The Austin Chronicle


Artisans: The Art and Culture of Early Texas Handmade Furniture: Our History in Chairs

June 12, 1998, Arts

Republic of Texas Museum,
through September 5

If you somehow got out of taking Texas history back in junior high, do not fear. There's still hope. Mind you, we live in the capital of this state, where there are more tall tales and legends than you can shake a stick at and where you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting some incarnation of our past. Why, just up the road at the Republic of Texas Museum, director Oliver Franklin has put together "Artisans: The Art and Culture of Early Texas Handmade Furniture" to expose the craft of 19th-century furniture making in Central and South Texas.

Although somewhat sparse, the exhibit still manages to represent some rare pieces of handmade furniture dating as far back as the 1830s, as well as a fine collection of tools used before the invention of the circular saw.

The simple designs of the chairs, wardrobes, and tables on display testifies to the hard, practical lifestyle of the day, placing utility above fashion. Consequently, there isn't much elaborate decoration worked into the wood as much as there is innovative design. A simple oak table dating from the 1840s, for example, uses a gate construction for two of the legs, allowing two hinged leaves to fold up and down according to space. There's a walnut "potato chair" with original cow hide seating on display to show the viewer how early Texans recycled. On the frontier, if the leg of a chair was broken or cracked, then the rest of the legs were cut down to keep the chair in use; as luck would have it, shorter chairs were more useful to women sitting for long periods of time peeling potatoes, hence "potato chair."

Not all of the furniture on display is pragmatic, however. There's a beautifully crafted oak sideboard and china cabinet dating from 1920 with pawed feet and curved cabinetry standing next to an elegant chandelier borrowed from the Governor's Mansion. A rosewood table dating from the 1840s (and still in perfect condition) was converted from what must have been an impressive grand piano with thick, beveled legs. There's even a drafting table purported to have been used by William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry, when the author worked as a draftsman in Austin between 1887 and 1891.

The craftsmanship of the furniture is even more impressive considering that no power tools were used in their construction. The tools on display - ranging from an old tack hammer and rebating plane to an adz and a 19th-century push drill - underline the time-consuming and skillful hard work that tough frontiersmen put into the making of everyday furniture.

Combined with maps, books, and letters from the time when Texas was an independent republic (1836-45), accurate descriptions of life on the Texas frontier, and visual depictions of the travails of homesteading in the old Republic, the exhibition offers not only a good look at handmade furniture from that not-so-long-ago era but quite a good lesson in Texas history as well. Your grade-school history teacher would be proud.- Sam Martin

Vocabularies [ult < L. VocareE, to call] Vocation: Eating Apples Walking Through a Rainbow

Lyons Matrix Gallery,
through July 11

As you approach the entrance to Lyons Matrix Gallery, you'll no doubt notice the two striking paintings flanking the doorway. On the right is Ellen Berman's Five Persimmons in Oval Bowl, a classic oil depiction of ripe persimmons, bathed in a warm light and looking deliciously realistic. On the left is Sydney Yeager's Lexicon, a study in multicolored abstraction, with a golden background color topped with streaks of orange and black, which are topped with egg-like white ovals. Yeager's work is as random as Berman's is concise, as frenetic as Berman's is still.

Inside the gallery, this stark contrast in styles is further explored. One side of the room is lined with Berman's still lifes of luscious fruits and vegetables. The images are intricately detailed, down to the soft spots in the Granny Smiths in Apples on Red Plate. Perhaps the most attractive component of these paintings is their lighting. Each piece has a warm sidelong glow, as thought bits of sunlight are sneaking in a barely open door, illuminating the fruits in an almost mysterious manner. Berman's work is beautiful and engaging, although the oft-depicted subject matter may leave the viewer wanting something a bit more adventurous.

On the opposite wall is Yeager's exercise in adventure. Her large abstract works are highly energized, reverberating with intense colors that are at once alarming and inviting. Stare at these works for a bit and it's like taking a full-speed rollercoaster ride through a rainbow - the colors blur and vibrate to almost nauseating effect, but the colors are so beautiful, it's a pleasurable journey in the end.

Yeager states that these paintings are "about transition, that moment when everything you thought was stable suddenly shifts." Indeed, in their abstract way, her paintings denote a struggle.They depict a sublime pressure that comes from the impact of the colors on each other.

Each of Yeager's works has a background color, painted in thick oils to a taffy-like texture. In Message, this layer is a blend of cool grays and blues, which are topped with a layer of vivid yellow and red ovals, which in turn are topped with frenetic black squiggles. The calm blues helps subdue the intense yellows, the precarious black swirls helps levitate the stable base colors.

This is similar to the impact of these two sets of paintings on each other. Yeager's abstractionhelps energize Berman's realism, and Berman'srealism helps ground Yeager's abstraction. Kind of like eating apples while walking through a rainbow.

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