Donna Zarbin-Byrne: Like Water from a Rock at Arts Fort Worth

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Donna Zarbin-Byrne, Like Water from a Rock. Here Once Was Ocean, still image from augmented reality animation. Photo courtesy, Donna Zarbin-Byrne

In her installation-based exhibition, Like Water from a Rock, at Arts Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX, Donna Zarbin-Byrne responds to the landscapes of the Chihuahuan desert of West Texas and the West Maui mountains, connecting material sites with an internal process. Western art traditions often portray the landscape as an idealized place to conquer and expand. Zarbin-Byrne frames the landscape as a place to experience the sensate.

While creating this work, extreme weather conditions and wildfires in Texas and Maui impacted her deeply. Maui was burning and its most historic city, Lahaina was destroyed. As a result, the work intertwined beauty from destruction and grief with hope. As natural cycles of life and death accelerated into human tragedy, creating this work became a physical expression of lament where she imagines against grief.

For this exhibition, Zarbin-Byrne collaborated with writers in Hawaii and Texas including Sasha Pimentel, who wrote poetry specifically for this project. The immersive installation includes augmented reality featuring poetry in virtual space. The writing and sculptures were created in reciprocity, intertwining language and form. The works respond to the dualities of nature, encapsulating harshness and beauty as a backdrop for personal stories. In a time of environmental concerns and cultural crisis, the landscape became symbolic of strength and resilience; a place of longing amid loss.

The title, Like Water from a Rock, references the biblical account of the Israelites miraculously receiving water from a rock in the wilderness. Water serves as a poetic parenthesis around the two landscapes, imagining the ocean over time and space in geologic history, and quenching the thirst of the land and people.

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Working out of doors, Zarbin-Byrne plays off of the tradition of plein-air painting by engaging the landscape in a sculptural manner; she makes gestural drawings with wire, takes molds of mountain surfaces, and collects physical remnants from her journeys. Photographs, paper, and fabric are stretched like skin over wire skeletons, transmuting pictorial views into new material stories. Abstract forms transition from known terrain into the realm of the fantastical.

Her process reflects patterns and ecosystems found in nature; she applies patinas to bone-dry dead plants to rearticulate death into life. With fire and water, Zarbin-Byrne coaxes tones of verdigris out of brass and copper. Molten bronze spills into water-like patterns. Direct castings of organic materials turn fragile plants into the strength of metal. Rusting steel releases earth tones of iron and orange onto handmade paper. Brass and copper skeletal mountains are oxidized with green sediment and blue water to bring life out of them, if only as a symbol.

Upon entering the gallery, wire and handmade paper mountains float from the ceiling among silk and encaustic cloud-like forms. On each side of the space, body-scaled (5 feet in length) photographs of landscape views are printed on translucent silk. The undulating silk forms are collaged with poetry written by Hawaii and West Texas poets. The triangular-shaped floor piece features aerial views of mountaintops and ridges that transition into ocean reefs, forming an entrance pathway. The entryway of the gallery functions as a portal to the exhibition where the audience encounters the first of four augmented reality experiences accessible through a QR code. The AR in this space transports them through an animated virtual journey over mountainous terrain (that echoes the floor installation) through a tunnel-like space of floating poetry. Augmented reality brings fantastical journeys onto parallel physical works. Sculptures evolve from objective references to abstract narratives, while whimsically playing with gravity and space, in real and virtual time.

Donna Zarbin-Byrne, Like Water from a Rock, installation view. Here Once Was Ocean. Photo courtesy, Donna Zarbin-Byrne

The pathway guides visitors into the open space of the exhibition where cast bronze sculptures of natural detritus metamorphize into metal and botanical forms. A floating ocotillo made with steel, wire, handmade paper, and roots captures the surprise of blooming cacti in a desert landscape. A twelve-foot century plant, blooming once before dying, finds new life in mid-air, embodying mythologies of a journey.

Donna Zarbin-Byrne, Like Water from a Rock, Installation view with Death Bloom (Century Plant). Photo courtesy, Narong Tintamusik

The open space of the installation has shifted into earth tones with verdi green and other oxidized colors reflecting the desert. The “still life” scene featuring a boulder with a sunflower hovering above it is titled, Like Water from a Rock. It was inspired by a similar arrangement of surreal forms the artist encountered in the landscape. Molds were made of boulders and this sculpture was created from paper castings of those surfaces. Rust and patina chemicals were applied to the form which is surrounded by an array of botanical forms cast directly into bronze.

Donna Zarbin-Byrne, Like Water from A Rock, detail. Photo courtesy, Donna Zarbin-Byrne

Donna Zarbin-Byrne’s (b. Chicago, USA) artwork ranges from installations, and public art, to intimately scaled objects and works on paper. Her biomorphic abstractions investigate mysterious and cerebral responses to the forces of nature. Her works provide pathways to wonder through the transformation of natural material. She earned her BFA and MFA from The University of Texas, San Antonio in ceramic sculpture. Exhibitions include a recent solo exhibit at Hawaii Pacific University, O’ahu. National exhibitions include The Jewish Museum, New York, NY to The Schaefer International Art Gallery, Maui, HI. Collections and commissions include the City of Houston, Civic Arts Collection, and public art for the City of Evanston, IL, and San Antonio, TX. She has received an Individual Artist Fellowship in Interdisciplinary Art through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and awarded grants and exhibitions through the Artist in Education program, Illinois Arts Council. She has studios in Dallas, TX and Haiku, HI.