A Bride in the Willow: Theresa Byrnes suspends her body to create provocative art


Photos by Rainer Hosch

BY SARAH FERGUSON | East Village painter Theresa Byrnes is known for staging provocative performances that test the limits of her physicality. A practitioner of what’s known as “endurance art,” she’s dunked herself in barrels of oily paint to protest the massive oil spills sullying our seas, and mounted her near-naked body on a spinning wheel, in a feminist take on Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

Such acts are rendered all the more intense and intimate because of Byrnes’s limited mobility: She has a degenerative disease called Friedreich’s ataxia that is diminishing her muscle control and balance.

Byrnes willingly engages her viewers in this “fragility” — or really, it’s her resilience and willful determination that’s on display. That interplay between intention and chance, along with her insistence on beauty at all costs, were at the heart of Byrnes’s latest work, “Bride,” which she performed on Sat., Sept. 24, while suspended from a willow tree at the community garden La Plaza Cultural.


The piece was an interactive tapestry of loss and grief, inspired in part by the death of her young son’s father, who passed away earlier this year. And it was a wedding of art and nature, a meditation on womanhood in its most eerie and profound.

Byrnes entered the garden, at E. Ninth St. and Avenue C, in her wheelchair, dressed in a wedding gown, wearing a crown of black emu and turkey feathers, and trailing a long veil carried by several attendants.

Two “best men,” barefoot and in tuxes, lifted her out of her chair and placed her thin frame inside a hammock of white mesh fabric suspended from one of the garden’s iconic willow trees.


Using ropes to guide her, they swung her cocooned body back and forth as Byrnes squirted blue and black ink, staining the white fabric encasing her body, and the bed of tule and canvas spread out on the ground below her.

As she worked, a swirling score of chiming bells and electronic glazes (created by Tim Cramer) washed through the air, evoking the feeling of a haunted churchyard.

Like raindrops, the ink dripped from her body and stippled the tule below her, creating a 3D painting in real time. This is art of the moment, using gravity as gesture, marks mediated by chance. When the wind blew and picked up a corner of the tule, shifting the ink, that too became part of the painting, as did the willow leaves that drifted into the composition.

Something borrowed, something blue… Was it coincidence that she performed this work “Bride” while suspended from a willow, a tree known as a “widow maker” because of its precarious habit of dropping limbs as a means of propagation? (That is how willow trees “seed” themselves.)


Byrnes’s son, Sparrow, covering her with rose petals after she was lowered to the garden floor.

Slowly an arm, mottled with ink, poked through, and then a swath of long black hair, as Byrnes struggled to free her head from the tightly stretched fabric. As the music swelled, her attendants hoisted her higher, her neck held straight, her stockinged feet dangling limply.

She swung haltingly, freeing her arms so she could wield her squirt bottles of water and ink, dropping feathers from her crown. The images created as the colors pooled around her body and dripped onto the tule below were so immediate — dictated by physics, yet beautiful, like life itself.

It was like watching a chrysalis emerge from its case — underscoring the symbiosis of life and decay.

Another cascade of bells rang out as a long sheath of white canvas unfurled from the crown of the tree. One of the best men yanked another rope, causing a bucket of black paint to spill down on the suspended canvas. The paint dripped into a beautiful piece of black and white abstraction, 20 feet high.


The best men lowered Byrnes to the ground and helped free her body from the fabric cocoon. Her determination to pull herself out was both difficult and thrilling to watch. She flopped down onto the inky bed of canvas and tule. Her young son, Sparrow, then toddled forward, led by “maid of honor” Bobbi Bennett, and they tossed crimson rose petals over her prostate form.

Byrnes lay there for several minutes before the hushed crowd, the strains of salsa from a neighboring garden filtering through the fence. Then it was over. As her attendants lifted her inky body back into her wheelchair, a look of exhilaration beamed from her eyes, like that of a bride who’d just tossed her bouquet.

In a statement, Brynes said the performance was intended to honor her connection to Sparrow’s father, “beyond time or matter.”

It was also a wedding of her art to the “force of nature.”

“For me, everything resolves back to the earth and mirrors nature’s force,” Brynes wrote. “My painting is guided by the force of nature, especially my ink painting, where I use the flow of water to create gesture and mix pigment… . For me, painting is about hanging out far beyond self — bonding with, and getting to know the force of nature.”

Byrnes performed “Bride” during last month’s LUNGS Harvest Festival, an annual event celebrating all the community gardens of the Lower East Side.

The piece is part of a larger show mounted in her gallery, at 616 E. Ninth St., featuring abstract paintings made from ink and wedding tule, and family portraits of Sparrow and his late father. 

Byrnes will perform another “aerial” painting, while suspended inside the storefront window of her gallery, during the closing party on Sat., Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. Her paintings and video of the “Bride” performance will be on view at the gallery through Sun., Oct. 16.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *