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2007 Texas Prize Essay by Elizabeth Dunbar

Justin Boyd

Born in 1974 

Lives in San Antonio 

 Music is the thread that Justin Boyd uses to stitch together various media and modes—from sound recordings, live performance, DJing, and turntablism, to printmaking, drawing, video, and sculpture—to create conceptually sonorous works that appeal to the emotions and intellect as well as the visual, auditory, and sometimes even olfactory senses. A master of mixing, splicing, and composing elements, Boyd has a DJ’s gift and an anthropologist’s passion for uncovering overlooked historical markers and forgotten artifacts and imbuing them with new life and meaning. The sights, sounds, and signifiers of American spirituality and history are the raw materials from which he spins large-scale, loosely connected tales that nostalgically evoke the past while critically exploring how it has shaped our conflicted and too frequently troubling present. Boyd’s process is nonetheless optimistic: by learning from the past and present, the artist hopes we can find a way to change the future. Since 2005 Boyd has been engaged in a project (eventually to comprise four separate exhibitions/installations) to discover the “true essence of the American spirit.” This search, according to the artist, was inspired by today’s uneasy nationalism, “when politically, socially, and ethically it is unclear who we are as a nation and where we stand, and even more unclear how we as individuals are to act within this nation.” Each show addresses the origins and evolution of this spirit through an investigation into a particular region’s history, culture, and geography. The inaugural installment, Pulling a Folk Thread Through the Ether Quilt, focused on the domestic elements, healing practices, and subcultures of Colonial America, recalling a time when the strength of the American spirit lay within family life and the confines of the home. A DJ performance by the artist clad in a hand-knit suit complemented a layered soundscape of sculptures using American folk music as both conceptual and physical material. Yodels and sighs of folk singers, stretched across time and space, eerily floated through the atmosphere while a motorized wooden butter churn, handcrafted by the artist, played remixed spirituals of early American Indians, African Americans, and Shakers. A multi-sensory object made from a tea kettle, copper dome, and pitch pipe reiterated the theme of healing by playing a “teasong” (the artist’s invention): the steam from the contraption filled the room with soothing sounds in the key of E and with the scents of ashwaganda, ginkgo biloba, and bilberry, described as “herbs for strength, wisdom, and memory.” An Effort Against Being Lost, the second installment (created for Arthouse), leaves behind the comfort of domestic space to embark on a meandering journey following the course of Western expansion and our nation’s long-held and insatiable desire for exploration and acquisition. The Mississippi River region is Boyd’s primary source of inspiration for this installation—including the barges that traveled the river’s waters, the indigenous peoples and later pioneers who settled its shores, and the music and culture that took root there and evolved over time. Woven into the fabric of this dreamy landscape are apt symbolic references to an endless journey of life, death, and rebirth. Incorporating, among other elements, a looping audio track mixing fiddle albums inherited from loved ones, an interactive sound sculpture alluding to Native American mound building, a river raft equipped with navigational tools, and video footage of the multifaceted river itself, Boyd’s poetic experiential voyage is brimming with adventure and conjures memories of both a personal and universal past. When they are completed, the final installments in Boyd’s search for the American spirit will follow the nation’s historical trail westward and beyond, from the rugged mountains and arid desert to cold ocean waters and then to the infinite ocean that is outer space. Through his journey of Manifest Destiny, Boyd may indeed help us find our way.