Jeffery Byrd received his BFA from the University of Alabama in 1987 and his MFA from the University of Florida in 1989. In addition to studying performance art with Rachel Rosenthal, Japanese Butoh, and music composition, Byrd is an accomplished photographer who has taught at the University of Northern Iowa Department of Art for twenty years. Recently he became head of the Art Department at UNI. Since 2005 Byrd has served as Associate Researcher in Time-Based Media at the Cardiff School of Art And Design in the UK. Jeffery has performed all over the world and his work has appeared in several national and international publications. James Greene interviewed Mr. Byrd at the start of the Spring semester of 2009. They discussed working as an artist and administrator, wearing masks, performance art vs. object-making, religion and politics.
JG: You have a lot to do, I’d imagine. I’m not keeping you from anything am I?
JB: No. My partner and I were just cooking dinner. You know…the radical gay lifestyle… I can see why we are a threat to civilization.
JG: Just what kind of gay dinner is this, buddy?
JB: Peanut chicken in a crock-pot.
JG: That sounds great. I can ask real questions now if you’re down.
JB: Anything you say. You’re in the driver’s seat.
JG: So what are you working on these days besides being head of the UNI art dept?
JB: Do you mean in terms of art? Well…it seems that the job is starting to influence my work. I’ve been drawn to the metaphor of tap dancing.
JG: Tap dancing on your desk at UNI. Now, are you the Acting Head or THE Head?
JB: I’m THE Head. I prefer the title Queen of the Art Department but they wouldn’t let me put it on my business card. I don’t know how to tap dance so I’ve been watching old movies trying to learn. Tap dancing is very hard work; I don’t know what I’m doing. You smile like you mean it. Tap dancing has always seemed like an act of desperation. When all else fails, Daffy Duck would pull out the hat and cane.
JG: So it is a metaphor for being an administrator?
JB: Yes…I think so. I did not realize it at first…I started the job and suddenly wanted to watch old movies where people hide that they are sweating like crazy and have tired achy feet.
JG: What are some of the ways the job is influencing your work besides the tap dancing?
JB: Some things are negative and some are positive. I don’t get to research things that I am interested in because there is no time…the positive influences are more complicated. I think I’ve realized that my work is reflective of what I am doing no matter what… it’s hard to explain.
JG: Your newer pieces seem to have a lightness about them. Has that been more fun for you?
JB: Yes…my new work is lighter…more about escape. I’ve always had a sense of humor and liked to laugh but it has been very difficult for me to include humor in my work.
JG: What were some themes you worked with before you were in charge of the art department?
JB: I had been interested in issues related to masculinity. How some characteristics are read as masculine and some feminine. Another longstanding theme was how beauty can appear in unusual places. “Bath of Venus” is about all those things. Something that appears one way but turns out to be another way.
JG: In “Bath of Venus” you have pasty makeup all over your head and you are doing these exaggerated gestures while you floss, shave, and powder yourself. Oh and you’re wearing a slip.
JB: Yes…a slip and high heels. In that piece, I was specifically thinking about how we tend to do bizarre things to make ourselves more beautiful. The road to beauty is paved with ugliness. There’s an irony really…most of the time I think of myself as being more feminine…but when I put on a dress, I think ‘wow, I really look like a man!’ My masculine features seem particularly emphasized. When I was developing that piece, I was looking at these Japanese prints of Kabuki actors making faces and I started wondering how I could get my face to do that. Dental floss did the trick.
JG: In “Hang with the Dude” you emphasize your masculine features to the extreme. That had to have been fun.
JB: I think a lot of my work is about wearing a disguise in one way or another. Yes…he’s masculine and hip.
JG: He’s hip?
JB: Well, hipness of a sort. Not Manhattan hip. But skater hip. Maybe hip is the wrong word. He’s cooler and more confident than I am.
JG: So tell us about that piece- did you make that Dude suit yourself?
JB: No… I designed the character and hired a company to make him. I wanted it to be slick in a way that I could not produce myself. The face was important. I thought about making him myself but I think it would have been different. I don’t think it would have seemed as ‘artificial’ if I had made him myself. There’s another layer to it as well…I’m actually not capable of doing most of the things he does (video games, skating, etc) so it’s usually not even me… I hire someone else to be my alter ego… Someone else is usually better at being my idealized self than I am!
JG: That has to be strange.
JB: Yes, but it makes sense I guess… If I could do all that stuff, I think I would feel differently about it.
JG: I file the Dude piece as one of those things I wish I thought of. Doesn’t everyone want a Dude suit of themselves?
JB: Yes…other people have told me that. It’s interesting because The Dude seems to make an impression on people even if they can’t articulate why.
JG: How did you explain it to the guys The Dude is hangin with in the photos? Or did you even have to?
JB: Not really, I usually just make arrangements for the Dude to be there while something is happening. Oddly enough, people get used to him pretty quickly. And they just do what they are doing… Sometimes, it is me in the suit but not usually when I want to photograph the situation.
JG: What have you learned from the project?
JB: Hmmmm. That’s pretty complicated. Most of my work is about wearing a mask of some sort. And how people react to that mask. The mask can be a literal mask or it can be a dress and high heels. With The Dude, I think it’s interesting to be in a situation where everyone likes you instantly. And they really do want to ‘hang out.’ That hasn’t always been the case with me personally. I think I had always wondered what it was like to be that popular dude everyone wants to hang with. I think I learned to be that way because of the way others were acting towards me. Funny choice of words…acting… everyone’s acting, all the time. I think I am actually more confident after being The Dude.
JG: Oscar Wilde famously said (and I paraphrase) that man is truly himself when he wears a mask.
JB: Yes…he was right. Sebastian Horsley said “We are what we pretend to be.” Alan Watts gave this great lecture on the word ‘person’ which is how we think of ourselves…but ‘person’ comes from ‘persona’ that means a mask or role in theatre. I am The Dude…I always have been…but I also had to learn to be him. Oddly enough there’s some Zen in the Dude.
JG: Like Ninja Turtle zen?
JG: When was the first time you integrated a performance aspect into your work? Or have you always?
JB: When I was making photographs, I did a lot of self-portraits and eventually started dressing in costumes. At a certain point, it started to feel as if photographs were always something that had already happened. I was drawn to the present so I just started creating events. The Dude project is a return to photos in a way. But the Dude existed independently of the photos for years. He had a life before the images really. Before doing the photos, I would just suit up and go out some place and see what would happen.
JG: We all started off being trained as artists who make objects. We came from a tradition of object or image-making. What are your thoughts on making happenings or performances vs. making objects or images only?
JB: There’s a kind of separation. At least the way I think about it. Objects often seem quite separate from their makers. I’m not saying the object would happen without the maker but actions and happenings seem to be bound to their makers in a way that the objects do not. I don’t think it’s better or worse, just different.
JG: Of course the maker has to either sell or store the objects they make…
JB: Yes. I have some unsold objects in my basement. I still sell things but now I sell my time and my presence. That’s a weird part that I am not quite used to. My mom is pretty surprised that people actually pay me to fly to Europe and rub a block of ice on my chest. Me too!
JG: Your work has taken you all over the globe. What are some places that stand out?
JB: I really love Germany. Belfast is an amazing place. It’s more about people than places, though. Europeans are more comfortable with performance as art. Especially those places that were once Communist. They seem to have a very different idea of what art can be. Not necessarily an object, not necessarily something that is connected with the marketplace.
JG: They have a history of conceptual art, even under Communism, right?
JB: Yes, that’s true. But I would say that art in general is seen as something more akin to a philosophy rather than a commodity or entertainment. More people go out to see things…and a wider range of people are in the audience…not just the ‘art crowd.’
JG: European governments themselves support the arts and culture way more than we do here in the States.
JB: Yes. There is quite a bit more governmental support over there. It’s very rare to have to pay to go to a museum in Europe. Cultural resources are just that…resources… everyone gets to drive on the roads so everyone gets to go to the museum.
JG: In America the states are struggling and state and federal funding is more or less gone for artists.
JB: Yes…there has always seemed to be a lot of contempt for artists. They were like leeches on the government tit. I won’t make any comments about the banking and auto industries.
JG: Where does that negative attitude about artists come from?
JB: Likely from our Puritanical beginnings. I think there has always been a suspicion of things that were not necessary. At least not in a functional sense.
JG: You grew up in Alabama and no one in your family was an artist. How was your decision to become an artist perceived by your family?
JB: They thought I was crazy. My mom cried when I told her what I wanted to do. There was just no context for it. We were completely unaware that art was still being made. We thought all the artists were dead. My mom wanted me to be a pharmacist. It was the only job she knew of where you worked in air conditioning. My dad could not read and worked very hard in a factory. My mom and sisters had picked cotton right up until I was born. She wanted something better for me but since no one in even my extended family had ever been to college, we were just unaware of what might be possible in life.
JG: What do they say now?
JB: I’m just a teacher to them. They know I travel to show art but I don’t think it really registers. When my sister was in her 40’s, she went to school to be a nurse. She took Art Appreciation and they actually talked about Joseph Beuys and she was interested in his work. That gave me a reference point, so when I was in my 30’s I actually had a conversation with a family member about art.
JG: Going to school in Alabama and Florida, was it strange moving way out to Iowa?
JB: Yes…Iowa was pretty strange to me. The space was so wide open. So empty. That was disturbing really. I look back and see that I was doing pictures with these figures standing in empty black spaces. It was severe. I had never seen the sky so big. It makes you feel quite small. But overall, I think that’s a good part of the landscape. I’ve gotten used to it. I like the people here. They mind their own business, which was never the case in the South.
JG: Religion scared the hell out of me when I moved to the deep South. You evoke that fear in your piece entitled “Holy Ghost.”
JB: Even if you aren’t religious, it is very difficult to get away from it there. Every letter to the editor in the newspaper seems to mention Jesus. As a child, it made a huge impression on me to hear people speak in tongues at my grandmother’s church…it was performance art…they were BEING an emotion.
JG: Folks in the Midwest can be very churchy too. What is the difference between there and here?
JB: It does not seem as coercive here. Perhaps not ‘live and let live,’ but more so than in the South. A greater percentage of the population here is educated. I think that makes a difference as well. They have at least considered that someone might hold a differing view. It’s actually pretty civilized here. I’m happy that people here take the responsibility of the Presidential Caucuses so seriously.
JG: Tell us about the “art scene” in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
JB: It seems like there is always an opening, concert or some other art event. Much of the action revolves around the University but the local art centers are active too. I think there is a music scene but I’m not into that.
In some ways there is a bit of a DIY vibe about things. I organize a performance art series for the Waterloo Art Center every fall. I use my own frequent flyer miles to get tickets for the artists to come in and do a piece. I really like seeing that kind of work and if I didn’t bring it here myself, it probably would not happen here. I’m willing to invest in and support the kind of art that I like. It seems like a more positive move than complaining about nothing interesting going on. It really bothers me when people talk about being bored. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing performance, it’s that you never have to be bored. Anything can be interesting if your mind is in the right place…even living in a small town.
JG: What was it like working with Jerry Uelsmann when you were in graduate school?
JB: Jerry was a great teacher. He was very inventive and always maintained that ‘sense of play’ that great artists have. I respected the way he used humor to temper criticism. He knew that artists are always vulnerable when it comes to their art. He sent a note a few years ago when I had gotten this big award. It was very touching to know that he still remembers me. Just today, he sent me a huge catalog from the retrospective he just had in Beijing. He’s a great guy.
All of the professors I worked with were outstanding. Evon Streetman and Wally Wilson both taught me a great deal. I had an amazing time in grad school. I don’t think there is ever a way to duplicate the creative intensity of that experience.
When you are in school, every thing you do is new and that’s exciting. You are learning all these incredible things and encountering these ideas you have never thought of before. As a teacher, you are more aware of the cyclical nature of the practice. I don’t use the word ‘routine’ on purpose. It isn’t exactly a routine. It’s that you see new students going through the same process time and again. It’s probably like farming. Each student, each year is somewhat different, but you (the teacher) are often saying and doing the same things.
Making art is also different than I expected. When I look at the growth of my work over the past 20 years (oh my…I’m old!), I see incredible change. But it did not happen in a pressure cooker environment like grad school. Not every idea is new to you although some still are. You get the pleasure of re-visiting ideas again and again like old friends. You learn more about them each time.
I’ve been really fortunate to study with some fantastic artists. I’ve also worked with Rachel Rosenthal, Pauline Oliveros and several Butoh artists. Even after you are out of school, it is good to seek out input on what you are doing. You can always learn something new. Those post-grad school experiences were very important to me. They taught me that you can always start over or head in a completely different direction.
JG: In 2008, 46 percent of college teaching faculty nationwide was working part-time. The jobless rate in America is higher than it’s been since the early 80’s and we still haven’t seen the bottom. Any ideas on what artists can do during times like these?
JB: Artists have to remember that they are not just ‘printmakers’ or ‘painters’ or whatever…they are creative problem-solvers. Use that skill in the rest of your life, not just the studio. And creative thinking is usually about breaking habits or seeing alternatives.
Is it automatically better to take a job just because it is related to art? If the pay is low and the hours are bad, it may be better to secure a non-art job that has flexible scheduling that would allow you more studio time. The ultimate goal needs to be making better art. You have to think creatively about how to make that happen.
Daniel Pink says that the MFA is the new MBA and that the great jobs of the future will require creative thinking skills. Again, I think the key is thinking beyond the studio…there are a lot of problems out there that need some creative thinking. Less Van Gogh, more Leonardo.
JG: Those of us who want to teach are finding it more and more difficult to enter into academia full time. Any advice on how one could distinguish oneself?
JB: The strength of the portfolio is still the biggest factor. While you are looking for a job, it is important to somehow create a situation where you can still make art.
There are so many people out there looking for a teaching job. ALWAYS research the position and the department. Know the work of your potential colleagues. The culture of the department and how you might fit into that culture are two key elements that need to be addressed if you are going to get that job. Generic applications are always a negative and yes, they are very easy to spot.
JG: You’re a well-known performance artist based in northern Iowa. Are you living proof that it doesn’t matter where you live?
JB: I’ve been lucky to find an audience for my work. When I was a student, it seemed far-fetched that I would be invited to perform in exotic places or see any of my images in books and I’m very happy that I’ve been able to do that. I’m really thrilled that I get to do my work and that people are interested in what I’m doing.
Location is an interesting topic. When I first arrived, it sure felt like I was moving to the middle of nowhere. But even then, I saw some definite advantages. Cheap rent and no traffic meant I could spend more money and time in the studio. I had a lot of friends trying to make art in New York and I know that the high cost of living there was a detriment. They were working long hours at jobs just to pay the rent. I had a lot of time and a little extra money. I was making pictures then so I had to build shipping crates. It was a bit of a pain but I did it.
I think the biggest disadvantage might have been the negative impression people have regarding the Midwest. I sometimes wondered if my proposals were getting a fair shake just because of my address. I’ve also been completely shocked at the stupid things people have actually said to me because of where I live. Even strangers reading my nametag at conferences seem empowered to speak their (lack of) mind.
Technology provides ways of finding an audience that were not possible 20 years ago. It is possible to share your work in ways that were not possible and it is possible for people to connect with you. Living in a big city may or may not have given me more opportunities, but I’m fairly certain that the development I’ve seen in my own work would not have occurred if I were living elsewhere. I’ve had a lot of freedom here.
JG: Jeffery Byrd, thanks so much.
JB: Thank you, it was fun doing this.