Artist Nathan Byrne finds traces of a life and a new beginning in Deming, New Mexico
In 'New Point of Beginning,' on view through Feb. 4 at ROY G BIV Gallery, the artist revisits the land where his mother died and finds a way forward
When Nathan Byrne thinks back to his childhood, he can still see his mother, Denny, smoking a cigarette, working on a crossword puzzle and chatting about movies. She was a whirlwind, always talking, and her vibrant personality served her well onstage as an actress. Byrne would often help her practice her lines.
Denny was on the dive team at the University of Tennessee and worked as an aerobics instructor in her 30s. She could run a 6-minute mile, and when the family lived in Pensacola, Florida, Denny would routinely swim 3.5 miles to an ocean sandbar and back.
But by the age of 52, Byrne’s mother was unrecognizable. Emaciated and on life support due to chronic alcoholism and a surgery that never healed, Denny died in Deming, New Mexico, on Feb. 14, 2007. Byrne and his brother went to the desert to be with her during those final days. They visited the 20 acres of land their mother left to them, but when a local sheriff accompanied them to Denny’s mobile home, they were given only 15 minutes to retrieve keepsakes and mementos from their mother’s belongings. It would be nearly 15 years until Byrne returned.
For eight days last summer, Byrne traveled to New Mexico for an artist residency and research trip as part of his MFA program at the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art & Design. “I'd been wanting to return for so long,” Byrne said. “Part of why I wanted to do this was to get some sort of resolution and to honor her, but also to make some new discoveries — to return to the land, see what's still there and ask some questions.”
Byrne reveals those discoveries in “New Point of Beginning,” an exhibition on view through Feb. 4 at Franklinton gallery ROY G BIV. A large cyanotype print titled “Picture from Life’s Other Side” documents traces of Denny’s life on the land, with various items silhouetted in white against a deep blue background. Below it, Byrne displays the found objects on a shelf: fishing lure, glove, clothesline, clothespins, Mason jar saltshaker, sewing scissors, shoelace, etched glass window from the mobile home, a cassette tape from the Midwest Center for Stress & Anxiety titled The Courage to Change.
“You could say they're talismanic objects because they're imbued with the memory of my mother,” Byrne said. “I would go to estate sales and garage sales with her, so some of the things I learned from her have been really important to the work that I make.”
Byrne, who currently lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, also made two site-specific sculptures on the New Mexico land, a dusty landscape off a country highway outside the town of Deming. “The desert is intense. It's a place where you go to have visions or to find yourself,” Byrne said. “Everything is bare and stripped down. You can lose your mind out there. It's a rugged life.”
Denny loved to cook and garden. She would grow her own vegetables, some of which she sold at a local flea market. While exploring the land, Byrne found the remnants of his mother’s raised garden bed and decided to resurrect it into a memorial, which proved to be backbreaking work. Byrne searched the 20 sun-scorched acres for rocks and hauled them to the garden in a wheelbarrow in 100-degree summer heat. He made the rocks into an altar, of sorts, planted native cacti and used remnants of cattle panel fencing to build a structure over the garden. He even found a squash plant that managed to survive for 15 years.
Byrne photographed the resulting structure and made a dye-sublimation print on aluminum that he titled “Covered Garden,” in reference to the memorial’s resemblance to a covered wagon. He also photographed a separate sculpture, “Looking Wall,” which consists of stacked cattle panel fencing that Denny used as gardening cages and which, after Byrne’s labor, resembles the cross section of a giant desert honeycomb set against the Little Florida Mountains off in the distance.
“What makes the land breathtaking is it’s surrounded by mountains on all sides,” Byrne said. “[‘Looking Wall’] was a way of framing those mountains.”
While several aluminum photo prints hang on the walls of ROY G BIV, Byrne also displayed three photos on the ground using solar panels he converted into frames. Nearby, a specimen box full of New Mexico soil serves as a stand for Byrne’s painting of his mother. For Byrne, who mostly works with sculptures and installations, the arrangement of these pieces in “New Point of Beginning” isn’t an afterthought. The groupings and displays are “a way of making prints sculptural,” he said. “It's like a poetry of objects. That's why placement of things is so important to my work.”
The exhibition pushed Byrne out of his comfort zone in several ways, particularly in the portrait of Denny. “I'm not a painter, but I challenged myself to make a painting of her because I thought it was important to have her image in the show,” said Byrne, who took inspiration from a black and white photo that he reimagined in color. “It's sort of an iconic picture from when she was an actress. She's about 30 in this, and this was her headshot.”
Near the portrait is a QR code that takes ROY G BIV visitors to a digital book, “Denny Died in Deming,” in which Byrne documents the events leading up to his mother’s death and the immediate aftermath, providing even more context and background for the exhibition.
“A lot of my work has some sort of emotive, personal connection, but there's got to be something for the viewer, as well. … The gallery goer has to be able to glean something from the work,” Byrne said, adding that visitors can likely relate by thinking about the loss of a loved one or imagining what it would be like to lose their mother. “I'm using my story to connect to things that I'm thinking about and feeling, and then offering the viewer that opportunity to have their own feelings about it. … Everyone has lost someone or will.”
Byrne plans to return to the land in New Mexico. He hopes to continue sorting through the debris piles, finding more items of significance. Perhaps someday he'll build a structure on the site — a dream his mother shared. But making that first return trip to Deming and creating this body of work marked a leap forward for Byrne as he continues to process his mother’s death, which wasn’t the only significant loss he experienced 15 years ago.
“After she passed away, I had a best friend who passed away in a similar situation where it was alcoholism-related and mental health-related. And after those two incredible losses, something had broken in me. … I reached a certain point where I took them so hard that it was hard to be present,” he said. “I want to be present, and I want to heal from this as much as I can. … This is a major step toward reclaiming this part of my life.”