There aren't many people able to take something beautiful away from the environmental and animal-disrupting disaster caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. But Jason Alexander Byers, who has created sculptures, paintings and shot photographs over the course of his career, took those feelings of tragedy and loss and funneled it into his creative endeavors.
"Love Birds" is a series of almost-abstract birds that are half-painted, half-sculpted from tar. The Birds are the subject of this project because they're one of the animals most visibly affected during oil spills — and because he has had a personal affinity for them since childhood.
Byers has worked with tar for years, beginning with creating sculptures from the material, then using it on paper to depict structures. In his most recent work, the birds are a juxtaposition between the white paper and the thick black tar, and yet they become soaring animals. In fact, it's hard to tell exactly what the birds are doing. Are they soaring, crashing, fighting or just flying at different levels? It depends on what you take from viewing the pieces.
He took some time to answer some of MNN's questions about his dramatic pieces.
MNN: How did you come to choose tar as a medium to work with? I know you have worked with it previously, but how did you come to it originally?
Jason Alexander Byers: Using tar as a medium was accidental at first. I was studying sculpture at Kent State University. The sculpture studio was off-campus and was used as a dumping ground for unwanted materials by art and non-art students. I remember seeing a gallon can of tar sitting outside the studio for a couple of weeks. No one touched it. At the time I was creating plywood vessels loosely based on armor and sports equipment. One day, after struggling trying to choose the right color, I decided to open the can of tar and experiment with the medium. I’ve always been more attracted to texture than color. The flat black tone and thickness of the tar appealed to me more than any other material at that time.
What impact do you think using tar (as opposed to paint) has on the final result?
Applying tar is more sculptural than painterly. Tar is a very physical medium. It's not easy to work with. When you see the texture you will notice the movements that I made within the piece. Since my first experiment with the medium I've made the use of tar much more conceptual. Besides the texture, the subject matter is very important to me.
What kind of tar do you use/where do you get it?
I use several different types of tar. There are many on the market — everything from asphalt cement to flashing cement. I have a large sample chart that I choose from for specific series.
Can the average viewer tell by looking that this is tar, not paint? (And, does it smell? My experience with tar on roofs and roads is that it has a strong odor.)
When people first see the works they have no idea what the medium is. They've never seen tar used this way or don't recognize the texture. Tar has a very strong odor. The fumes can really affect you too, especially in a studio. Earlier this year I had a bad case of bronchitis. The doctor believes the tar fumes irritated then triggered the infection. I keep the studio ventilated the best I can. I also wear a respirator. Once the tar has properly dried the smell is faint or completely gone.
Why birds for this series? What led you to them as subjects?
I've had a fascination with birds since I was a toddler, bird-watching with my grandmother. I recently read an article about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf. The article brought back horrible memories of the Exxon Valdez spill, which was the first time I saw wildlife covered in oil. After researching which birds' numbers declined most due to the spill, I decided to do a series of tar paintings based on those birds: royal terns, brown pelicans, gannets, gulls and many more. For my latest series, titled "Love Birds," I concentrated on the birds I was attracted to as a child, including everything from cardinals to blue herons.