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Sitting pretty

Students transform ordinary chairs to support the arts

It pays to think big.

In 1998 Jennifer Fletcher, a Grant High School junior, bowled over the citizens of Portland by booking singer-songwriter Jackson Browne for an arts benefit concert.

The savvy student's impassioned letter pleading the case for arts education won over the performer. The concert raised $100,000, which was given in the form of grants to fund artistic endeavors in dance, drama, media arts, music and visual arts at Portland schools.

Fletcher didn't stop with the concert, founding a student-led arts group, Arts Alive! Now a student at Occidental College in Southern California, she no longer leads the group; that role belongs to 17-year-old Lindsay Simmons.

Since 1998, Arts Alive! has given $112,000 in grants to a variety of projects, including black-and-white photography exhibits at two high schools, Grant and Wilson; the painting of murals at James John Elementary and Gregory Heights Middle schools; and drum ensemble classes at Atkinson Middle School.

In her own creative tour de force, Simmons has launched an exhibit and fund-raiser called The Chairs Project. With the help of the student board she heads, the Lincoln High senior distributed 94 unused school district classroom chairs to elementary, middle and high schools in the Portland school district.

According to Simmons, the students were instructed to 'go wild' with the paint Ñ donated by Portland-based Miller Paint Ñ and some basic materials. The result is a fleet of small wooden chairs turned into individual works of art that display a wide range of talent, expression and spirit.

The chairs will be on display from Thursday through the end of the month at 15 galleries comprising the Downtown Gallery Association. Visitors can participate in silent-auction bidding.

The arts group hopes to raise $50,000 with The Chairs Project, including the sale of posters. Half of the proceeds raised from each chair will go to Arts Alive! for future grants, while the other half will go to the school where the chair was created. Even if a chair doesn't sell, some money will make it back to the school, Simmons explained.

The showings are aimed not only to raise money but also to give the budding artists their first taste of seeing their work in a gallery setting. Arts Alive! leaders hope that the project will raise awareness about untapped creativity in the classrooms and the role that the arts can play in education.

Fletcher's mother helped

Simmons and the students gathered the recycled chairs together recently in the atrium of Pioneer Place for a reception and to launch the silent auction.

'We have a really diverse board, and we were able to delegate a lot of the work,' Simmons says. 'Sometimes a group of students would work on a chair, such as Ainsworth Elementary's chair, and at other times it was just one artist.

'We also got a lot help from Jennifer's mother, Lori Fletcher, and Ellen Bergstone Beer from the Portland Schools Foundation.'

Simmons, who is interested in photography, was asked if she has noticed budget cuts hacking away at her own education. 'I personally haven't yet,' she says. 'But that's all the more reason to keep doing it.'

Arts Alive! functions with assistance from the Portland Schools Foundation, a nonprofit school-funding advocacy group. Money raised by the arts group is given back to the schools in the form of arts-related grants. Since 1998, Arts Alive! has awarded 33 grants to local public schools.

Many visions

The Broderick Gallery will show a few of the more controversial chairs of the group, including one created by Grant senior Neil Brookins that is a raw statement about capital punishment.

Nick Sheld from Madison High School transformed his chair with abstract shapes of green and orange foam. It will be on display at Belinki & Duprey gallery.

Cleveland High School students Emily Stebbins and Melissa Provincal created a peacock chair with wire feathers that radiate from the sides. The 'face with braces chair,' the creation of Cleveland students Cory Woods and Lisha Erspamer, will be at the Red Eagle Gallery.

Other students, such as Cleveland senior Eric Garcia, looked to the masters for inspiration. Garcia depicted Michelangelo's creation scene from the Sistine Chapel on the chair's back support in deft, detailed brushwork.

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