In my art studio were six identical square wooden IKEA stools.
I got them five years ago when I started giving art classes, and they have served well. They are sturdy, stable, and utilitarian. I paid about fifteen dollars apiece for them. Over time the surfaces have gotten a bit nicked and scratched and subject to the rough treatment small children dish out. There were even some scribbles and sketches and graffiti applied, despite the abundance of paper and drawing materials readily available. I understand this; the need to make a permanent mark on an available surface, to say I was here. I never really paid much mind. An occasional scrub when paint or glue got spilled on them was about all the attention I was willing to give them.
Last year I thought I would like to add a couple more stools to my art room, but IKEA no longer carried them. Their newer version was a stepstool, more than twice the price of my old originals, and I decided against getting any more. A month ago I did manage to find an IKEA step-stool bench at a Goodwill in Tacoma. It was even more beat-up than my benches but it was all surface wear, and for four bucks I could not turn it down. I figured I could sand it and paint it.
But then I got the idea that ALL those stools would be fun to paint. The lovely flat non-descript square surfaces needed change. I decided to make each one completely different. I wanted to play with color and design.
The BLP, ever my enthusiastic partner when it comes to the grunt work of furniture art, sanded and wiped down every stool, beginning with the newest addition.
After sanding, I started every stool with two coats of milk paint. This stuff comes in powder form. It is made of lime, powdered casein (milk protein) and natural earth pigments. The colors are lovely and soft. I add water to get the consistency I want, and it glides on as smooth as silk. It has a mild, sweet, milky odor. It’s very relaxing to paint with. I refrigerate the unused portion if I need to wait overnight for a coat to dry. It dries to a very durable finish, and I sand that smooth. It’s funny stuff to use. Often the first coat looks positively awful, especially if my plan is to layer colors, and the second coat not much better until it has been sanded and finished. Because of this process, the BLP is not allowed to make any comments or criticisms of works in progress.
While each base coat surface was drying, I worked on a sketch for the image that would go on top. Well that is true for the square benches. For the step stool I just decided to go with black and red. After that, the process slowed down so I could think each one through.
Transformation is a serious business. I wanted to give each bench a new life. For this artist, it is a huge responsibility and a deliriously wonderful feeling. I have reinvented myself several times in my life. The last metamorphosis began about 10 years ago. Soon after, I met the BLP, and in the company of this wonderful supportive life partner, I was able to realize my goal of becoming a working artist and college teacher. Change doesn’t need to be difficult or painful, but it needs to be accepted and welcomed, with eyes open. And without rushing.
For the first square bench I wanted clouds. While the blue paint on the top was still wet and thick, I incised the design right into the paint with the back end of a paintbrush. After it dried, I added white paint, careful not to get paint inside the lines.
I tried something similar with the brown bench, incising branches and leaves.
The third bench, pale green, needed a fat purple cat, a bluish mouse, and a silver moon. For this one, I had to wait for the surface to dry completely. I used acrylic paints for the image.
While I worked on the cat bench, my offspring AJ was busy turning a gorgeous dark blue bench into a wolf with sharp teeth and orange eyes. I love the lavender raindrops. It’s not visible in the photograph, but one leg ends at the bottom in a pool of lavender.
In bed that night, thinking about the benches that were finished, I knew I was yearning for the ocean. I could hardly wait to start the design. I quick-quick made a few preliminary sketches so I could fall asleep unencumbered. The next morning I painted a bench in a lovely light aqua. While that dried, I made a drawing and then later transferred the image to the surface. I chose a selection of blue-greens and greens, and painted the image. The moon is the same pale green as the froth on the waves. The sky is a color called blue velvet. It is almost black, but not quite, like the night sky that surrounds the full moon.
As each painted bench is completed, it gets two hand-rubbed coats of pure tung oil. This protects the surfaces with a semi-hard finish and imparts a soft glow. For tables, I usually apply a little beeswax last, but not on benches since they will see contact with clothing.
One more bench remains. AJ, involved with transformations of his own, will paint that one when he is ready. In the meantime, it is kind of nice to see the unfinished bench in the company of its fully transformed comrades, like an ugly duckling waiting to become the swan it has no idea it will someday be.