Foreword to Journey's End (copyright 2009 Brian Byrn)

When John Bower asked me to write a Foreword to Journey’s End, several memories from my childhood (before I discovered the world of Art) came to mind. Like most young boys growing up in southern Indiana, the love of adventure came via vacations taken in the family car. Ours was a ‘61 Buick Le Sabre and, several times, its four doors took us to the Great Smoky Mountains where exotic brown bears roamed the roads, and morning fog shrouded switch-back highways. My father would pull over in the mornings to cook on our Coleman camp stove, and the days began and ended with imaginative dreams of pioneers, Indians, and Daniel Boone. These images would appear to me again in the paintings of N.C. Wyeth and other Golden Age illustrators. There were many antique shops along the way to and from Tennessee, and it seemed like we stopped at every one. I had never read a Saturday Evening Post, but there, amidst all kinds of strange things from the past, were wonderful old books with pictures by marvelous artists—and the images stayed fervent in my mind until years later when I would see originals by those same artists.

Returning from those trips was always as much fun as going because, upon arriving home, I would continue my fantasy travels. My father, ever suspended in a realm of wanderlust, would pile us into his 1941 Willys Jeep and strike out for dried-up creek beds and deer paths in the Harrison-Crawford Forest. These trips became great four-wheel-drive adventures that reached long-forgotten places like Old Leavenworth and vanished towns like Cold Friday.

Meanwhile, back in civilized Corydon, I remember playing on the old Constitution Elm. I would stand on the bridge of the sandstone monument and bark out orders to the imaginary crew of my pirate ship. I’m sure those who passed by thought I was reenacting the signing of the Hoosier constitution in the First State Capitol, but little did they know I was swashbuckling my way past English frigates. That love of the ocean was fueled by one of those old books, and the black-&-white movies that played on our television.

So there I was—torn between the love of roaming the mountains and a desire to ply the Atlantic (which I saw on another vacation, this time to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina). I had to decide if I were going to travel by land or by sea! Because the only large body of water even close to me was the Ohio River, I knew I’d need transportation (and the permission of my parents) if I were ever going to get back to the ocean or mountains.

It took another twelve years before I would see the ocean again. But, during the interval, a myriad of important events happened. I discovered I could draw and, with that, I set out to render my way far and wide. Drawings of pirate ships, Conestoga wagons, trains, planes, and yes, even automobiles, carried me off.

I think a majority of young boys, when first learning to draw, scrawl out a hot rod. My images were influenced by my brother’s adventures in that land of exotic metal and candy-apple paint—California. Len was twelve years older, and he left home to join the Navy just as I was turning six, and I pursued his example in my artistic imagination. I would draw Rat Finks, choppers, and copy anything I could find by the Great One—Ed “Big Daddy” Roth! I know I wasn’t alone, because a recent exhibition of “Kalifornia Kulture” played well to sold-out museum visitors all across the country. Even in southern Indiana, I was caught up in the surfing and hot-rod craze. But I knew one thing for sure. I needed to get out of there to find those like-minded custom hot rodders. And that’s when it happened—I was given my first mini-bike. From then on, until I turned sixteen, I rode the back roads, along rolling red-clay hills, with a new sense of freedom. I thought, if only Daniel Boone, or his brother Squire, had one of these babies.

Other events occurred, along my path to puberty, that aroused my interest in both art and transportation. My parents took me to the Lanesville Air Show where (on a grass landing strip) I saw my first bi-wing stunt plane. Highway I-64 made travel to Louisville faster—but not as much fun as traveling down the hilly Floyds Knobs. Then, one day my brother returned home on leave, and purchased a new 1965 Mustang convertible. Wow! That was enough to send me into fantasy-filled dreams of travel all across America. After getting out of the Navy, he topped it with a 1968 Corvette! It was official. I would spend all my waking hours emulating that standard of chrome and speed.

After a succession of bicycles, mini-bikes, and motorcycles, my first car (a 1970 Monte Carlo) took me to the big city of Louisville where I’d cruise Fourth Street and the Frisch’s Big Boy Drive-In. As I turned 18, I visited my first museum in that car—the J.B. Speed Art Museum. My abilities in drawing, and looking at the objects in that museum, gave me insight into other things that would be more important than acquiring custom wheels. Art became my salvation, and I put on hold the idea of driving a souped up, chrome-laden, cam-thumping street rod. For me, maximum velocity would be achieved though painting, drawing, and studies in Art history. Freedom would come from that inalienable right of the artist to exercise a sense of creativity inspired by the world.

I left home for the capital city of Indianapolis to attend Butler University, then came back south—to Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. There, I rekindled my love for art—and road-trips with friends and relatives back and forth to IU Bloomington. Ultimately, my first car would take me to Elkhart, where I live and work today.

My love of the ocean had not waned when I first saw Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes. I would exclaim that it was like a great inland sea, to the chuckles of those who knew it well. My sense that this place was magical was enhanced when I saw the paintings of Frank Dudley. His works, like those illustrations in the old books I saw so long ago, fired my imagination about the world, as well as the great diversity of Indiana. I traveled through Brown County and encountered the work of other early Indiana painters. I rediscovered my home state though the vision of those, and other, American artists. Paintings by Edward Hopper and black-&-white photographs by artists like Walker Evans invigorated my memories of things past, things changed. The subjects in those paintings and photographs seemed universal, yet familiar—much like the images of John Bower. They are universal because the artist extracts that imaginative part of the subject to give us an opportunity to exercise our memories and view them as extraordinary.

I traveled from Corydon, at one end of Indiana, to the very edge of Michigan, and Elkhart became my home. Elkhart was not as exotic as California but it was close to Chicago. I soon began to discover its great history as a transportation hub for the railroad, and its manufacturing of “mobile” homes. Most importantly, I would discover a place that would become my primary professional residence—the Midwest Museum of American Art. My studies in art delivered me to a locale I have called home for over 27 years. It has become a destination point, after many long journeys elsewhere, as my wife Lisa and I continue to travel by trains, planes, and automobiles—always applying an artistic eye, and an imaginative outlook that originated on those first trips in that ‘61 Buick. For us, Indiana (like John’s photography), seems as exotic as many far-off places, because we call it home.

Brian Byrn
Curator of Exhibitions & Education
Midwest Museum of American Art, Elkhart, Indiana
December 2008