The sculptor Francis Cape begins the introduction to his book We Sit Together thus, “Twenty Benches are gathered in the middle of a room. Each is built from poplar and finished in the same rubbed linseed oil. No two are the same. This is the sculpture Utopian Benches. I made the sculpture as a way of thinking – and talking – about communalism as both a historic and a contemporary alternative to [capitalist-driven] individualism.”
“The focus of the work are the nineteenth-century American intentional communities, particularly those with a craft tradition, most famously the Shakers, but also the Community of True Inspiration in Amana, the Harmony Society, and the Society of Separatists at Zoar, Ohio… The benches, as shared seating, represent community. As examples of craftsmanship, they propose a reconsideration of value.”
In addition to having the physical shows of Utopian Benches all around the U.S., Cape took his research into the thinking about, the visiting and discussions, the measuring and the making and the photographic documenting of these benches – in short the manual and intellectual labor that went into the establishment of an appropriate context and the finding of a meaningful setting for them – and condensed it all into the marvelous book, We Sit Together (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95 – pdf sample here).
If you had handled the book you couldn’t help but smile that Cape originally conceived of it as “a larger publication,” because the finished paperback is a diminutive thing at 6.5” x 8.5”, 112 pages, 15 color illustrations, and 55 b/w illustrations. Though small and spare, it is fiercely intelligent and unruly (what is this, really? Philosophical tract, American architectural history, religious inquiry, arts & craft, contemporary art?).
We Sit Together loosely borrows the organization of Cape’s earlier pamphlets. The first and main part is titled Communities & Benches. “Descriptions of each community is here told, so far as possible, through its bench or benches,” starting with the earliest benches first, and each description is followed by photographs of the source benches in situ, scale drawings and crisp photographs of the remade benches, all in black & white.
The second part of the book is titled Installation and it contains full spread color photographs that, after the plainspoken pages that preceded them, jump off the glossy paper as luminous light reflects off the golden hued poplar wood, white gallery walls and polished concrete floors.
As sculpture the benches present as crisp minimalist objects: But, as functional sculpture – participants in gallery discussions regularly used the benches – they exude warmth and come across as personable, attributes not typically associated with minimalist works. Cape is consistent in this regard. In a 2004 interview in Sculpture magazine he explained, “My work is against expressionism. I find the most powerful art experience to be when there is almost nothing there and yet that minimal inflection still moves me.”
Cape conveys the well-researched story of each community through its bench or benches in concise and clear language. Consider this paragraph on the Community of True Inspiration in Amana (1855 – 1932):
“The Inspirationists valued communalism and sharing over individual profit. That this was an ideal, and not just a practical social structure, is demonstrated by their not having patented inventions: For example, improvements they made in their wool mills were freely adopted by commercial mills throughout the United States. The humility of the craftsman anonymously working to the best of his abilities, seeking satisfaction in benefiting his community rather than in personal acclaim or profit, reflects those same values. The communal discipline of making benches to the same designs without individual embellishment over many generations embodies the same communal spirit with which they gathered on the benches daily and weekly to share food for the body, as well as the soul.”
We Sit Together also stands as proof that intelligent boundary pushing work is not the exclusive province of Cities: the periphery may in fact provide better hunting grounds for curious minds, and Cape and his collaborators deserve credit for honestly grappling with an inherently uncool topic, religious belief.
In conversation with Rachel Reese, Cape responded to her question, “Do you feel there was a mirroring between the making of your Utopian Benches and the benches they represent? Do you consider your own hard work and craftsmanship necessary to reflect upon the utopian values of harmony, possibility, and social equalities in these communities? In other words, do you believe it takes honest work to make honest work?” thus:
“True craft is humble, egalitarian, anonymous. So, yes, my craft practice does reflect on the values espoused by these communal societies. The paradox is that it goes out under the banner of my individual artist’s name—a contradiction I have yet to resolve. I do believe it takes honest work to make honest work, though neither needs to be the work of the hands.”