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May 31, 2016
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Benchmarking Utopia; The art and words of Francis Cape

Francis Cape pauses for a photograph at his drafting table in his Lava, NY studio.
TRR photo by Linda Drollinger

LAVA, NY — He may not be the first bona fide man of the world to call Tusten his year-round home, but internationally acclaimed woodworking artist Francis Cape is certainly a candidate for most civic-minded new resident. The son of a British career diplomat, his youth was spent moving from one world capital to the next. Cape returned to his native United Kingdom (UK) as an adult, there to complete a woodworking apprenticeship as well as his higher education. Then came the gypsy life of an artist, navigating the international art world and exhibiting his works across oceans and continents, choosing eventually to make New York City his art-world center. Although he owns a minuscule apartment there for business reasons, he yearned to put down roots for the first time in his life. Soon, a house and barn in Lava became home, the barn to be converted over the course of a year into a well-appointed woodworking studio with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Fascinated and inspired by the unsung community activism he found in rural America, Cape was determined not to be an outsider among his neighbors but to be one of them. To that end, he earned U.S. citizenship. “I applied for my U.S. passport and inquired about becoming a member of the Tusten Volunteer Ambulance Corps on the same day. The next day I was driving an ambulance,” he recounts.

What does a woodworking artist do? Well, this one at least discovers a vital connection between a culture and its furniture. Wondering about the roots of American volunteerism led Cape to explore nineteenth century American intentional communities, among them the Shakers and the Separatists of Zoar. Of the 12 communities studied, only four remain in existence and, of those, all but one are little more than curators of their own pasts. Cape shares his painstaking research into the furniture of these self-contained religious and political communes in a captivating book, “We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists of Zoar,” published last year by Princeton Architectural Press, and an exhibition of 17 benches reproduced to exact original specifications. Opening in New York City last summer to rave reviews, the exhibition opened in San Francisco the last week of January.

In the book’s foreword, Arcadia University Art Gallery Director Richard Torchia explains that one of its objectives is to document American social movements that sought to present the importance of community and collective ownership as a counterpoint to capitalist-driven individualism. To help illustrate how the benches contained in the exhibition had contributed to these social movements, Cape stipulated that discussion groups must take place on the benches everywhere they’re exhibited—and that the benches must always face each other, not a stage or dais. When these conditions are met, discussion group participants can’t help but be acutely aware of each other as equals. All sit at the same height and in close proximity to one another, have unobstructed views of each other and can easily turn in any direction to face speakers. Discussion group participants also quickly realize that the benches are especially uncomfortable; they were designed that way. By discouraging complacency born of comfort, they promote alert listening and brief, constructive dialogue. A situation, Cape suggests, that could be useful today.

[A copy of “We Sit Together,” inscribed “To Narrowsburg,” can be found at the Tusten-Cochecton Branch of the Western Sullivan Public Library in Narrowsburg. For more information on the man and his work, see]