Donna Zarbin-Byrne’s solo exhibition at Arts Fort Worth immerses viewers in fantastical representations of ecosystems from Texas and Hawai’i in the wake of climate crisis.
Donna Zarbin-Byrne: Like Water from a Rock
October 6–November 18, 2023
Arts Fort Worth
Donna Zarbin-Byrne considers herself a plein air artist, though her methods go beyond that of Monet or Renoir. Instead she can be seen drawing with wire, sculpting contour forms of the mountains that surround her, making molds of the rocky terrain to haul back to her studio. For her solo exhibition Like Water from a Rock, Zarbin-Byrne chose two distinct landscapes to emulate: the West Texas desert and the West Maui Mountains.
Like most mixed-media artists, Zarbin-Byrne is constantly exploring new materials and processes. In many of her sculptures, the skeleton of the piece is built from brass wire, steel, and copper. Next comes the endless layers of handmade paper, silk, wax, and photographic collage which gives the form its meat. Much of the color within her work comes from oxides, patina chemicals, and natural dyes which migrate from the soldered forms to the paper and fabric, creating rich earth tones. Her botanical sculptures embody a metamorphosis: transforming fragility—the fragility of plants, of life, of ecosystems, or perhaps of the world—into strength—the strength of materials, of metal, of that which endures.
In one section of the gallery, Zarbin-Byrne breathes new life back into an Agave americana, also known as a century plant. The giant perennial only blooms once in its lifetime and then promptly dies after using all of its energy to produce its yellow flowers. Chemical pigments and dyes naturally reacted after being applied to the plant’s exterior, bringing back its color by some divine fate. The work’s homage to the cycles of life and death is both celebratory and reminiscent, its ambiguous slanted position making it unclear if the plant is rising or falling.
Although Zarbin-Byrne’s creations mirror the natural environment, delicate elements of whimsy flourish from the realism. A leggy metal sculpture of an ocotillo plant floats weightlessly in one corner, while molten bronze spills illustrate calligraphic symbols within piles of red sand from Maui beaches, and mountains levitate like clouds creating a dreamlike atmosphere.
But Zarbin-Byrne’s artwork offers more than just a fantastical tribute to the landscapes—it is also a raw expression of grief. In early August 2023, wildfires in Hawai’i, primarily on the island of Maui, broke out in what is now considered the deadliest U.S. wildfire in over a century, decimating the land as well as the community that resided there. Having lived and worked in Maui on and off for over twenty years, the wildfire proved personally devastating for Zarbin-Byrne considering her long and personal connection to the land.
Likewise, her home state of Texas reached extreme conditions this past summer as it was the second hottest summer on record in the state. It was nearly impossible to walk outside without being engulfed in the merciless triple-digit temperature, the ubiquitous presence of climate doomsday looming overhead like a dark cloud.
One overarching subject within the show, as alluded to in the title, is water. Zarbin-Byrne acknowledges the history of the two landscapes, which were once underwater at one point in time. The collage of aerial photographs in the entryway of the gallery transitions from desert terrain to jungle to ocean, hinting at the geologic shift over time, as does her subtle placement of small seashells amongst the rocky sculptural forms. In the present day, land mismanagement and water scarcity are pressing issues in both regions; it is impossible to consider these landscapes without confronting the climate crises on our doorstep.
In addition to the immersive mixed-media installations, there is also an augmented reality portion to the show, which features poetry within the virtual space. Zarbin-Byrne collaborated with poet Sasha Pimentel, a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in poetry, who created a body of work specifically for this show, and used a poem written by Brandy Nālani McDougall, the Hawai’i State poet laureate for 2023-2025.
Donna Zarbin-Byrne’s ability to imagine against grief is evident in her artistic practice of turning fire into water, an alchemist of mind, body, and soul.
On Saturday, November 18 at 1 pm, Zarbin-Byrne will deliver an artist’s talk at Arts Fort Worth.