We had the good fortune of connecting with John-Michael Byrd and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi John-Michael, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
My work is all about taking risks. And, just like life, it involves more questions than answers. The risky nature of manipulating paint: working against a watery image is always a struggle between me and the medium – a constant interplay of romanticism, esotericism and trauma.

I once had a long conversation with a cousin, to whom I was very close growing up. We discussed our respective life choices: she decided to stay and attempt to make a life in our small town, and I left. She said she was so proud of me and all the things I’d been able to see and accomplish. And, in the same breath, she lamented that she’d always been too scared to leave. “Do you think I wasn’t afraid,” I said, pointing out the only difference between us is that I was more afraid of what would happen if if I didn’t try, spending a lifetime wondering what could have been. What is the worst that could happen, really?

Pressing on is a risk.

It’s a risk all artists face. I never think I’m doing enough. It’s a rush to fill your day, but, often enough, it can feel genuinely existentially crushing. Active vulnerability is a risk. Investing money is a risk. Learning new skills is a risk. Being open with yourself, experimenting, growing and failing are all risky behaviors. Hell, even the simple act of asking for help is a risk most people are unwilling to take. The arts will never enjoy universal support. The important thing is to grow and learn; this will keep you grounded and sane during hard times.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Ludicrous imagery has always played an important part in my practice. I find the absurdity in the banal experiences that outline our lives endlessly entertaining. I keep extensive notes on dreams and serendipitous happenings in everyday life – anything interesting I see out and about. I remember misheard phrases that made me laugh and mine them for images that poke fun at entire genres of thought – like a circus clown, with the freedom to be mercilessly cutting in way no one else could.

A certain childlike curiosity sets me apart. Apparently, people are either curious, or they are not. Thankfully, I’ve never lost my sense of wonderment, that anything could happen at any moment. It sometimes gets muddled by adult cynicism, but the casserole of whimsy and naïveté is bound together with observational grit and years of finessing my technique.

My paintings reflect a tradition of wet into wet painting, together with the manipulation of traditional animation technique. Lately, I have been trying to reincorporate materials I haven’t used in years, and I’ve been spending time revisiting ideas that may not have been fleshed out as much as I would have liked, at the time. This excites me. Fun in dark times is important, particularly these last few years. If it isn’t fun for me, I don’t want to think about it, and I certainly don’t want to do it.

My current body of work hinges on the conceit of a child reincarnated as a cult leader. If you have only seen the world through a child’s eyes, what do your relics look like? Are they all nonsensical contraptions or poetic exquisite corpses? Are all the holiday signifiers unbearably saccharine (well, more unbearably saccharine)?

My path, to date, has been anything but straight forward. I grew up in a tiny town in South Louisiana. It isn’t a place with many opportunities for the differently inclined. I spent my entire childhood thinking I was an alien and that the way I saw the world would always be a massive albatross around my neck. But, after seeing more of the world, I discovered a whole new circle of misfits, all of us on our shared fool’s journey. I’ve learned that you know a lot more, intuitively, than you are conditioned to believe, but that you need experience to be able to distinguish between the good and wicked witches of the world.

To my friends, I’m goofy. I’m a flaneur of the macabre and a connoisseur of camp; anything or anybody that takes themselves way, way too seriously. I think this comes from years working in galleries and academia. Also, moving around a lot puts you in a sort of perpetual fish-out-of-water state. But, paying close attention to the guises and protocols everyone ascribes to is always good for a laugh and can teach you a lot about why you react the way you do.

I’m endlessly interested in the emotional scaffolding of intricate detail. If one component is slightly askew, how does that affect meaning? It changes the whole read of a story. Suddenly, the emperor has no clothes, and you have to figure out how to dress accordingly. It takes an awful lot of thought and effort to go against the general rhythm of any place.

Joseph Campbell once said that “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Try to enter all paintings with an open mind and heart. Not everything is for you, but you can get something from everything you view – even if it’s a good belly laugh.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
My best friend is my dog: a rescue named Bertie, short for Alberta. We’re homebodies really, but if I could, I would take her all over New York, to see the sights. The Strand bookstore is my haven. Rummaging through their stacks is like ambrosia. I love the Met. It’s such an amazing place to experience a genuine cross-section of the world’s population in one place, all at once. I love to eavesdrop on my fellow patrons, attempting to articulate their thoughts about the work in front of us (the more asinine, the better). Kalustyan’s Indian grocery on Lexington and 28th street, in Little India is a favorite haunt. I love the endless rows of spices, rubbing shoulders with all the pilgrims who love eating and cooking as much as I do. I love long walks in the winter. Something about being bundled up and walking for its own sake, with no real destination in mind is magical to me.

I love the Rubins Museum and the wooden escalators in Macy’s Herald Square – just a small-town boy in this vast metropolis, whomever is with me probably gets annoyed at my stopping incessantly to jot notes on all the flotsam and jetsam we take it. Also, The New York Botanical Gardens – don’t forget that.

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
As I mature in art and in life, I find it hard to pinpoint one specific person, moment, book, trial or event, because my path has been, at best, convoluted. I’m just one big magpie, pecking away at all the experiences life affords. Fred Rogers once said, “Look for the helpers when you don’t know what to do.” I’m on a constant lookout for life’s teachers and teachable moments. Sometimes the teachers are professional, and sometimes they are simply teachers of circumstances, demonstrating, in grand fashion, what not to do.

Growing up, I was privileged to have a few wonderful teachers; Caron Knight, my art teacher, pushed me to experiment and paint the world as I see it; Anita Schillings, my high school English teacher, encouraged me not to settle, just because others did; my parents always pushed me to trust my gut.

Even those with malicious intent can be useful and influential in your development as an artist. My job is, and has always been to acknowledge the range of emotions and experiences we all face and to attempt to metabolize them into works that simultaneously acknowledge and question. Life is not about guarantees or sure things. It is about making what works for you. It’s nothing if not a challenge, but the rewards are sweet.

Website: https://www.johnmichaelbyrd.com

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Image Credits
All Images are copyright John-Michael Byrd

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