Photo: Andrew Edlin Gallery
Part-time gravedigger John Byam’s carvings of hands, as seen in a New York gallery.
Artists often have to support themselves with non-art jobs. Gone are the wealthy arts patrons of past centuries, and maybe that’s not all bad, considering the Medicis. In any case, it’s interesting to see what kinds of jobs contemporary artists hold down. You may recall this post about Brando’s gardener’s art, for example.
Now at Hypoallergic, Allison Meier describes the recent gallery showing of a self-taught artist who dug graves in his spare time.
“Dusted with sawdust, John Byam’s sculptures appear as if they’ve just been carved, the shavings attached with glue binder giving a rawness to the miniature spacecrafts, airplanes, houses, helicopters, cameras, and coffins. Andrew Edlin Gallery in Manhattan [displayed] an assembly of these pocket-sized pieces by the late Byam in Unearthed. …
“Born in 1929 in Oneonta, New York, Byam mostly lived a local life, working at his family’s trailer court, with a two-year stint in the military taking him to Japan during the Korean War.
“Later, he had odd jobs with the Delaware and Hudson Railway and as a gravedigger at the local cemetery. The wood carvings, arranged by theme at Andrew Edlin with no label text, have traces of this autobiographical narrative, with a platoon of tanks and heavy artillery, or an open coffin, colored black, on a rolling gurney.
“Yet others, like spaceships and rockets, one with ‘”Moon or Bust’ scrawled in red, herald dreams of exploration. Recognizable pop culture forms, including the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek, suggest these ambitions were limited to vicarious experiences through television, magazines, and movies.
“While that gives the toy-like objects a melancholy edge, they have a lot of joy in their detailed shapes. Byam seemed to delight in making even a simple chair on such a small-scale, with annotations in pencil indicating details like ‘door front’ on a tiny house. An array of human hands chiseled into various poses, one holding a coin, another with the words ‘2 close hands’ folded in prayer, shows a similar enchantment with the shape of things. …
“Byam was a deft craftsman in the tradition of American vernacular woodcarving, and his roughly hewn art is haunted by 20th-century culture, both its wars and fantasies.”
Hyperallergic has some great pictures of Byam’s art here.