artist, Clifton Monteith, feels at home in Japan, understanding the subtle complexity and silent social consciousness that links custom and culture there. This affection is rooted in his earliest memories of a much-admired Japanese silk embroidery and a Chinese rosewood cradle in his grandparents’ home and in the exercise of his craft, which has been a life-long commitment.

“My work is not about the easiest way of working. It relates to the ancient Shinto concept of spirit being in all things – wind, water, stone, wood. I have grown to believe that consciousness is vested in our work and translates to the experience of others who participate with the work when it is done, whether I know them or not. That my work’s process is slow bothers me not as much as if it were hurried and embodied less consciousness.” – Clifton Monteith

Monteith earned his Masters degree in painting from Michigan State University in 1974 and began his career in New York City as an illustrator and graphic designer. Craving simpler freedoms after years of city life, he returned home to Michigan’s mystical woods and waterways to begin a new career as a furniture maker. He saw in this art a way to connect with the experience of loss by creating cherished heirlooms that can be passed on to future generations. Monteith reflects, “Sometimes the things that are taken away from you give you better focus. Furniture lives with you and can add grace to daily life. We can breathe life into pieces that we hold dear to our hearts, entrusting a piece of ourselves to family, an admirer, or even a stranger, with a memory that persists time. ”

Shuffling through snow spindrifts one morning, he found a cache of willow wood and was inspired to make something from it. From these found materials, Monteith crafted his first chair. Early gallery interest led to others and he was soon shaping more willow and other natural materials into objects of utility and beauty.

In 1993, Monteith was the recipient of the Japan-United States Friendship Commission Fellowship Grant through the National Endowment for the Arts. It was during his six month residence in Kyoto, that he came to fully understand the spirit of the Japanese people. Monteith visited one garden and shrine each day—a glimpse into centuries past—amazed that they had been spared the ravages of allied bombing during the war, and equally amazed at the precision with which these sacred places were maintained. He recalls that, “In these gardens, in a moment of quiet reflection, I was reminded that what we produce in our lives will continue to affect the lives of others, well beyond our own time.”

Back view of 'Mimi's Chair'

Continuing his work at home in Michigan, Monteith is renowned for his custom-tailored, intricately willow-woven chairs. Involved in the creative process from conception, he says, “There is a sense of gratification of knowing the tree, the source of my material, and coming back to the same tree year after year, and seeing it produce new branches. My entire process is organic. I do not work from drawings. The form of the wood dictates the form of the chair.”

No steaming or staining of the willow is involved in the process. Monteith bends the willow branches while they are still green and follows their natural curvature, never forcing its flexibility. He purposefully chooses to work in willow because of its ubiquitous nature.  He notes that, “It’s found everywhere, except Antarctica, growing in wet bogs and sand dunes, and is a host plant to more insects than any other on the face of the earth.”

Monteith’s chairs become a vehicle to experience nature. The experience is cocoon-like–embracing and transforming—offering the illusion of diaphanous flight, as if with dragonfly wings, to anyone seated in one. Constructed of a parallel double surface, the structure forms a moray pattern, making them appear to move, even as they sit empty. The second layer is also functional, creating the supporting spine and adding strength.

As the chair takes shape, Monteith studies its form and function and then names them appropriately. For example, sitting in the low-angled Moon Viewing Chair creates the experience of lying on the grass, gazing up at a starry night sky. The chairs are simultaneously delicate and robust, functional yet comfortable. Monteith laughingly compares the feel of the willow ribs against the back to the beaded wooden seat covers so popular in New York City taxi cabs!

Monteith reflects on a memory of September, 2001: “We were preparing for a show at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City that was set to open on September 12, 2001. I was to exhibit the Sunrise Awaiting chair there. On our way to New York City, I and a friend decided to stop at Niagara Falls to take some photographs. Had we continued as planned, we would have been at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center for breakfast on September 11th. Because of that event, the show did not open until the following spring, and I have kept this chair for my own. Timing,” he ponders, “is sometimes about waiting.”

'Moonviewing Chair'

Felt-wrapped bowl by Monteith in collaboration with felt artist, Jorie Johnson

In addition to his sculpture chairs, Monteith creates lanterns, tables, serving carts, bed frames, and bowls; always respecting his natural materials, the time needed to do it right and the organic nature of the creative process. His palette of ingredients typically includes: willow twigs, hemp cloth, urushi lacquer, silk gauze, wool, leaves, and fermented persimmon tannin. His works are included in the permanent collections of, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Art and Design in New York City, The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and The Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City; as well as corporate and private collections in Japan, Europe, and North America.

By Michelina Docimo, Contributing Writer

This article was originally published in Artes Magazine:


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