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Chris Byars: From shopping malls to junk art

Article by Ed Quillen

Local Artists – June 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

In ways, the June downtown Artwalk represents a dream come true for Salida sculptor Chris Byars. “Twenty-five years ago, I never would have believed that someday there would be two dozen artists and galleries here. I sometimes wished for something like that, though.”

Back then, Byars did more than wish. He recruited. “I’d tell my artist friends in Denver and Colorado Springs that they ought to check out Salida. It’s beautiful. You could get studio and work space for a pittance of what it cost in the city, and it was still an easy drive to the major art markets–Denver, Boulder, Aspen, Vail to the north, Taos and Santa Fé to the south.”

Few heeded Byars’s pleas. “Most of them couldn’t cut their umbilical cord to the city, but some did come. And we fixed up old downtown buildings that had bad heat and leaky roofs and wretched plumbing and wiring.”

So far, so good. “But prices have gone up so much now that I couldn’t afford to live and work here if I didn’t own property. Salida is not a place for struggling artists any more. And I helped make that happen.”

The 56-year-old sculptor grew up in Denver, dropped out of high school, and served three years in the U.S. Navy. “I really did get to ‘see the world,'” he recalls, “but the pay was terrible. So after my hitch was up, I went to college.”

That was the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where he earned a B.A. in art in 1964. Then he hired on to teach public-school art in Cleveland, Ohio, where he won several awards and, during a break one year, went to the Lincoln Arc Welding School. After four years, he wanted to return to Colorado.

He landed on Capitol Hill in Denver and met Bob Mangold, now a well-known sculptor, then an art teacher at Metropolitan State College.

“They had just changed the GI Bill,” he says, “so that you could get the benefits in grad school. And Mangold was telling me I should go to grad school.” So Byars went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, and was “one book report” short of a Master of Fine Arts.

Salida entered his life, and vice-versa, in 1971. His older brother, Jack, had moved to town. “One weekend, Julie [his wife then] and I took a back-road tour of the state and stopped in Salida to see Jack. It was love at first sight. We moved to Salida the next weekend.”

He financed the first year by arranging for a year-long independent study from CU — that way, he could move and still draw his GI Bill benefits. They lived in a log house on the edge of town (now Pete Cordova’s law office).

“The landlord wanted $85 a month,” Byars recalls, “but I told him I was a poor student with a family living on the GI Bill, and got him down to $75” — for a house on half an acre with outbuildings he could sculpt in.

His best-known art started taking form — those big abstract metal sculptures. “There was a real revolution going on in the early 1970s,” he says. “Before that, all the sculptures in public places were a guy on a horse atop a pedestal. Now we were developing a whole new æsthetic. It was an exciting time to be a sculptor, and I was part of it.”

The new public sculpture was influenced by the “functional/ international style” then fashionable for public buildings. The buildings were big featureless boxes, often perched on concrete pillars (the USC campus in Pueblo is a good example).

The Byars style quickly took form–almost pure abstract shape on a monumental scale.

But it wasn’t on a pedestal– people could interact with the sculpture from any distance: intimate touch to just-visible-on-the-horizon. Byars thought a lot about light and how the shadows could define his forms.

“My æsthetic was industrial, based on three factors: Standardization — use standard shapes and reconfigure them to make what you want. Modularity — construct the sculptures in modules and assemble them, rather than try to build the whole thing at once. Fabrication–use steel plate, welders, and grinders, the stuff of heavy industry.”

This work seems odd if you know the artist, even by personal reputation. Byars is a passionate man–passions that often go toward political protest: the Dr. Doom Bus (an unwelcome visitor at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston), sit-ins at the Rocky Flats nuclear-bomb factory near Boulder, demonstrations at nuclear test facilities in Nevada. “I’ve been arrested at a lot of demonstrations,” he says. “I’ve never seen my full rap sheet, but it must be pretty long.”

But his art didn’t look passionate. It was cool, contemplative, cerebral. “When you ask about it that way,” he says, “it does sound strange. But maybe that art was just bringing out another side of me. I might have the reputation of being some crazy hippie artist, but I was also a sailor and a schoolteacher. There’s an orderly, structured side to me that came out in the art.”

His first big commission now stands in front of the Sangre de Christo Arts Center in Pueblo. Later work went into the cores of shopping malls and on the plazas in front of corporate office buildings in Texas. Byars was enjoying a profitable career.

“I used to get razzed about being the ‘king of shopping-mall sculpture,'” Byars recalls, “as if that wasn’t something a real artist should be doing. But it’s the right approach. It’s very democratic. Art is for people, and if the people are at shopping malls, that’s where the art should be. Art shouldn’t be something kept in museums and segregated from daily life.”

Times changed, though. The oil bust in the early ’80s meant Texas companies were filing for Chapter 11 protection, not buying art. Architecture changed from stark international to more decorative post-modern, with the adornment often incorporated into the building instead of being chosen independently.

Byars’s work changed, too. The forms got simpler, evolving from corkscrews to swirling spires, but the setting became part of the sculpture. He designed sophisticated lighting systems, along with motorized controls so that observers could rotate the spires.

That led to disappointment with his last two big commissions at Territorial Prison in Cañon City (1986) and Cherry Creek Mall (1990) in Denver.

“The lighting is totally gone at the prison and it’s been vandalized. They draped Christmas lights on it. They don’t maintain it at all. At Cherry Creek, the idea was for interested people to control the lighting from a glass foyer, and instead it’s done by computer down the hall. They want your vision and your expression, they pay for it, and then they just trash it. I haven’t gone after a big commission since then. I’ve walked away from that kind of work. It’s just too frustrating.”

Not that he’s idle. He turned to “junk sculptures,” built from scrounged metal, rather than the precise fabrications he started with. It’s still industrial and modular–but he doesn’t design the modules.

“My ‘River Series,'” he explains, “is all made from stuff I found along the banks while I was kayaking in the Arkansas. I lay the stuff around the floor, arrange it, play with it, finally something clicks, and I’ve got a piece”–something like “The Return of Bonnie & Clyde,” a very old rusted car door with a host of bullet holes and some scrap-iron adornments.

Unlike a $50,000 shopping-mall centerpiece, the junk art “is quite affordable, anywhere from $100 to $1,000. But I’m not selling enough of it to make much of a living.”

He gets by, though. In 1974, he bought a building in downtown Salida; upstairs apartments provide some rental income. His overhead is low. He lives a couple miles east of town, beside the highway, on “ranchito del basura blanca” (Small Ranch of the White Trash), a few arid acres dotted with his sculptures and sometimes a tepee or two.

Byar’s small book-lined house has no electricity. The cookstove and refrigerator burn propane, a wood-burning stove provides winter comfort, his privy offers a good view of the Sangres, lanterns produce light, and washwater comes from a spring on the hillside linked to the house with a garden hose.

“It doesn’t take much to make me comfortable, and I sure don’t miss those electric, water and sewer bills.”

So it’s still possible for an artist to live here at a subsistence level while devoting his energy to perfecting his visions?

“Really not,” Byars said. “At least not for somebody that just came here. I paid only $5,000 for this property, $50 down, $50 a month, an honorable handshake deal without signatures or lawyers.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hold out. Valuations rise so your property taxes rise. The zoning and building codes get stricter, which could mean water and septic systems and big bills every month.

“I’ll get pushed out someday. And it’s weird, because I helped start this whole process. Artists come to a town because it’s attractive and cheap, but if they’re good, they make the place trendy, and then the place isn’t cheap any more.

“Real money moves in. We get chains like Wal-Mart, instead of little stores where you always had credit and they knew you. Salida was a tough, poor, and hard-scrabble town when I moved here. Nobody was rich, but we all cared about each other. We were neighbors, no matter what our politics. I know a lot of people didn’t approve my politics or lifestyle in 1972, but they were willing to live and let live, and so was I.”

He recalls going into Lippard Electric (it stood where Chaffee Title is now, across G Street from Safeway) for supplies when he was wiring a house for a friend. “I didn’t know Mr. Lippard, except for maybe just seeing him on the street. I got about $250 worth of stuff together, and asked if he’d set it aside and I’d come and get it and pay for it as I needed it.

“He said ‘Just take it all, bring what you don’t need back, and you can pay me then for what you use.’ And this was a stranger–he trusted me just because I lived here.

“Once we had a real sick baby, we didn’t know what to do, we called Dr. [Tom] Sandell. He didn’t know us, but he made a house call–no doctors made house calls then, but he came when we needed him.

“But I think we’re losing that now. There’s not that shared sense of struggle, of community, and I don’t think we can ever get it back. And sometimes I feel guilty as hell for helping bring this about. Maybe it would have happened without me, but I know it happened with me.”

And maybe, someday when he’s got his torch in hand and a supply of scrap at hand, he’ll find a way to express that in metal.

Ed Quillen tries to avoid writing about art, because his last art class was in 10th grade and he can’t tell an Impressionist from a Romantic.