For the Ventura Music Festival, there is meaning to the number 15. That’s how many plain pine chairs have been transformed into elaborate works of art that the public will have a chance to purchase at a fundraising auction on March 14. It’s also how long the festival has been in existence.

“For the past four years we’ve done an art project in conjunction with the music festival where we have commissioned local artists to do a piece of work that really reflects the theme of the festival,” said Cheryl Heitmann, the festival’s executive director. “This year, because it is our 15th anniversary, we’re having fifteen chairs.”

Heitmann said the artists, which were selected by a committee, were each given a plain straight-backed wooden chair and a small stipend to help pay for art supplies. The theme for the music festival this year is “Ruskaya,” which means “music is the soul of Russia.”

The artists had complete creative freedom.

“They can do whatever they want with the chair, whatever their art medium is,” Heitmann said. “These chairs are, frankly, magnificent,” she gushed. “The artists really went all out on these, and they are not getting paid for this. They do this as a labor of love.”

One of the artists, Christine Leong, was asked to participate in the project at a moment when her mind was focused on a personal landmark. “On the day I received the call from the Ventura Music Festival,” Leong said, “I was on my way to Montebello for my swearing-in ceremony.” Leong, a native of Hong Kong, became an American citizen that day.

art2Leong was open to the idea of exploring new artistic territory when she accepted the invitation to participate. “I have never painted on wood,” she said. “My chair was inspired by a book about Russian lacquer trays and boxes. I used many coats of lacquer to get them really shiny.”

Leong is best known for her Chinese watercolor techniques. She was self-taught until she reached her mid-30s. Her work was chosen to be exhibited during the Beijing Olympics. “I was very honored to be able to show my artwork during the Olympics. I was one of 100 Chinese artists chosen for the exhibit.”

Another chair was decorated by artist Stephanie Elise, who also works primarily in watercolor. Her project is named “Russian Tea Party Chair.” Elise describes her work as “a gold-leafed Russian samovar which is a purely Russian invention.” On the back is the symbol of love, the Russian Red Rose. Draped around the chair are hand-painted pearls. The seat is covered with lush faux mink fabric to symbolize the warm Cossack hats.

You can view the chairs in downtown Ventura at the Visitors & Convention Bureau and the nearby Museum of Ventura County through Jan. 11. After that, the chairs will be distributed to private businesses throughout Ventura County. Additional photos of the chairs can be seen on the Ventura Music Festival’s Web site at www.venturamusicfestival.org. Heitmann said the organizers are attempting to make it possible to bid online this year. Be prepared to bid your full amount because some objects from past auctions have brought in as much as $10,000.00 each.   

joanbien@sbcglobal.net