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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.