The Mystery of the Smoking Monks Chair
In the fall of 1979, my parents purchased a camp just a few miles into the Adirondack State Park (I’ve written about this before—see my entry, “Facing What Haunts You” on my wedding blog: https://journeytothecenteroftheearthwedding.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/facing-what-haunts-you/).
We found newspaper in the walls dating back to the Civil War, so we knew that the house, at the time, was a little over 200 years old. There were also several small structures on the property: an outhouse, a barn, and a woodshed. There was the magical presence of the stream and a potable spring a mile up the road, and there was also the magical presence of something else—lots and lots of antiques, old books, and artifacts of bygone eras.
It was those artifacts that consumed many summer afternoons. One year I found a rusted horse bit in the middle of the woodpile; Dad said it very likely could have dated to the Civil War, so I spent several days sandpapering it, and several more days applying several coats of flat black spray paint. When he took down one of the walls in order to open up the first floor and found an old newspaper heralding Pickett’s Charge, we varnished the board so we could preserve it forever.
The greatest project I ever worked on, though, was the reconditioning of an old rocking chair that had been sitting on the sunporch. It wasn’t much to look at when we moved in—it was painted the most hideous shade of sky blue, and the backing seemed unusually thick. Dad told me he suspected that there was probably a beautiful—and very expensive—piece of furniture underneath several layers of paint, because people in that area often disguised what was valuable so that they couldn’t be taxed on nice things (I have no idea if this was really true or not, but it’s interesting). Because there was so much paint, we bought some kind of chemical that would help dissolve it (I don’t know if they had “paint stripper” back in the 80s like we have today, but it was definitely something that did the job) and over the course of two summers, we stripped, sanded, and refinished the chair.
What was magical about this chair was what was revealed on its back. The more layers of paint we removed, the more we began to see some sort of bas-relief emerge—you heard that right. The prior owners had covered the chair with so much paint they’d actually been able to disguise a bas-relief! It took weeks to get it down to where we could even see what the image was, and I’ve still never seen anything like it to this day: it’s two monks, sitting at a table. One is drinking a beer, and the other is smoking a cigarette.
Even at the age of 11 I was pretty corrupt, because I adored this bas-relief—what it said about religion to me made complete sense. I asked my Dad right then and there if I could have the chair when it was done. “No,” he said. “But when I die, I’ll make sure you get it.” After that, I was put in charge of detailing with the paint stripper. I remember working with toothpicks, making sure every single dollop of that horrid blue paint was dissolved.
When paint removal was complete, we sanded the non-carved areas and stained the chair, which Dad said was fashioned from Tiger Oak.
I don’t remember what state the cushions of the chair were in, or if there even were cushions. Either way, new upholstery was warranted. My mother, who was quite the accomplished seamstress (she was making me cosplay before there was cosplay—all you geeks, I had you beat by about 40 years!), decided to try her hand at upholstery. She bought velveteen gold material that was actually rather thin, and she used gold upholstery tacks as borders.
The chair–who had made it, where it came from–was always something of a mystery. Dad had never seen anything like it, and no one in that area knew anything about it. At first, he suspected it was from a limited series, but as no answers came, he began to think it was one of a kind.
That chair sat downstairs in our Connecticut house until Dad passed in 2008. Shortly thereafter, I took it home, and it sat in my living room. The wood had dried out, and it took months of constant oiling to bring it back. The cushions my mother had made were beginning to fall apart. A friend of mine, Steve Manzino, works with upholstery and had already refurbished a chair for my housemate Charles, so I asked him to take care of it.
The piece that came back was stunning. He chose a gold tone upholstery (a material that was actually intended for upholstery this time), but it had an intricate pattern on it that, if placed correctly, formed a cross on both the chair’s back and the cushion, which I really liked because it reinforced the chair’s motif.
Despite the rise of the internet and all of the research tools available to us that weren’t around in the 1980s, I’ve yet to learn anything about this rocker. I don’t know who made it or what its purpose was, let alone if it was even made here in America. There are no identifying marks or signatures of any kind. If anyone knows anything about this chair, or has an idea where I can look for resources, it would be greatly appreciated. Perhaps sharing this article on social media would reveal something, too—someone has to know something.
Until then, enjoy these few photos and videos of the refurbished chair in 2014.
Posted on November 15, 2016, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff and tagged Adirondack camps, antique furniture, chairs with bas-relief, Ruby and Otto Arnold, Salisbury New York, tiger oak furniture. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.