Newport This Week

‘Then and Now: Tales From The Big Chair’



The Redwood Library & Athenæum launched its first installation of the year: a 19-foot Windsor rocking chair.

Opening night of Then and Now: Tales From The Big Chair on June 18 featured musical entertainment by the Vox Hunters, Armand Aromin and Benedict Gagliardi who are seekers and singers of old songs, cultivators of local music, and multi-instrumentalists. Their harmonizing voices were tastefully garnished with fiddle, free-reeds, and tenor guitar, as they presented a varied program to the one hundred guests assembled on the front grounds. The seat of the huge chair served as the performance stage.

Benedict Leca, executive director of the Redwood, explains, “Then and Now: Tales From the Big Chair is an outdoor sculptural installation created by polymath Doug Fitch to counteract “presentism.” Coined by the scholar Alan Jacobs, presentism is defined as the prevailing over emphasis on the significance of today’s lived experience and the undervaluing of history, leading to “a culture of insecurity and a fear of the future.” The lesson is that it is only when we own and embrace all of the stories, especially the more unsavory episodes of our own past like the Redwood’s founding from the profits of the Triangle Trade, that we can begin to hope for a more consequential future.

A monumentally-scaled replica of a Rhode Island variant Windsor rocking chair, the sculpture faces out to the world as a gateway to enlightenment, fueled by the cultural achievements of our forebears contained within the walls of the Redwood behind it.

In a first instance, rocking chairs represent reflection, and in turn wisdom, states a reader might access at the Redwood itself. While the rocking motion might conventionally signify repose, it should also be understood in terms of dynamic movement. The chair thus represents stasis, but also instability, i.e. the subversion of tradition’s immobility and permanence.

As an 18th-century object representing both wisdom and change, the rocking chair draws from the past, gesturing back to such figures as Benjamin Franklin, a visitor to Newport and the apocryphal inventor of the form. Steeped in the classics, Franklin nonetheless catalyzed the political forces of his day as a change agent instrumental in the birth of our nation. It is to represent this combination of connection and detachment that the chair rests on a platform of stonework identical to the original library. Set on its traditional stone plinth, the rocker was born of the Old World, an offspring of the past but now detached from it, the pivotal object mediating between two positions: the past and the present; the then and the now.”

The opening festivities were free to the public who brought chairs, blankets and picnics to enjoy the entertainment. Musical programs will be presented through-out the summer with the schedule regularly updated on

The installation will be at the library through late September.

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