Eugene V. Byrd III: “Sullen”

Photo by Mikhayla Robinson

It is hard to be vulnerable in today’s society, especially with the negativity surrounding the current state of the nation’s social, economic, and political climates. Most people feel the need to protect themselves and wear a smile covering any hurt that they may feel inside. However, Atlanta artist and curator Eugene V. Byrd III, deconstructs this concept and openly depicts this widespread sense of disconnectedness and sadness in his new exhibit called “Sullen.” Sullen is currently on display at Future Gallery located in Southwest Atlanta, Georgia.

Photo by Mikhayla Robinson

The founder of Future Dead Artists shows off his skills with various painted, photographed, and mixed-media pieces. By definition, the word “Sullen,” means “bad-tempered, sulky; gloomy, resentfully silent or repressed.

This gloominess, and for some the facade of happiness covering the gloominess, shows up on the faces of Byrd’s subjects in his artworks. You can also see a sense of recovery from this feeling, and contentment in some of his works. After talking to the artist himself, one can see how his connection to sadness, depression, and even healing, are illuminated in his art.

“The Sullen subject matter is really heavy,” Byrd said. “…And I pushed myself to take dark subject matters and make them beautiful. The subjects are so heavy I had to step away from the work several times during the 18 months. Sullen was originally on the calendar for October 2018. Sometimes it was just too much, I had to be in the right head-space to effectively complete the work.”

Eugene V. Byrd III

Photo by Mikhayla Robinson

There is one work of art that stood out to me, and completely speaks to this notion. It’s called: “We dig ourselves into a ditch, How many of us have died and pretend to live?” The painting, situated flat on the ground, depicts a naked woman, lying in the grass, surrounded by flowers, with various skulls around her. The image itself is displayed in a wooden box filled with dirt and plastic skulls, almost as if the woman in the painting, and the painting itself,  are buried. However, the woman in the image is not dead. Her eyes are completely open, peering at whoever is viewing the piece, while various arms and hands are touching the woman. In my interview with Byrd, he explained:

“The main message I wanted people to take away from this piece is simply, to “live.” Live your life, live unafraid of failure, unafraid of death. I looked death in the eye twice, I saw my sister and [my] mother take their last breath. I view death different, everything that lives dies, so to me, death can’t be bad. I just want to live my best life and earn a good death. But until then, live. Live life to the fullest.”

Eugene V. Byrd III

After two loved ones, Byrd explained that it was hard for him to recognize his hurt and his grief. He also talked about his inability to receive mental health, due to the stigmas about vulnerability, and mental health in the Black community.

“As I mentioned young men and women inspired me to create the work. The talk of depression, mental illness, anxiety is almost like it’s trending. I’m 40 we didn’t talk about stuff like that growing up, we bottled everything up. Most people my age and older call the older generation ‘soft’. But what I learned is that they are really just more in touch with their feelings and not afraid or ashamed to do anything about it, which is powerful. So what the younger generation has taught me and though creating the work is to feel. To be honest with what makes me happy, sad or mad. I’m working on myself through my art, this is my therapy. There is no gap, I can teach the younger generation. The younger generation can teach me. To be our best selves, it starts with being honest. I’m advocating for truth and honesty. Sullen is about the lows and allowing it to be okay, just don’t get comfortable there, the sun will rise.”

Eugene V. Byrd III

Photo by Mikhayla Robinson

Through his vivid images, and vulnerability Byrd created a safe space for his audiences to see themselves in his work. When asking him about the opening night of his exhibit, he expressed, “The opening was beautiful. After living with the subject matter for 18 months it felt great to finally get it out and share. For me, the opening was a success as soon as the art was hung before even the first person showed up because I created the art I had in my head, ‘I did it.’ The audience had a personal emotional reaction to the art, 2 people actually cried. Several people walked through the exhibit 4-5 times. The word I heard over and over was ‘beautiful.’ So for me, mission accomplished.”

Individuals are able to find solace in his art, see their pain represented through every paint-brush stroke, photograph or drawing. Every person who lays eyes on his work is engaging in a therapy session through art unconsciously. “Sullen,” will be on display from October 26, 2019, to December 13, 2019.

-Mikhayla Robinson