Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Story of Estrella

This post was contributed by Providence sculptor, illustrator, painter and storyteller Diana Jackson, who created the Museum’s beloved Estrella.

Estrella, the huge woman chair who now lives at the Children's Museum in Providence, was conceived 35 years ago.

At the time I was a young mother and emerging artist. An older German friend was visiting at our home in Providence. She and I were sitting in our kitchen while the children, ages 4 and 6 1/2, struggled to get into my lap. They were terrified of her and were seeking the only safety they knew. My friend observed this and quietly said: "There are never enough laps to go around."

A lightbulb went on in my head, and I decided to make a Lap Chair, where my children could go when they needed safety and security and I didn't have time to sit down with them. With very little carpentry skills and some experience with sewing I had learned as a child, I proceeded to make a huge doll chair with plywood, fabric, and upholstery stuffing. The face I made out of clay. She had a peaceful face with a smile that looked like the moon. I used fake fur for the hair.
The children in the neighborhood would come over to our house to play and see her. Some would interact with her easily; others were so scared they wouldn't come in our house.

Not long after that I got a job at the RI State Council on the Arts as an Artist-in-Residence. This meant that I would design and implement art projects in educational institutions around the state. I went mostly into schools and the local prison.

Then an opportunity to work at the new Children's Museum in Pawtucket came along. There I had an actual studio in one of the rooms of the Museum and would welcome children into my studio to work with clay, my primary medium. While I was setting up my studio, I thought it might be a nice idea to take the big chair along and put it in the Museum.

She was a big hit. The children climbed all over her, sat in her lap, hid under her skirt, and slid down her body. No matter what happened, she smiled. Once someone tore off her arm. She kept smiling.

March 1981

When I left the Museum after the Residency ended, I asked the staff if they would like to keep her. They said yes. That is how she came to live at the Children's Museum.
Providence Journal ad, 1984

She started off being called “Super Chairwoman.” Then the Museum had a name-giving contest for her and the name “Estrella” won. “Estrella” means Star.

Estrella moved with the Museum to Providence in 1997.

Estrella during Museum renovations in 2008.

Estrella continued to evolve over the years. Because of wear and tear, I had to rebuild her body several times, but her face and her smile remained the same. I tried to emphasize the design features about her that were so appreciated: her hugeness, her softness, her availability, and her stability. And her bosom. How comforting and sensuous to be nestled in the breasts of a woman. It is such an ancient and elemental experience.

But Estrella also had to be a Queen, and Earth Mother, and a Comfort Chair all at once. I styled her outfits so that they were regal but soft. I created a headdress that could be decorated according to the seasons of the year. She could maintain her dignity but still be a place of rest.

Grown-ups and children alike find rest and relaxation in her lap. Grown men have been found asleep in her lap. Tired workers have found sympathy in her lap.
Not long ago a woman came up to me at the Museum while I was repairing Estrella and said to me, “It must give you a lot of satisfaction to see how much joy and comfort Estrella has given to people for so many years.” I burst into tears.

Diana Jackson has cared for Estrella and kept her ready to embrace a growing number of visitors – well over one million since 1979! Now Diana is retiring. Last week, she restyled Estrella for winter – the last time she will work with the Super Chairwoman she created. We are deeply grateful to Diana for taking loving care of Estrella for so many years, and for introducing thousands of children to the beauty and power of art.

An Estrella photo montage in the Museum's offices.


Nina Simon said...

What a fabulous story of a well-loved object! I appreciate the photos over time and the humor and honesty in the recounting. Thanks for sharing.

Susie Wilkening said...

I bet Estrella is an incredibly sticky memory for young kids. Love it.

Anonymous said...

Paul & Diana;

Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story, so appropriate to read on the last day of the year!

For me, it encapsulates so much about our wonderful field--how often the most simple idea stemming from a direct and very visceral human need can be made concrete, nurtured and shaped over the years to become beloved and precious. It also speaks volumes about the dedication of creative staff like Diana, people who care about, and even more importantly, care for, Estrella-like objects and experiences throughout their careers, with love, humility and a wonderful sense of play!

Let's hope that 2010 is more Estrella-like for all of us -- comfy, warm, safe, playful and most of all, about giving and sharing!

Janice O'Donnell, Executive Director, Providence children's Museum said...

She is indeed a sticky memory, Susie. A favorite Estrella story: In 1997, a few days before the grand opening of the Museum in its new location, a journalist brought a group of kids to "review" the not yet open museum. I took them through the never-been-seen (and not-quite-finished) exhibits and eventually we reached the renovated Estrella in her brand new location. One of the children cried delightedly, "Oh I know this place!"

Maura Barrett Burkowsky said...

She'll always be SuperChairwoman to me! Whenever I visit the Museum, I can't help but smile when I see her! From working in Pawtucket long ago, to bringing children, nieces and nephews throughout the years, Estrella has been a constant comfort that some things stay the same(with a few alterations)!
Maura Barrett Burkowsky

Jane Jerry said...

Oh how lovely to read this story! Diana - you are a star in all of our constellations...from Super Chairwoman to charming kids and parents in Texas with the Bear Chair Estrella...thanks, thanks and hope to see you again in 2010! Jane and George

Nancy Smith Worthen said...

Dear Diana,
I am so moved reading the account of the Super Chair woman and thinking of all the children who have jumped in her lap, cuddled in her arms, slept leaning against her formidable bosom and sometimes run away from her. I remember my daughter seeing her after a few years away from the museum saying "wow, I remember her being so much bigger than she is" because of course, my daughter was smaller when she played on her in Pawtucket. So many memories of the museum are connected to Estrella. Love, Nancy Smith Worthen

Suzanne Larson said...

During the 5 years I worked at the Museum in Providence, Estrella was constantly filled with children, young and old. My own girls loved sitting in her lap and wrapping the big, soft arms around them.

Thank you, Diana and the Children's Museum, for giving so many children wonderful memories of comfort and safety.

Beth said...

Both my husband and I grew up in Pawtucket and have fond memories of curling up in Estrella's lap. When I visited the museum in Providence 10 years ago, I was thrilled to still see her - with her inviting arms and comfy lap. This past week we visited the Children's Museum for the first time with our 1 year old daughter. I can't begin to tell you how wonderful and emotional it was to jump in Estrella's lap for a family photo. Thank you Diana for giving us Estrella, and thank you for keeping her loving and comfy all these years. As a member of Estrella's first generation of children, I love sharing her with my first child and hope to share her with others for years to come.

marion said...

A good friend sent a picture of her little grandson in estrellas lap.he just turned one and you could almost miss him in her soft folds. A testament to her comforting demeanor is the absence of any fear on his face. Most of us grew up knowing the comfort of a mothers arms .to see it in giant sized form is amazing.thankyou Diana.