"Armed Chair": Bill Flynn’s Seat of Empire

bill flynn

Bill Flynn at his drawing board

Bill Flynn’s mother was throwing out an old parlor chair five years ago. Bill Flynn — master draughtsman and teacher at the Boston Museum School — grabbed it as a “set-up” to draw. Almost immediately the chair started morphing into images of the war in Iraq. By this Spring of 2008 Bill Flynn has finished more than 500 mostly charcoal versions of the chair, and has mounted two exhibitions and published a book, Armed Chair, variations on a theme that could be called “one man’s Guernica.” To pore over the drawings is to be drawn into the raging and unfinished autobiography of a man, a war and a piece of furniture. “Two weeks into drawing the chair,” Bill Flynn recounts in a conversation in his Dorchester studio in sight of Boston Harbor, “we got the news there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and it hit me…

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with artist William Flynn here (30 minutes, 14 MB MP3)

“The polished and nicely carved parts of the chair were our outward, democratic stance. The back of the chair” — the stripped wood, the nail holes, the strings hanging down were the back story of the men and the fighting and of “how we were being manipulated and pushed into something that made no sense. Every week I got a little more perturbed… The question was: why are we doing this? And the real drawings began” — drawings in which the chair writhes, explodes, sinks into black pools of oil, abstracts itself, catches fire with red crayon, morphs into barbed wire.

I like to draw, and it’s what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years… I am excited by the emotional and formal aspects of drawing. It’s very musical. I see it as music, not just line and form. I’m drawing to a beat, or making up a beat… I’d be listening to music — to Tom Waits or to Shostakovich, people who seem to have opinions about things and have a beat and power in their work that could help me elevate my own marks. It changes what you see.

The evolution of this political stance — saying: if you weren’t for this war you were against the troops — made me very angry. It made me start to realize that the legs of this chair — with lines in the foot indicating a claw and a ball — were about control of the universe: so aggressive, so powerful, and righteous. That’s the other things that hurts me. It’s a righteous stand for democracy that would pummel us into submission. So sometimes the front leg of the chair is all power and claw, and the back is the residue. The nuances of the arms are frail and fragile and the threads and stains I left on the chair are the people that are left, the residue of a moral stance I have a lot of questions about.

Bill Flynn mocks the war media with a blank TV screen that comes to live inside the chair, and with newsprint that sometimes upholsters the chair, front and back.

The red crayon smears well, and it talks about the physicality of the act of making a drawing. The war in Iraq is very physical, except in the newspaper. People are losing limbs. There’s blood on the wall, and destruction all over the place. And we keep getting this little shot of a car that’s been destroyed, and a little boy in a white shirt which contradicts what might have happened. So when I see that in the newspaper the back of my neck gets a little bit anxious and I draw with a little more vengeance. I try to get at what they’re trying to tell me. Is it that this war is okay because there’s still a little boy in a white shirt? … I see the war dissolving in front of us. No one in the country seems to be paying much attention; we’re just going forward with the war. That’s why I put the newspaper into the drawings. I’m just indicating type that isn’t saying anything, as a backdrop.

Chaos seems to be part of what I’m playing with. The first drawing of the day is a search. I caress the paper a little bit. I rearrange the chair, and I go searching. I hold the charcoal very lightly and flat, so it cruises over the paper. I create clouds. It’s like looking at a series of clouds, and then I can bite into something that happens, and I probably overdo the first drawing, put in too much information. The second drawing I’m feeling more secure. The third drawing I can edit down and put the full physicality of my arm into it. I like making a drawing feel as if someone was there. I want a drawing to have perpetual motion. Every time you look at it, it’s still moving. It’s not going to burn out. I doesn’t need a battery. It’s there. And I want you to feel the fact that I was there making it.

Somewhere in back of Bill Flynn, inside his working arm and hand, stands his father, who sounds a great deal like my own: both of them wise, untutored Irish-American gents who learned their lessons from World War I. I’d asked the artist “what part of Bill Flynn” did the drawings.

I guess it’s the older part. My father was always aware of the political connotations of things. He had a sense of the futility of war, of how war is manipulated. He used to tell me the story of Smedley Butler [the "Fighting Quaker" (1881 - 1940) and most-decorated Marine of his time, later the author of War is a Racket]. He said Butler refused to go back into battle and would shoot his sons if they joined the Marines, because he’d been shooting Remington rifles at the enemy and they were shooting Remington bullets back at him. He realized they were just selling weapons and they didn’t care about the war. They cared about selling munitions. And I think that’s still going on. That scares me, and that makes me draw harder… My chair will probably go on for a long time… I think I’ve found something I’m not going to be able to let go of for a long time.

William Flynn in conversation with Chris Lydon, in his studio on Savin Hill, Dorchester, Massachusetts, April 3, 2008

William Flynn’s War Drawings (2004 – 2008) are on exhibit at the Victoria Munroe Gallery, 179 Newbury Street, Boston through April 12.


Comments

6 thoughts on “"Armed Chair": Bill Flynn’s Seat of Empire

  1. Interesting angle of attack, the polymorphous chair as prism to the endless changing horrors of the war in Iraq. The chair as seat of power and misery: William Flynn has chosen his furniture well. He mentions Francis Bacon, and his screaming, seated Popes leap to mind. Fine theme, fine work, fine show.

  2. Goya came to my mind- the need to express the unfathomable horror pain and suffering of war which never solves-but does change things- and the helpless feeling about events we have no control over.

    I was an art major years ago and I was very interested at the time in the history of furniture design. So I went to my text: the ball and claw foot was used on Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture ( chairs) and those that were/are made in that style ever since. We had a table with ball and claw feet ( my mother still has it), This is from the Chinese- the claw is of either a dragon or bird and the ball represents the pearl of wisdom.

    The chair itself – the idea- can send one off in directions too. It’s a place where you go to rest your weary body. It’s a place where you put yourself to listen and offer in conversation, share a meal. Or you can stand on it to change a light bulb ( or to get away from a mouse). You can throw a chair and break it in anger. You can be confined to one, helpless.

    Bill Flynn says that there is more in this all than he can grasp. I sure can sense that for me too- the more I sink into this and I have not even looked at the drawings well enough, just listened.

    What is interesting is that BF found himself in this chair. It could have been anything… but he seized this and stuck with it and it’s become part of his language, his point of departures, where he beings to focus. And he seems to be standing on the body of work he is building under the chair to lift himself somewhere.

    Too long ago I gave up drawing but this is an inspiration to get going again. There is nothing like drawing. Drawing is like writing; it comes forward from somewhere inside.

  3. Correction “What is interesting is that BF found himself in this chair. It could have been anything… but he seized this and stuck with it and it’s become part of his language, his point of departures, where he begins to focus.

    While I am here- the Queen Anne and Chippendale ball and claw foot dates to the early 18th century.

  4. Glad to see Bill Flynn is still alive and well. He was quite a dashing figure in the seventies at the Museum School.

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