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A new chair--but not just for faculty

What could be more summery than relaxing outdoors in a rocker, listening to old-timers telling stories and watching the world go by? New York-based artist Barbara Broughel, a lecturer in the Department of Architecture, gives this traditional scenario a twist. She invites the world to look at the chair--a 12-foot high rocker installed in the "yard" outside the List Visual Arts Center (LVAC) through September 27--and ponder its story.

Ms. Broughel conceived "Harvest Chair" as a celebration of the food plants from the Americas which native populations cultivated for their spiritual and physical needs for thousands of years before those foods were adopted by the colonists. The artist employed local Native American agricultural practices by companion-planting soil mounds in plots around the chair with heirloom corn, beans and squash--the "three sacred sisters" of Iroquois horticultural lore.

"The plants are mutually compatible, helping each other to grow," said Ms. Broughel, noting that as the corn grows, the stalks provide support for the beans, while the broad leaves of the low-lying squash keep weeds down. The vegetables, which also include field pumpkin, are all grown from heirloom seeds provided by Plimoth Plantation, allowing visitors to see the plants as the early colonists would have found them, prior to hybridization.

"The project clearly shows the ways in which Native American culture contributed to what we think of as American," Ms. Broughel said. "This piece ties the past to the present through the use of food--we still enjoy these things which were a gift from the past."

Ms. Broughel also gave permission to LVAC Gallery Manager Jon Roll to add a separate plot of tomatoes, another plant native to America, saying, "I liked the idea of him responding to the project and interacting with it."

The chair, made by Ian Ingersoll Cabinetmakers in West Cornwall, CT, is based on a traditional Shaker design attributed to Robert Wagner of the Mt. Lebanon Shakers from around 1850. Onto its back slats, Ms. Broughel has etched the English names of 80 familiar native fruits, vegetables and herbs, and the bottom rungs support a large basket, partly woven with Concord grape vines, to be filled with Indian corn, gourds and other dried winter foods.

She hopes that as summer's growing season progresses, members of the MIT community can participate in the project by giving and taking foods from the chair's basket on an ongoing basis. As yet, the basket, damaged from the move, remains empty. But Ms. Broughel and her assistant, Chun Hua Zheng, plan to repair the weaving and incorporate this interactive element. "It makes me happy when I come by and see that someone's put something in the basket," she said.


Ms. Zheng, who will be a sophomore in mechanical engineering this fall, is maintaining the garden and will cull the basket of perishables and stock it with other dried foods. "This project was a great opportunity to bring about an instant, gratifying change to the MIT campus," said Ms. Zheng, who's lived in the suburbs of New York City for more than 13 years. "I delight in the idea of a changing artwork, something that is created, grows and eventually fades. Permanency gets boring."

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) is paying Ms. Zheng for her work on the project, which has received support from the Council for the Arts. In mid-August, Helen Lee, who will also be a sophomore, will assume caretaking responsibilities as a UROP for course credit.

Other MIT architecture students who helped create and install the chair are Elise Co (a senior in the fall), who helped design the text for the slats, ran the computer program to generate the typeface for stenciling and did basket-weaving; Joe Woullard (a junior in the fall), who cut the stencils and helped collect the vines from wooded areas in New England, and graduate student Gordon Millichap, who worked on finishing and varnishing the chair.

Ms. Broughel's storytelling chairs "are to be studied, rather than sunk into," said LVAC Director Katy Kline. "They question rather than support and their artful messages have an urgency not usually associated with home furnishings."

"Harvest Chair" is sited on the east side of Building E15, between the Wiesner Building and the Medical Department. For more information, send e-mail to Ms. Zheng at <> or leave a message at x8-8884.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 16, 1997.

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