A young artist portrays his 'ideal world' on canvas

Artist Ronaldo Byrd, 25, poses with some of his artwork, displayed at the Burlington Township home he shares with his mother and three younger siblings. He is self-taught.
Artist Ronaldo Byrd, 25, poses with some of his artwork, displayed at the Burlington Township home he shares with his mother and three younger siblings. He is self-taught. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 18, 2014

Happiness is alive and swell in Ronaldo Byrd's paintings, where the party never ends - and everyone's invited.

Goth punks, Girl Scouts, golfers, DJs, and urban, suburban, and country kids of every hue and hairdo are among the 300 original characters the artist, 25, showcases in his lively canvases.

One painting depicts a crowd gathered around a towering stack of pancakes; another shows a clown merrily manning a turntable; and yet another, called Shipwrecked, features a motley tropical crew worthy of Gilligan's Island, or Lost, or both.

The scenes are "from my imagination. . . . I feel I know these people," explains Byrd, who is something of an artist-in-residence at the Collingswood office of Autism Speaks.

"He creates his own world," says Christina Carty, Northeast director of programs and services for the national advocacy organization. "It's a happy world."

I meet the shy, self-taught artist at the Burlington Township home he shares with his mother and three younger siblings.

Byrd works, mostly in acrylics, while listening to classical or popular music in a bedroom that's decorated with sci-fi posters.

"It's what I do full-time," he says, smiling. "Every day and every night."

His bedroom door opens into a floor-to-ceiling gallery, where I'm immediately immersed in vivid depictions of holidays, parades, street fairs, and sporting events.

The crowded, densely detailed canvases and flattened perspectives remind me of the work of folk artists like Grandma Moses. But Byrd renders his all-American portraits of hot-dog-eating contests and Fourth of July festivities with a hip-hop flair.

The paintings "are a spectacular mosaic of pattern and color," says Robert Ramos, director of the Arts Unbound Inc. gallery in Orange, Essex County. Byrd was part of a show there in March.

The artist, whose Facebook page is titled "Ronaldo's Art Corner," also has shown and sold his work at Collingswood's Arts Plus Gallery.

"What impresses me most is how he portrays people. You can see the emotion," manager Catherine VanCuren says. "There's compassion, a sense of humor. His vision of the world is positive."

"I could look at his paintings all day," says Byrd's mother, Valerie, 52.

As a little boy in Brooklyn, where Byrd was born (his parents are from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the Caribbean), "he wasn't talking," she recalls.

"But he was drawing very well. He would draw on anything he could get. And I let him."

The family moved to South Jersey eight years ago, and Byrd graduated from the Burlington County Institute of Technology.

While his gift is obvious, the nature of his disability is less so.

"There never was a formal diagnosis," Valerie Byrd says. "They told me he had 'autistic tendencies.'

"He's very comfortable doing shows," she adds. "But is he a social butterfly? I would say no. He has a few friends, mostly his brothers, and the family."

Ronaldo Byrd speaks most freely, and eloquently, through his work, rather than through his words. He is eager to show me his paintings, as well as the T-shirts, hats, and fabric dolls he hand-paints.

But he has little to say to me about them.

"When he was in school, there was a degree of teasing," his mother says, adding, "The world he paints is an ideal world. He has his own set of friends there . . . in his own ideal world that everyone can share. I think it's beautiful."

It is indeed.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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