AMES BENCHES

In 2019, Current Projects was asked to build a set of benches for the Levi Fisher Ames exhibit at the Art Preserve, a new, state-of-the-art facility housing artists’ vernacular environments in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The Levi Fisher Ames collection consists of 161 small handmade wooden boxes, each containing hand-carved wooden sculptures that fit snugly into seven crates. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ames traveled around Wisconsin with his collection and performed songs and folktales. Featuring animals both real and imagined, the menagerie served as a prop for his eccentric storytelling.

 

The exhibit features a stage used for live performances as well as a film about Levi Fisher Ames. Current Projects was tasked with designing a series of benches for the audience that evoked the atmosphere of his traveling show. By asking, “What would Levi Fisher Ames have built?”, we learned that Ames was a carpenter before his career as a showman and would certainly have had the skills and knowledge to build the benches himself. We looked at the surviving objects known to have been made by Ames, including the trunks that carried the contents of his traveling exhibit, as well as the painted wood and glass vitrines that protected his elaborately carved figurines. We also researched other bench forms from the same period, especially those from carnivals and tent revivals. In the end, we settled on what is known as a five-board bench made from white pine. These would have been lightweight, portable, and relatively simple to construct, but also durable enough to withstand regular use. We included a few decorative flourishes in keeping with the carnival atmosphere of the traveling road show.

 

A few notable period details are the x-wedged through-tenons which are faintly visible through the painted finish on the bench tops, the use of steel cut-nails, and the half dovetail where the apron joins with the leg. We opted not to do any faux aging, but instead used a period appropriate milk-paint finish. This somewhat vulnerable finish will show wear over time, revealing the contrasting red undercoat. Due to the wedge-shaped footprint of the gallery, the benches varied in length from two to eight feet.