"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…

“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 show at Victoria Munroe Gallery, 179 Newbury Street, Boston through April 12.

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