A self taught artist born and raised in South Louisiana, Byron Sonnier began his art career as a photographer. After moving to Birmingham, Alabama, he also began working on, a series of hand-crafted signage and sculptures that draw upon his and others’cultural roots and practices. These fictional yet believable paintings, sculptures and installations have been featured in numerous group and solo shows around the region.
How did your interest in your medium begin and how did you arrive at your current style?
My high school in Baton Rouge, although one of the worst in the city, had photography as an elective. I took two years of it and really got into film and darkroom stuff. At the same time, I was becoming increasingly involved in the graffiti scene in Louisiana. At the time, those two things didn't really go together. Eventually I was only using my camera to take photos of the freight trains I was painting. Later I started collecting vintage cameras, toy cameras, and Polaroid Land Cameras.
How do you feel about the relationship of an artist to their city or surroundings?
I would say in my case it affects me two ways. A lot of my aesthetic is pulled directly from the things I see in the area of Birmingham that I live in, but I also romanticize the places around Louisiana where I grew up. And NOT being there sort of influences me more since I'm dealing with memories. My ideas become a little more abstract and mythical since I'm not looking at something in person.
Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?
I didn't go to art school so I wasn't exposed to a lot of artists or teachers but a few years back I worked as an art assistant for the late Cam Langley, a glass artist, and his wife Janice Kluge, a sculptor. Their whole approach to life (and his death) was a huge influence on my decision to remain working creatively. I'm also a huge fan of William Christenberry.
Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you're a part of?
We have a great little tight knit group of artists. There are established artists like Amy Pleasant, Doug Baulos and Merrilee Chaliss as well as an emerging DIY art scene. What we are lacking in Birmingham is galleries. We have very few options when it comes to showing work. I am hopeful that will change soon.
Where do you go to draw inspiration?
I drive back streets and backroads constantly. Even while on tour with my band, we try to stick to smaller highways for the scenery. When we visit cities I try to make it to art museums when I can. I love seeing old signage especially on fireworks stands. Some look like roadside art installations to me. I'm also a huge railroad fan and I spend a lot of time walking the tracks and staring at trains.
Do you feel creatively satisfied?
I've been trying for awhile now to deconstruct my work a bit and to concentrate more on concepts. I think I'm finally making some progress towards that. I definitely have more ideas than time right now, but I guess that's a positive.
Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?
A lot of my work is based on religious symbols and practices and that can get a little tricky in the Deep South. Even though I'm presenting these ideas in a different context I still try to be respectful of people's beliefs. I was sometimes labeled a folk artist when I first started showing work and was having trouble dealing with that label so I did a bunch of pieces exploring the word "folk". Aside from its obvious meaning it's also a street gang and I merged some of that imagery together.
Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.
I just had my first show in over three years and it went really well, nearly selling out on opening night. That was definitely exciting and convinced me that I am moving in the right direction. I have a big show in May of 2017 at Lowe Mill in Huntsville, Alabama. It's a huge space so I'll be doing some installations as well as paintings.