David Byrd (b.1926) was an American artist born in Springfield, Illinois. He spent most of his creative life living as a recluse in upstate New York. Although he was extremely prolific, he rarely showed his work to anyone and only exhibited publicly a few months before his death in 2013 at the age of 87, following a chance encounter with a neighbour. His work has since been exhibited posthumously through the establishment of the David Byrd Estate.
Byrd had a tumultuous childhood and spent many years in foster care due to his father’s struggle with mental health and consequent economic hardship in the family. Despite an early interest in pursuing art, he was drafted into the US Army during World War II. During this time, he filled sketchbooks with maritime-themed drawings, and portraits of his fellow sailors and officers. As a returning veteran, he was able to study, first in Philadelphia, and later at the Ozenfant School of Fine Arts in New York City under the French painter Amédée Ozenfant, an influential mentor.
Throughout the 1950s, Byrd worked a series of odd jobs that allowed him time to paint. In 1958, he was hired as a psychiatric ward attendant at a Veterans hospital in Montrose. Daily experiences gathered over the next 30 years inspired his most defining paintings that related to the hospital patients and his daily commute. In 2020, this oeuvre, which is also a socio-political document about the tragedy of mental illness, was published as a book titled “Montrose VA, 1958-1988”.
During his retirement years, Byrd also began a series of wood sculptures combining found objects and devoted himself to painting past and present experiences largely from memory.