Make it bright, put a face on it, and then fax the design off to New York. That was Manitou Springs artist Sean O'Meallie's life as a toy inventor for about 10 years. It's not that he didn't like his job, but he found that he always wanted to wander off, wherever he was, to find where art lived. In 1996 he decided that he'd had enough, and the journey to this week's Manitou Chair Project began.
O'Meallie explains that in the toy business, the goal is to attach a narrative to an invention. Toys have to communicate through color, shape, form and functionality, so that children can immediately understand what to do with them. The Chair Project is not much different from this, really. Simply close Manitou Avenue, line up 1,000 empty chairs in such a way that each chair is visible, and then snap some photographs. Combined with the townscape of Manitou, the project develops its own narrative.
"Empty chairs communicate universally," he says. "People can relate to them. Even their parts are named after parts of the human body."
The project began as a flash mob, meant to showcase the residents of Manitou. This idea was problematic because of the impact on traffic, and the disruption of local businesses, which is exactly what O'Meallie — a locally lauded artist who's shown at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Art on the Streets, among other venues — didn't want.
"This is about Manitou," he says. "Each of the chairs belongs to a resident." In fact, one of the primary requirements for donating a chair to the project is that you must live in Manitou Springs.
"Ultimately," he says, "the Chair Project is an exploration to find out if a large-scale art installation can benefit a community."
One way the installation is already helping is through "chair money." Coordinating with Rod Gillis, the numismatic educator at the Money Museum in Colorado Springs, and students in Debra Brewster's art class at Manitou Springs High School, O'Meallie has developed "money" to recognize those who donate chairs to the project.
When a resident donates, he or she is given chair money to spend at participating Manitou merchants. At the end of the project, the money will be collected, and its journey studied to help determine the socio-economic impact of the project. The final home for some of the money will be the Money Museum's permanent collection.
The other tangible end result will be a series of Chair Project posters, five in all, that will be available at select merchants throughout Manitou. O'Meallie will also allow the Visitors Bureau to use the images to promote and expand tourism. There's a calendar in the works, too.
"This might be the beginning of something for Manitou," O'Meallie says. "Perhaps the start of art tourism for the area."