Sculptor Juliellen Byrne explores human viciousness, vulnerability in ‘Water and Cake’

The exhibit, opening Saturday at (Not) Sheep Gallery, includes four pieces accidentally completed by the intense fires that followed an April explosion at Yenkin-Majestic paint company

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"Eat My Tweet" by Juliellen Byrne

Through the years, Juliellen Byrne has crafted more than 100 politically charged ceramic plates that target everyone from former president Donald Trump to John Sununu, a global warming skeptic who served as chief of staff under then-president George H.W. Bush and helped thwart some of the earliest international efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions. 

These explicitly political pieces are far removed from the more mysterious motivations underpinning Byrne’s sculptural work, which the artist described as a separate practice, and one that benefits from her ability to exorcise these comparatively blunt urges.

“There’s no fun in looking at overt artwork with a clear message,” Byrne said recently in an interview at her spacious East Side studio, which sits next door to the Yenkin-Majestic paint factory. “I don’t want to tell everybody everything. In fact, I’d like to tell them absolutely nothing.”

The sculptures that will be on display in “Water and Cake,” which opens at (Not) Sheep Gallery on Saturday, Aug. 7, adhere to this enigmatic ideal. For the exhibit, Byrne crafted an assortment of clay humans, rats and rabbits that collectively touch on ideas of family, religion, environmentalism, politics and more, albeit in a purposely nebulous manner. Even the expressions on the faces of the various figures can be as difficult to read as a poker master adept at playing their cards close to the vest, simultaneously projecting an array of intentions and moods. In one piece, for example, a dog and a childlike figure engage in dialogue, the face of each revealing aspects of viciousness and vulnerability, suggesting that neither is in clear control of the situation.

“It’s a balance where they get to be in the same place without harming each other,” said Byrne, who will lop the head of a piece multiple times in the sculpting process, leaving it intact only after the expression captures her intent for the work. “Or without causing harm, I guess, is a better way to put it.”

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This delicate balance is further reflected in the artist’s various descriptions of humankind. At one point, Byrne noted that “humans are poised between the flawless ethics of angels and the instincts of animals,” motivated to varying degrees by each pole. And at another point she noted that humankind, for better or worse, shared a number of characteristics with rats.

“They’re fierce parenters. They live in groups. They’re driven by sex and food,” Byrne said of the critters, which have been a constant presence in her artwork for more than 20 years, often serving as a stand-in for humans. “And they’re completely destructive in every environment they inhabit.“

For Byrne, this final point hit particularly close to home in April when an explosion at the neighboring Yenkin-Majestic factory destroyed an ancillary building that housed a pair of kilns she used to fire her clay creations. For more than two weeks, Byrne was unable to come within blocks of her art studio, since the entire area had been labeled a crime scene. And when she finally gained access to the building that contained her kilns, she was nearly overcome by the scene that greeted her.

“There was a giant [aluminum] sculpture back here made by the artist David Black,” Byrne said, gesturing to her phone screen as she narrated a short video she filmed of her first entry into the building, whose contents, including the statue, had been reduced to rubble by the flames that engulfed the space. 

While Byrne’s kilns were both rendered inoperable by the flames and the mix of toxic chemicals ejected by the explosion, she was surprised to find that the four pieces inside of them at the time of the blast had not only been preserved, but had also been accidentally tempered and completed by the intense fire that followed.

Regardless, Byrne said the environmental disaster had minimal impact on her overall mindset and approach to the pieces populating “Water and Cake.” 

“Even prior to the explosion … I had been making some politically motivated pieces, and even some environmentally motivated pieces,” said Byrne, who is currently firing her clay creations at her paint-your-own-pottery business, shuttling the figures back and forth from her East Side studio like kids to and from soccer practice. “But then some of it is familial and some of it is about politics and some of it’s about religion. … Then we can add aging and fears for the planet. And having two adult children now, where I’m watching them move through a different space than I moved through. … My work rambles all over the place, even in the most ideal of times.”