How Bill Boyd got his painting accepted by MoMA

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News

Bill Boyd is the rare Valley artist who can say he’s had work accepted by the Museum of Modern Art.

An engineer by trade, Bill Boyd paints in a way that forgoes the precision with which he used to work.

It wasn’t for long, and now it’s over. But for a few weeks last month, Boyd, a tall, affable person, was one of the feature artists.

“It’s pretty cool for artists to see their work in a good museum,” he said last week in sun-filled home studio off Lakey Gap Road. Light unobstructed by the tall evergreens outside his house high above town exploded off the white walls of his paint-smeared room. An ancient hi-fi stereo that spins his vintage jazz sat in one corner. A table piled with paints and brushes stood in the center.

Boyd has been painting since 2004 (his early work, in the second grade - of big, bold, black  stick figures and scenes - netted him a seat in a military school). His desire to paint was there while he was studying to become a civil engineer.

"With You" by Bill Boyd is an  acrylic on paper work that measures 29 by 22 inches.

During the first 12 years of his professional career, in California, he built freeways and bridges and was fascinated by earth moving and grading. He had his own grading business in San Diego that specialized in analyzing the earth works of projects that companies wanted to build. Boyd would be hired to manage the projects through the grading stage.

There were so many unknowns to earth moving, he said. There’s the soil composition. There are rocks and water. Working dirt is a lot like sculpture, in that the contractor takes a raw ingredient – the untreated land – and shapes it into a form that satisfies his client. There’s money, time and risk to consider – all the things that shape artists as well.

Boyd really liked the work. He also liked black and white photography, something he started doing in the mid-1980s. He liked the contrast of white and black tones, pushed to the edges by the intermediary gray ones. He didn’t know he liked contrast so much until he took a photography class at the University of California at San Diego. The instructor told him to circle, on a sheet of several images, the three he liked best. The instructor looked at the three and begged to differ. The three strongest images, in the instructor’s opinion, were three street scenes that conveyed a sense of isolation among people.

There was a shot of a woman inside a cable car in San Francisco, staring out of the window. A fellow passenger, a man, has her back to her. That’s a strong shot, the instructor said. Boyd loved the feedback and started directing his viewfinder toward shots that had atmosphere, that evoked an emotion.

“Sometimes you can’t tell why you’re taking that photo until you develop it. I was surprised often,” he said. “When you take a picture, something attracted you. And then you see more there than what you saw.”

It’s the same with painting, he said. “If I don’t think about what I’m trying to do, if I just react and not know where I’m going,” he gets good work, he said, better anyway than if he overthinks it. If he’s followed his gut and can keep himself from overworking a piece, he’s generally satisfied.

Bill Boyd

“Sometimes you feel your heart beat faster. Those moments don’t happen too often,” he said. “You pause and emotionally react to it.”

He and his wife Martha Miller ended in the Swannanoa Valley like many here do. They met in 2002. Divorced, he was living on a sailboat in San Diego, and she was a nurse in a children’s hospital in Little Rock. They were mulling over where to live together when her daughter, living in Wilmington, said they’d probably like Asheville. Climbing the grade up Old Fort Mountain, they saw trees and mountains and loved it. Asheville, he said, reminded them of “a small San Francisco.”

A real estate agent showed them a house in Swannanoa, and three days later they bought it. Ten years later they moved to Black Mountain, to a smaller house that wasn’t so high up.

Last spring, Boyd took an online painting course that MoMA offered in post-World War II abstract painting. Attracted to artists who painted from the late 1940s to the early 1960s – Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell among them – he spent the next eight weeks applying in his studio what he was learning online.

Abstract expressionism after WWII was all about evoking a feeling among viewers, Boyd said. It’s not about recreating a scene or representing a likeness. People often want to know the subject of his paintings done in the style is, and he turns the question around to ask them what they see. No answer is incorrect when the goal is to stir up a thought, a reaction, an emotion. “If you can feel that (it’s about) mountains or trees or the beach, it’s about that,” he said.

Boyd has done – and can do – representational work. Right now he prefers the reductive work of abstract expressionalism. “I spent my whole career (working) in precision, numbers, sharp pencils,” he said. Now, using house painters’ brushes and broad palette knives feels better. “I’m moving away from a detail-oriented career,” he said. “I’m making a conscious effort to get as far away as I can from small instruments.”

Around Thanksgiving, MoMA invited the students to send an image of their work that was inspired by the class. Boyd especially liked one of his works entitled “With You.” It wasn’t based on the style of any of the artists he’d studied, though it was more like de Kooning than anyone else, he said.

Last month Boyd and his wife Martha were visiting her daughter in New York when he checked his email to learn that MoMA liked “With You” and was including it in a show. On Jan. 8 they went to the exhibition’s opening. Four video projectors beamed student work on the walls, all in the post-war abstract style. There were about 200 people there. Boyd was talking shop with some of them when his work would rotate through the carousel and flash on the wall.

It felt pretty good, he said.

“I can actually say I have an image shown at MOMA,” he said, smiling. “It felt so good. It took days to get the smile off my face.”