WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Inspiration comes in many forms. And often you find it where you least expect it. That’s true for Wilmington photographer Curtis Krueger. He found his muse in the little old lady next door, a chair and a joke that took him on a journey he never expected.
By the time Krueger moved into his house on Grace Street back in the ’90s, Leila Davis had lived next door for about 70 years.
"She was very friendly and very outgoing," Krueger said.
A tepid relationship between the 30-something and his elderly neighbor eventually blossomed into friendship. Then one day, Krueger decided to play a little joke on Mrs. Davis; sneaking an old, lonely, metal chair from her backyard.
"I just took it to the beach, did some photos," Krueger said. "I knew a month later it was Mrs. Davis’s 98th birthday."
When he gave his neighbor a copy of "Mrs. Davis’s Chair Goes to the Beach," Krueger says she thought his little joke was funny. When she saw a proof sheet with dozens of snaps of her chair at Shell Island, she offered Krueger the chair as a gift.
"I said, ‘For now I’m just gonna leave it in your backyard,’" he said. "I just felt that’s where it needed to be."
A few years later, Krueger came home from a trip to France finding a flurry of activity nextdoor and his friend on her deathbed.
"I held her hand, and I said a prayer," Krueger said. "And it was maybe an hour later that she passed away."
As he walked home, he finally took the chair. It was in his truck months later as he went to visit his sister in New Mexico.
"I don’t know why I had brought her chair," Krueger said, "but I brought her chair. And it was kinda that emotional connection of when I’m on the road, I like to bring the things that make me feel good."
During a stop at White Sands National Monument, Krueger took the chair out the truck, and a new project was born. It began a crusade of sorts to travel the country taking photos of Mrs. Davis’s chair in every state of the union.
"It’s almost like an addiction," he said.
Krueger even shot a video of his travels with Mrs. Davis’s chair rock climbing, kayaking and hiking to some of the most picturesque locales imaginable.
In 2005, with 49 states done, Krueger and his wife lugged the chair 11 miles up the Na Pali coast of Hawaii.
"I just felt like I needed, I think, some physical end to this journey, too," Krueger said. "And that’s why I chose that hike to be the last photo."
But it wasn’t the last one. Krueger decided some photos needed replacing. Now that his collection is done, Krueger still takes Mrs. Davis’s chair on the road to art shows.
"I’m kinda known as ‘The Chair Guy,’" he said.
In September, "The Chair Guy" headed for a show in his native Michigan, but he and the chair never made it. His truck and equipment went up in flames on a Virginia highway. Krueger made it out with just his dog, cat and wallet begging firefighters to save his prized possession.
"They were containing the flames and everything, and I was just saying, ‘Please! You gotta find this chair!" Krueger said.
Now a little singed, the chair is back at home on Grace Street having taken Mrs. Davis’s spirit to places she never went. A gift, Krueger says, turned into something totally different than intended.
"That one little gift can make a difference," he said. "I know in my life I look back and think what an experience I’ve had just because of that one gift."
Krueger says a book of his Mrs. Davis’s chair photos should be out in the spring. He says the question people ask him the most is if the chair will travel abroad. But he says he’s not sure if he’ll do anything else with it.