Recent grad spins trash into art during Recology residency

Artist Nathan Byrne stands next to his artwork

Nathan Byrne was chosen as a student Artist in Residence at Recology San Francisco. The recent graduate exhibited his artwork in May at the conclusion of the program.

SF State grad creates sculptures, installations using cast-off recyclables and other materials

Nathan Byrne spent the past four months poring over discarded materials at San Francisco Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center, better known as Recology San Francisco. There among the cast-off lab equipment, taxidermy animals, postcards, neon lights and old photographs, he said he never felt alone.

As a southerner, the recent SF State graduate said he was used to living in places with a past that have a spirit all their own. And he had that same feeling as he put together the 12 works ― sculptures, collages and an installation ― that comprised his culminating exhibition, “I Wish I Knew For True,” as one of Recology’s Artists In Residence (AIR) at the end of May.

“People’s memories, the material that made up their lives, pictures of the pets they cherish, get dumped every day and you can sense the metaphysical residue of their lives,” he said. Byrne paid homage to those spirits in an installation made of neon light sculptures accompanied by haunting background music. “I wanted to create a ghostly ballroom where the all those spirits could gather and feel welcome,” he said.

Since 1990, Recology San Francisco has allowed students and professional artists to scavenge through recycled materials and move their finds into onsite studios, one made from an old shipping container. Artists must abide by certain ground rules such as only using pre-1930s photos. Recology, a West Coast company committed to zero waste, operates three other AIR programs in Seattle, Portland and Astoria. At the end of the four-month residency, artists hold a three-day public exhibition and reception.

SF State alumna Deborah Munk runs the local AIR program and said it’s invaluable, giving student artists a chance to work in a professional environment with strict deadlines and requirements. At the end of the program the students have the opportunity to display their works during solo exhibitions attended by hundreds of visitors, she said.

Byrne has always worked with salvaged materials, but what he liked about the AIR program is that it’s one of the very few residencies to accept undergraduate students. It’s unconventional, and that’s OK with Byrne who followed a less-worn path when it came to earning his art degree. He began by auditing classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, in what he refers to as a “renegade approach” to his art education. He attended De Anza Community College for a number of years and would often exhibit his work in the school’s gallery. All the while, Byrne was battling alcoholism, which often derailed his college plans. Now at 41, clean and sober, he received a B.A. in studio arts in May.

SF State Professor of Art Michael Arcega, one of Byrne’s instructors, was an AIR participant himself and now sits on the organization's curatorial board. Recology can be a magical place for student artists, he said, because they’re exposed to so many intriguing materials.

Arcega said he saw a real evolution of Byrne’s work. “Nathan’s definitely interested in the sentimentality of things. When he first started at SF State he would collect these cool objects, but he didn’t have a clarity of how he wanted to use them,” he said. “Now he expresses more mature narratives through those objects. He drives the objects now as opposed to objects driving him.”

Currently, Byrne has a summer residency at an art gallery in San Jose. In the fall he plans to move to Pittsburgh, where he’ll devote his time to creating art and building up a portfolio so he can eventually apply to an MFA program.