Briefly describe the work you do.
The nature of my work is in the conjured, the collected, and the uncanny. My images and objects are a face for an open exploration of multiple realities, energies, atmospheres and unconventional encounters.I really am exploring what it means to have a body on one plane, a mind on the other and the many combinations and preconceptions that collide there in. I appropriate found images and tear them apart, trying to find a nugget of something that rings true to my experiences being a southern boy, somewhat displaced in a very different kind of space. I look at a lot of media: coloring books, cartoons, arts and craft, pornography, art history, popular media.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
I grew up in the shadows of voodoo, Caribbean mysticism and Catholic iconography near New Orleans. This is where theatrical metaphysical states, symbols and cultural representations of the human body permeated my art making practice.Also, I have created art practically my whole life. It is as much a part of me as my name and I don’t remember a time before it. It is part of my lineage like my mother before me her mother before her; we all spoke similar languages of images, yearning and inventing.I think it is difficult to grow up in the Southern United States and not be surrounded by storytelling, a sense of history and an embedded thread of magical thinking.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I am always thinking about my practice in the studio but also when I travel, when I’m reading, or even when cooking. I’m thinking about how all these activities affect my making. I have days where I am just in the studio. However, I may not pick up a brush at all. It is just important to me that to be physically in there. I like the aloneness and quietness that manifest while I’m in this space. It helps me work out not just my work but also problems in my personal life. I identify completely as a studio artist even while I am collaborating with others on work it all comes together within these four walls.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
Teaching is probably that roll for me. My students play such a huge part in my life and I feed them and they feed me. I never imagine that I would be love teaching so much as I do. It has become an critical part of my work and how I think.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
I try to work everyday but I’m not ridged about it. I like mornings or early afternoon but sometimes when I can’t sleep I slip into the studio and try to hammer away at something. I work in little pockets of time. I’m not really one to work 8 hours straight without a break. It’s like a dance for me. I do a few things, stop, look and let things meld then work a bit more. Then repeat.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
It has definitely gotten more colorful for one. And I have experimented with a lot more materials and surfaces. Also the scale shifts a lot from really small to big back to small. I’ve also been a lot more interested in writing about my work and connecting it to history that wasn’t always clear to me.Also moving from the South to the Northeast really changed how I perceive my identity, which has really shifted some of the imagery and process. I’m so much more confident in my voice than ever before. It is a pretty magical feeling.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
I really get ideas and talk about my work with almost everyone in my life. I run ideas by friends or my partner. I ask for critiques from my mother and mentors. I talk out ideas with my students. I think the philosophy I take is by hook or by crook I figure the problems out to continue to make. It is very cathartic in that way.What I really love is when someone that doesn’t know anything about my work gives me feedback. The UPS man or the plumber who sees the work in my home or studio and responds in a natural way it is the best feedback.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
I think many artist think about what life would be like if you weren’t making art. I was always really interested in literature, philosophy, and comparative religion.
John Michael Byrd holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Studio Arts from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is also an alumnus of Louisiana State University with a BFA in Painting and Drawing. He is primarily a painter, but has also worked in drawing, video, objects, performance and printmaking. Byrd’s two-dimensional work compels viewers with a vibrating, sensual use of color and line, and transports us to a realm somewhere between reality and artificiality, what is familiar and what we fear. John Michael’s work has been featured in numerous regional and national exhibitions and competitions. Also, he has been awarded several grants and scholarships including the J. Kenneth Edmiston Memorial Scholarship and the Carl M. Thorp Memorial Art Scholarship.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.