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Cloquet painter brushes aside the notion that chair canvases aren't art

Artist Kris Nelson talks with a visitor to her basement studio recently. Nelson turns old chairs into works of art. Her goal is to transform 1,000 chairs. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 6
A work in progress shows some of the steps, from sketch to painted piece, Kris Nelson follows in transforming chairs into pieces of art. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Kris Nelson works on the picture she’s creating on the seat of a chair. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Kris Nelson holds a chair she decorated with litter she found on walks near her home. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 6
In addition to working from pictures or sketches, Kris Nelson also uses models in creating her art. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Kris Nelson has nearly 200 chairs above her garage, waiting to be transformed into art pieces. She has set a goal of painting 1,000 chairs. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Kris Nelson's living room is full of chairs, but most aren't for sitting.

Some have intricate paintings of a rollercoaster; portraits of Nelson's parents; one looks like a wicker seat made with neckties.

"I don't paint on canvas; the chair is my canvas," she said.

The retired art teacher has been at this since 1996. Painting three-dimensionally adds an extra challenge.

And Nelson uses every piece: the legs, the back, even underneath. Her trick is using her son's old weightlifting bench.

In her studio, the bench press was replaced with an art lamp, and paint splatters where a lifter's knees would rest.

Nelson straddled the bench to make finishing touches to her latest piece propped on the end. She demonstrated how it's easier to paint underneath a chair in this setup, sliding her body under.

Painting furniture is functional art, and there's a "folk history" to Nelson's work, said Jeff Schmidt, owner of Lizzards Art Gallery & Framing. They've carried her chairs for about two years.

"I hadn't seen anything like it in here, which is what we look for in an artist," Schmidt said.

In one of her paintings, a rock sculpture runs from the edge of the seat up the chair spindle, which is carved to look like rocks. Some of her works are detailed; you can see the brushstrokes, a fact Schmidt likes.

Nelson does still life, nature and social commentary.

Along with paintings of flowers, fish, people cross-country skiing, the Cloquet artist painted a chair in honor of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. "When I display this, I want everyone to remember the people who died, not remember the killer," she said.

One chair painting is adorned with pop cans, a battery, wire, straws, styrofoam, items.

And another: "deals with overpopulation and how we're destroying our world," Nelson said, lifting it up. "I also put a condom on the bottom."

Some are more sculpture-y than others.

There's a heart-shaped painting of a biological heart and a woman to the right. Displayed in front of the painting are empty prescription bottles as an ode to her mother, who died of congestive heart failure.

Friends give her chairs or she finds them at garage sales — $10 is her limit.

She usually starts with a theme.

She'll go to the storage space above her garage, which houses 185 bentwood chairs, potato chairs, ladderbacks, straightbacks, captain chairs (with arms) — all in white, brown, cherry.

She finds the best fit for her idea, and gets to lightly sanding, priming and painting. She prefers acrylics to oils, and a project can take her 15-20 hours on the project's complexity. (For her rock sculpture chairs, she'll draw them on and cut them out with a saw.)

Working with hand-me-downs, there can be some repairs and adjustments — tightening screws, replacing a rung, or mending a crack. Sometimes she leaves imperfections, "That's the personality of the chair," she said.

Nelson is soft-spoken but mighty in what she says, and doesn't say, describing her work.

She's quick to lay down facts about monkey or apple symbolism during the Renaissance; and that commoners used only benches, stools and the floor until about 300 years ago.

"Chairs were not meant to be sat upon unless you were royalty," Nelson said.

She started her business Chairs by Kris after she retired in 2007, and she calls herself "The Chair Lady." She has work around the Northland at Lakeside Gallery, Duluth Pottery, Art On The Planet, and over the years, the reception has been mixed.

She recalled an art show judge who refused to look at her work, calling it craft instead of fine art.

"It's up to the artist," Nelson said.

"If I make a quilt and I put it on my bed, that would be a craft. If I make a quilt, and I put it on my wall ... it could be art."

She keeps rejection letters, noting the ribbons she has won.

Today, there's more acceptance in the art community, and she has 30 pieces in seven galleries.

But for her, the work runs deep; it's an extension of herself. "What I'm doing still lives. Those are my things, those are my kids' toys, or my mother's sculpture, or my mother's silver vase," noting her more sculptural paintings.

"They mean something to me," she said.

Nelson described seeing a chair she gave to a friend with its legs removed, adding that once you sell it, it's not yours anymore.

There is a fear of seeing one of her pieces, broken at a garage sale. Then, she'll "pick it up and fix it up."

She has always been creative, quilting, stained glass, and if she's not painting, she's making cards or cooking because any kind of art is her "happy place."

There's a creativity "that I just need to get out of me and share with people."


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Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346