1928 - 2005

Archie Byron

Atlanta, Georgia
About
Anatomically Correct
By:
Paul Arnett

Archie Byron was born in 1928 in Atlanta's downtown Buttermilk Bottom neighborhood. His father was a music instructor who maintained a studio on Auburn Avenue, where he taught voice and instruments. "He never did really teach us, his kids," Byron recalls, "and for a long time I wondered why. Now I see that he was too busy supporting us, and the twenty-five cents or maybe fifty cents he used to get for his lessons didn't go far enough for him to have time to teach us." Byron's mother was a seamstress. She and her mother, who lived nearby, loved most to make quilts and clothes for the nine children. Archie had been unofficially adopted by his mother's mother—also named Archie—and lived with her. Archie (the grandmother) had been born to a Native American mother and an English father in Jasper County, southeast of Atlanta. Byron and his siblings attended Catholic school in downtown Atlanta. After school, he remembers, he was required to spend long hours learning catechism. "I was catching it from both sides," Byron remembers about reactions to his light complexion and his mixed European, African American, and Native American ancestry.

As a child, he used to play with Martin Luther King Jr. From an early age, Byron was fascinated by law enforcement. He wanted to be a policeman. At age ten, he was riding his bicycle when he was stopped by a policeman who threatened to "blow his brains out." "I was shaken and angry. I'd been minding my own business. I was just another kid, and this policeman threatens to kill me. I thought, 'This ain't right. Something's just plain wrong with things.'"

He was drafted into the Navy in World War II and saw action at Okinawa. After his discharge, he returned to high school and later attended vocational school on the G.I. Bill, learning architectural drawing and bricklaying. Byron recalls that in 1945 Atlanta began hiring its first black policemen. Black patrolmen were forbidden to arrest or otherwise subdue whites and were required to call for a white patrolman. Black officers were not allowed to use the lockers at the stations, so they would stop at the YMCA before and after work to change into and out of their uniforms. Byron wanted to join the police force but did not meet the minimum height requirement. He went to work instead in construction as a mason specializing in elaborate brickwork. In 1961, he helped found what he describes as "the first black-owned detective agency in the United States." Remembering that period, he muses that it would have been appropriate for a childhood friend of Martin Luther King to march in the protests of the time, "but I always said I would not march unless they would let me carry my shotgun."

By the mid-1970s, Archie Byron owned several small businesses—a bait and tackle shop, a firing range, a security guard training school, a gun repair shop which he operated out of his home and attached buildings he built in west Atlanta. Byron had begun to involve himself in the political affairs of his neighborhood. "I was disgusted at the way blacks were treated and what we had to do without." Then two things happened. First, in 1973, Maynard Jackson was elected Atlanta's first African American mayor. And second, in 1975, while working as a nighttime security guard on a construction site, Byron found an uprooted piece of wood that reminded him of a gun. He took it home and hung it on the wall. He quickly became enraptured with roots, scouring riverbanks, lakeshores, other construction in progress, and the woods near his home for interesting wood formations; he would varnish them, christening them with names that usually emphasized their nonhuman qualities, as if they were not part of contemporary human concerns. He gradually came to incorporate roots into his home, making them into tables or stands for potted plants.

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After he had been working with roots for two years, he noticed fallow piles of sawdust on the floor of the gun repair shop. While carrying the debris to the dumpster one day, "There's a beauty there that shouldn't be wasted." He began mixing it he thought, with various kinds of adhesives, finally deciding on a paste made with Elmer's glue and water. This material lent itself to bas-relief wall hangings (such as Flower Girl and Black Roses), which he placed in found picture frames throughout his home.

By 1981, Byron became fed up with the political representation that his neighborhood, among the poorest in Atlanta, was receiving. He decided to run for the Atlanta City Council, winning a seat and holding it for eight years.

Byron's artmaking process combines ceramic with root sculpting and drawing or painting. The techniques of James Thomas, Juanita Rogers, Ralph Griffin, Bessie Harvey, and Jimmy Lee Sudduth are all present in Byron's reformulation of the metaphors of the earth. But Byron is not sculpting nor is he painting. Painting's epistemology of a human mark upon a ground is almost antithetical to the Anatomy pieces, for example, with their implication of an autonomous geological volition creating their raised forms. Anatomy is the alluvial soil deposits of the muddy river, the post-deluge riverbank, stick and branch configurations on the forest floor, or the coffee grounds or tea leaves in the bottom of the drained cup as used in fortune-telling and divination. The process also connects with Byron's brick masonry. The paste cannot be applied in bulk or carved. It must be applied slowly in many layers, while waiting for each patch to dry.

The sawdust and glue is a kind of mortar that becomes more than connective matter; it becomes a noble, expressive substance all its own, no longer needful of another's bricks. Perhaps the most precise analogy is to be found in the mounds left behind by Native American groups of the southeast and the nearly global occurrence of such earthworks among premodern peoples. Like Nazca lines, whose configurations are invisible to the earthbound viewer, Anatomy is a kind of aerial view, a surface in communication with the sky, a secret heraldic crest for a new creolized civilization invisible to earthbound Bubba.

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The mix of water, Elmer's glue, and sawdust is certainly seminal. (Anatomy, after all, is the mapping out of the implications of the information contained in chromosomal dust.) While the figures maintain their rootlike appearances, at the conceptual level they emphasize the "already dead" quality so crucial to the root-sculpting tradition. They are rebounding cells in the process of primary division—male and female separating from the undifferentiated sawdust suspension. The sawdust paste's tawny color is that of the river in flood, the skin of the Creole (and Byron), the soil in suspension, carrying eroded earth to a new beginning, like the migration of peoples or the dissemination of genes across generations.

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More than the roots, the sawdust and glue are an appropriate metaphor for Byron. With its insistence on fragmentation, obliteration, and the primal dust invoked in funeral eulogies—"to the dust returneth"—sawdust also symbolizes the diversity and disunity of origins, the fallenness of mankind exiting the Garden. Alone among known root sculptors, Byron has clung to a consideration of the problem of Genesis, for each of his three heritages may compellingly lay (partial) claim to essence. Pieces such as Emerging, with its infants cartwheeling along a supreme umbilical cord, and Entanglement, with its hermaphroditic, intertwined adults, display Byron's interest in both the nearness and the difference of the sexes. Made at the height of his immersion in contentious local politics, these pieces, like the Anatomy series, see beyond the fractiousness of race.

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"I thought about [Anatomy I] for months. I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn't figure out the way to start it. Then it came to me in the middle of the night: the nose." The stereotypically broad, flat nose of Anatomy I, the thick, wide lips of Anatomy II: these are the physiognomic talismans of blackness, the totems of anatomical, and therefore "racial," difference. Anatomy I places that broad, flat nose at its center, as a point of emanation. It is a kind of banal campaign rhetoric about intrinsic human worth and beauty become genuine artistic visionariness, inflected with the un-utopian notion that difference may be endemic to the human project—that we are all united by certain bonds and disunited by certain bonds. His vision is not of the blazing light of the sun, but of an alternate sunburst and sunrise of the muddy water, moving the world's many soils toward the sea.

While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.

The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

de Young Museum
June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

"Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

Michael C. Carlos Museum at City Hall East
June 29 - November 3, 1996
"Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South," a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artists, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert with the Civil Rights Movement. This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South.

Archie Byron at work

Excerpt from a interview done by the International House Of Blues Foundation in his workshop.

Archie Byron: The "Anatomy" Series

By:
Theophus Smith

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When James Baldwin referred to various forms of black expression as compulsively symbolic, signifying, and "hieroglyphic" in comparison to the virtual-reality representations of black music, he might well have pointed to two works by Archie Byron to illustrate the force of his claim. Byron's "Anatomy" sequence, I, II, III, and IV displays full figures of the nude human body, male and female, on the one hand (the virtually real).

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On the other hand the works include abstracted versions of body parts—ears, mouth, nose, eyes, hands, and feet—that convey a hieroglyphic effect. The observer's eye is skillfully constrained by the artist to shift back and forth from the virtually real to the hieroglyphic representations, thus correlating the disembodied body parts as hieroglyphs in relation to the more full-bodied forms accompanying them. As a tutorial in abstract expression the works are ingenious: they provide simultaneously both a code, the "glyphs," and the key to that code, the full-bodied figures. A more subtle feature of the artist's craft is the displacement of the head or face of each figure: because the eyes, noses, and ears are represented in glyphs, they are not visible realistically as part of the full-bodied figures, but are abstracted from those figures in order to constitute coded representations elsewhere in the field of the works.

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The gendered nature of these anatomies is especially intriguing. The artist visually explores the diversity-in-unity of male and female. Genitalia and breasts are evident but de-emphasized to the point of marginalia. More emphasized, to the point of exaggeration, is the similarity or identicalness of body parts that the male and female share. Indeed, the two genders share features of each other so profoundly that they are represented as virtually one being. Each anatomy is "one being with two natures," to invoke the classical Christological formula of Western theology, in which Christ is simultaneously both God and human, without separation or confusion.

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A contrasting representation is available in Byron's Entanglement, in which the heads and faces of the male and female figures are prominent but, perhaps precisely because of that, their limbs are entwined to the point of confusion and disharmony. This reference to theology leads to a final feature of the works: their spirituality as conveyed by their materiality. The sawdust crafting of the works renders them an archaic appearance, while the sophistication of the abstraction involved appears thoroughly modern. The combined effect is arresting, as if an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics master had discovered modern abstract art culminating in Picasso, and then determined to express a newfound, revelatory humanism. One possible aspect of the revelatory in this case, for the informed viewer, is the current ethos of Afrocentrism, in which things Egyptian bear an emblematic ability to represent, valorize, and transmute things black and ordinary.