Tylur French sculpts a future in public art

On the eve of the Bike Arch dedication in Overton Park, we look at what sculptor Tylur French has on the horizon. The artist has a decade of civically-minded work in Memphis and he looks forward to more of the same.
Before it was even complete, Tylur French’s bike arch sculpture heralding a new, pedestrian-friendly entrance to Overton Park, had become an icon. With the scheduled dedication and ribbon cutting set for April 19, the question of “what’s next?” is like a mantra for French. The fact is, he and his team at Youngblood Studio LLC, a full-service fine arts production studio, never quit working, never quit looking to the next opportunity even as they’re up to their protective eyewear in work.
 
In a 5,000-sq. ft. warehouse located just off Airways Blvd. in South Memphis, planes come in so low on arrival to Memphis International Airport that one feels he could reach up and touch the landing gear. It is here, among presses and drills, hammers, blow torches and all manner of metals and stone, making it feel more adult playground than workspace, that French has fashioned art both large and small. It’s something he’s been doing his whole life, beginning as a child growing up in Memphis and Kansas City, Missouri.
 
“I was raised a lot by my grandmother and she did everything. She was a painter and she did upholstery and she did leatherwork, wood carving, just about everything,” says French. “So she really raised me with ‘If you want to do something, you just have to figure out how to do it.’”
 
As a child, the lessons may not have resonated, but in hindsight as an adult, he says, “it stuck.” He eventually went on to the Kansas City Art Institute for a BFA in Sculpture and received an MFA in Sculpture from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. From there, he apprenticed under artist Dan Yarbrough in New Mexico for a year and a half and then ran a sculpture fabrication shop in Seattle for two years.
 
“And then I just took a bunch of jobs that were along these same lines,” he says.
 
Though the plan wasn’t necessarily to return to Memphis, he’s been back and working steadily for about 10 years with his current set up on Airways for the past two years. In the end, he says, the success he’s found could have only happened here.
 
“I do like Memphis, and Memphis has a really perfect chemistry for what I do here. It’s not like a Chicago or an L.A. where, if you haven’t been there for 15 years, you have no chance to get a foot in any door.”
 
Working with French are full-time employees Andrew Meakin and Amanda Nalley, and contract help and interns are used as projects warrant. It’s the collaborative nature of the city that energizes French and that can be seen in a number of prominent works around town. He worked on the Cancer Survivor’s Park at Audubon Park with Yvonne Bobo, “The Wave” sculpture at Tobey Skate Park with Mark Nowell and helped install Chris Fennell’s “Steel Guitar” at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.  
 
Colin Kidder won a bid through the Urban Art Commission to design “Raised River,” an elevated piece of art that will provide shade as well as public art in the Lucius Burch Natural Area in East Memphis. It is 24,000 lbs. of shaped, carbon steel meant to evoke the currents of a river, and is massive at 98-ft. long and 17-ft. wide. It will be assembled there in the parking lot of Youngblood Studio to ensure fittings before being disassembled and transported to its location in pieces to be put together again.
 
Though Kidder received the commission and designed the piece, it is French and his team who are fabricating and will install it in June. It will be erected along a portion of the Wolf River Greenway on the pathway leading from the parking lot along Humphreys Blvd., across the street from the Baptist Memorial Hospital-East complex.
 
“What I like about this city is that it’s possible for that (collaboration) to happen,” says French. “It’s not just the same six people making artwork for the city all the time.”
 
Youngblood Studio is contracted by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to install art and create original pieces for the near-constant construction on the hospital’s campus. It is an ongoing project that French takes the most pride in, knowing that the children who are patients and their families will get the most joy from it.
 
“St. Jude is wonderful about doing everything they can to be local in terms of their art.”
 
While the reaction to any planned or future art remains to be seen, the enthusiasm for the pedestrian entrance on the east side of Overton Park is a lock, and French is humbled by it all. He points to the city itself, and its progressive attitudes toward a pedestrian culture, art and collaboration.
 
“It just is a real indicator of the city’s temperament, they’re becoming much more sensitive and much more aware in a healthy way, I think.”
 
The work he does is not a template. It’s greasy and grimy and hands-on, and every new day presents challenges for French that leave him saying, “Well, I don’t see any way to do that.” Harking back to his grandmother, though, the answer is always there: “You just have to figure out how to do it.”
 

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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