John Foster | Accidental Mysteries

Gestures in Sawdust

I will be the first to admit that first impressions are usually wrong. Such is the case with the small, delicate constructions John Byam makes of wood, sawdust, and glue; works I breezed past last January at the Outsider Art Fair in New York. They would be easy to overlook, even to a person alert to self-taught. Was it their diminutive size and fragile, rough-hewn look? As I look back, these small works were simply overshadowed by the enormity of the fair itself. On second look, I realize that I completely missed “seeing” what Byam's gallerists and some informed collectors already see: fresh, original work that goes far beyond first impressions.

Byam was born in Oneonta, New York, in 1929 and spent a large part of his life assisting his parents in the daily operations of the family-owned trailer court. In the late 1940s Byam went to work for the Delaware and Hudson Railway, then served two years with the US military stationed in Japan during the Korean War. In 1952 he returned home to his parents and took several jobs, including one as a part-time gravedigger for a local cemetery. He died in 2013.

No topic was too mundane to spur Byam. It’s as if a noun popped in his head and he set about to make it. Staircase. Airplane. Gun. Bicycle. Chair. Rocket. Byam apparently made hundreds of constructions, all with only a pocketknife, glue, wood, and sawdust. I see hands working constantly, like one of these videos you see of a kid solving a Rubik’s cube. And, he didn’t need much—just a box of throwaway wood scraps and glue.

If you look at his work as a group, Byam’s work can change your idea of art. He was happy creating the essence of a staircase, the gist of a table, or the soul of something. He built what he imagined—completely unencumbered and free from rules of what is supposed to look good. What a pleasure it is to see something so raw and fragile—almost ephemeral—like personal thoughts made visible. Byam’s artworks are simply gestures in sculpture—something rare to see nowadays.

Untitled (Kneeling Man)

8 x 8 x 2.5 in.

Untitled (Man in Bed on Wheels)

6.75 x 7.5 x 2.5 in.
Untitled (Bicycle)
7 x 8.75 x 4 in.
Untitled (Helicopter)

8.25 x 17.75 x 12.75 in. 

Untitled (Small Rocking Chair)

4 x 2.25 x 2 in. 

Railroad Bridge (1906–08)

2.25 x 5.5 x 2 in.
Untitled (Airplane)
2 x 4.25 x 4.25 in.
Untitled Gun (Silence)

6 x 3 x .5 in.

Untitled (Staircase)

3.5 x 5.5 x 1.5 in.

Untitled (Floorplan)
2 x 5 x 5 in.

Untitled (Airplane Joe)

2 x 6 x 5 in.

Untitled (Rocket)

Untitled (Tricycle) 
Untitled (Train) 

All photos courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery, NY, Good Luck Gallery, LA, and Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Comments [2]

Why do designers want so badly to come off as fine artists? I'm not saying this fella's sculptures are no good, but what the heck? Why are you writing about them here? I don't see much design value in someone making what are essentially doodles. Quaint is one thing. Pieces like this discovered in an ancient tomb also would be more valid. But I see little design value in studying a crude sawdust bridge beyond masturbating your eyes with something you fancy.
joseph blair

Thanks for your comments, Joseph but I think you miss the point. Over the years, Design Observer has written extensively about designer sketchbooks, the “doodles” that plant seeds for future work, the sketches that allow ethereal ideas to emerge more fully later. When you went to college, did you take classes in 3-D design? Drawing? Painting? Art History? Of course you did. To be fully engaged as a designer means being open to expanding your visual language. Many designers actively paint, sculpt, write poetry, or take photographs. And, we have many world renowned illustrator/designers (and readers of DO), who work with paint, ink, found materials, wire, objects. You ask why designers “want so badly to come off as fine artists?” They don’t, or if they do I think they have missed their calling. Some are both. I dare say all go to museums. All read about the things they don’t do in their day-to-day life as a designer. John Byam was an elderly man who was not a designer, and didn't consider himself an artist of any kind—he just made things from his imagination. That we can view these extraordinary assemblages for what they are only enriches my eyes, and I share them with my readers. By the way, that “crude” sawdust bridge you dismiss as having little design value, I am humbled at the visual power and complexity of that piece.
John Foster

Jobs | May 28