Riding the Magic with Vicki and Hilton Byrd

Some peopleās lives are such an amazing series of incredible synchronicities that you couldnāt put them in a book or a movie - it would be too unbelievable. These are people who know that in order for such coincidences to happen, you canāt accept what everybody knows. You have to be open, and you have to trust that everything will work out by the end of the day. Vicki and Hilton Byrd know that you have to ride the magic like a surfboard on the wild ocean. Youāve met Vicki and Hilton if youāve visited Designer Crafts, a store on Main Street (Stroudsburg, PA) dedicated to the American craft movement, that they share with Kim Parker. Hilton is the one who laughs all the time, equally at home quoting William Butler Yeats or the science fiction satire, "The Hitchhikerās Guide to the Universe," Hilton is whimsical and has a high sense of the absurd. Vicki is quieter, earthier, with a comforting touch of New York in her accent. Vicki, according to Hilton, is the prolific one, "She canāt stop," he declares. "She just keeps making stuff. I sit around and think about things. Vicki doesnāt think; she does." The stuff they make is highly polished bronze jewelry and "house jewelry" - towel racks held by shiny bronze hands, dancers holding hooks and rings. Vicki also strings sparkly beads, that make you think of New Yearās Eve in velvet or Mardi Gras at a fancy French restaurant. Many people find it hard to tell Hilton and Vickiās work apart, though Vicki says most people have a strong preference for one or the other, without realizing theyāre done by two people."We have two separate lines," explains Hilton. "Because weāre working in the same material, unless you really look at it, you donāt understand it. Vickiās work is lyrical; itās about dance; itās about movement. My things are about how ridiculous we are. So you will see a human bodydone very graphically -- big ass, big tits. Thereās no ass, thereās no tits with what Vicki does; instead itās how a figure moves. I lived in Central America, so I talk about something else, I talk about humans. Weāre fragile, weāre stupid, weāre silly, weāre afraid, weāre in awe." "On all of our business cards, it says Functional bronze sculpture.ā And sometimes we have to search for what the function is. Itās because of what I witnessed in Mexico. My problem with art is that it becomes an intellectual discussion, so itās an exclusive kind of personality. Whereas within crafts, youāre talking about something inclusive, and you are talking about something that is, in my opinion, of a higher form." Hilton and Vicki grew up in New York. Hilton got his start in Harlem at 133rd and Convent, when the convent, which was later to become City College dominated the neighborhood. "Weād climb over the wall to look at the nuns." Later, his family moved to Queens. His parents " were afraid that I would become an entertainer, because I couldnāt help myself. I was constantly chasing magicians, singing, dancing and carrying on. They wanted to raise a professional of some kind, so they wouldnāt allow me music lessons. My sister would go to ballet and I had to go with her. I was better on my toes than all the girls were, and they were upset with me." He got a bachelorās degree in psychology, but "The 1960s came along I dropped out of a masters program at Columbia in social work to go climb trees in Mexico. Thatās actually where I met artists." Meanwhile, Vicki was growing up in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and other places, "I was brought up mostly by my mother, who was a divorced woman with three very little children. Back in those days to be 21, divorced, have three little kids and Jewish was very unusual." At one point, she remembers living in Brighton Beach, across the street from her grandfatherās delicatessen. The windows of her apartment were at ground level, and the three kids would sit in the window. "Everyone in the neighborhood knew us. My mother had to put signs on us that said, "Please donāt feed the children"ā Cause we would sit at the window and everyone would give us candy and ice cream. Of course, I was really smart and folded over the "Please donāt.ā" Vicki got a bachelorās degree in English, but all she ever wanted to do was travel. She went to Europe for a year and a half, and returned to drive a cab in New York City saving money for a trip to Mexico, where she met Hilton. "Vicki comes walking along the beach," says Hilton, "and I recognized her as a cab driver from New York City. I said, ĪHey, youāre the only bald-headed cab driver in New York City, and Iāve seen you a number of times.ā And she says, "Yeah, and Iāve seen you.ā She shaved her hair off. She was absolutely imposing.ā" Why did she shave her head in the '60s? Vicki says, "Everyone else had long hair. "In New York, we lived around the corner from each other," she continues. "We actually drove for the same cab company, and we had a mutual friend. I was living in a commune in Brooklyn, and I kept inviting this friend to dinner. He kept saying to Hilton, "Come on, weāve got to go to dinner at this commune. I know this really neat person.ā But it never happened." So it took a beach in northern Mexico and a series of coincidences to get them together. "We both left New York on the same day," explained Vicki, "We both arrived in California on the same day, we both entered Mexico on the same day, but we met a week later." After some adventures in Mexico and Central America, Hilton returned to his apartment in New York. Vicki went to the Haight Ashbury, but flew back to New York, when Hilton called her and threatened to go out to California. They went back to driving cabs. "Every night weād meet in a different country to have dinner," says Hilton, explaining that they liked to eat in ethnic restaurants. "The reason we were cab drivers is because weāre tourists. Born and raised in New York doesnāt mean that you know anything. By driving a cab, you get to go everywhere. You get to see everything." "And hear lots of stories," adds Vicki. "More than anything, Hilton and I like to hear stories." After being robbed, threatened, and learning that Vicki was pregnant, they decided to head south, intending to have the baby in the Caribbean. They stopped to visit friends in Sarasota, Florida, and got sucked into a poor, but thriving artistic community. Members of the community gave them some brass, and they began making hammered brass jewelry to support themselves, the beginning of a lifelong fascination with metal. They left Sarasota when it got hot, and the tourists went home. They were living in the white part of town, and, "Hilton was stopped all the time," says Vicki. "They realized that if itās this late in the season, I must not be rich," adds Hilton. "So Iām prey. Otherwise, I could have been a basketball player; I could have been a football player; I could have been anything." "One night," says Vicki, "We had been working all night, and I was nursing Quijana, (their daughter). Up the block there was a donut shop. We went in, and I drank three orange juices very quickly. By the time we left and went to drive back to our house, which was half a block later, there were helicopters, there were three police cars, there were guns drawn. It was time to go." They headed north and eventually set up a booth at an art show in the Catskills. "Every town had an art show during the summer," says Vicki, "on their village green. Two-thirds of the people would be local artists and about one-third there was this band of people that would just go around the country. We used to travel all over the country." They decided they really liked the Catskills, and asked a couple of fishermen they met, "Where do we go to find a place to live?" says Vicki. "They said, "You canāt do that. This is August. This is the Catskills. Youāre not going to be able to find or afford a place to live"ā Later, that day, we came back and we said, "We got a place, 1,400 acres right up the road here.ā "And the guy said,"We caught fish,ā" says Hilton. "We said, "We have wine.ā We had fish, we had wine, and for $85 a month, we had 1,400 acres. It was absolute magic." While they were living there, a friend from Florida visited. "He had this fancy van," says Hilton, "and he said, "The problem with you guys, is youāre just too committed to being hippies. When are you going to get a grip on life and do something meaningful? Look at this.ā He pulls out an oxyacetylene torch, lights this thing up, starts dripping molten bronze, and he starts making all these things. He says, "This is what Iām doing now. This is why Iām so successful. Iām looking at this torch going, "Thatās really neat. Can I play with it?ā I play with it; Vicki plays with it. He says, "You have to have resources; you have to have money to get this kind of stuff.ā So we said, "Can we borrow your van?ā" They figured that if they sold jewelry to some stores in the area, they could feed their houseguests. "Weāre trying to sell some nonsense to somebody," remembers Hilton. "I said, "Do you know anything about oxyacetylene torches?ā He says, "Yeah.ā "Have any gauges for them?ā He says, "Like these?ā I said, "Yeah, Just like those.ā He said, "I got these and theyāre lying around. You want them?ā I said, "Yeah"ā So he gives them to me. Then we drive off to this other place. Weāre hanging around and I said, "I just picked up these gauges for an oxyacetylene torch. Now I gotta figure out where to get a torch and stuff like that.ā He said,"You mean like these things?"ā I said, "Yeah, like those things"ā He said, "Here"ā So we put that in the van and we drive off. We drive back this town that we live in that has 10 people and weāre three of the 10. The caretaker is at the barn, and I said, "Where do I get oxyacetylene tanks? I need gas.ā He says, "You mean like these?"ā And he rolls out two tanks. I said, "Yeah like those"ā He said, "Take them"ā I said, "Thanks. We pull in the driveway and I take all of this out of the van, and said,"Is this what I need?ā And our friend said, "How do you pull this off? You know how hard I work to do all these things? You just go poof! You goddamn magician"ā Thatās my life, I love magic." Vicki adds that they canāt do it anymore, "You have to really ride the magic. If you in any way doubt the magic, itās not going to work." They stayed in the Catskills, in the basement of a hunting lodge, until Hurricane Agnes rousted them out of bed. "There was banging on the door," says Hilton, "and theyāre saying, ĪGet out, get out.ā We wake up, this is like a cartoon, but itās true. Our mattress was floating along, and Quijana the baby, happened to be in bed with us, and sheās grabbing toys as they float by. Luckily, she hadnāt fallen out of the bed, because it was three feet of water. We said, ĪOh man, I guess we better get up.ā We had parked our van on the other side of the brook that night for reasons Iāll never know. Everything was in it, cause we were going to a show in Rhode Island the next day. So we crossed the brook, got to our van, drove to a shopping mall, bought shoes and we drove off to the show." Soon after, they decided to head west. After a show in Indiana, on the flip of a coin they decided to visit a friend of Hiltonās in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and ended up spending the next eight years there, taking part in an artistic community, buying a mansion, and running a gallery. The town had a close artistic community, so friendly that Hiltonās sister thought she was in "The Waltons" when she visited one Christmas, and his father flew out to make sure they werenāt in some kind of cult. It was in Wisconsin that they developed the work they do now. The Byrds left Wisconsin, because, Vicki says, "We wanted Quijana to know her grandparents. We said she needed to hear those stories, as did we." Another reason to leave Lake Geneva became apparent to Hilton. "We go off to Atlanta, Georgia," he explains, "to do an art show, and flip a coin. I get child care; Vicki does the show. Quijana and I go off to find the Atlanta Zoo, and I get lost. I pull into the gas station to ask where the zoo is, and some guys give me directions. I get back in the van and little baby Quijanaās jumping up and down. ĪDaddy, daddy, daddy, did you see them, daddy? Did you see them?ā ĪDid I see what, Quijana?ā ĪThe people, Daddy.ā ĪWhat about the people?ā ĪTheyāre brown, Daddy, theyāre brown like you.ā And all the sudden I realize Wisconsin is white." Quijana, soon to give the Byrds their first grandchild, is listening to the interview from another room and adds, "Heās dad-colored. Sheās mom-colored." Travels, synchronicities, Hiltonās father and whim took them next to the Virgin Islands for a few years, where they their second child, Oliver. Another flip of the coin took them to Vickiās sisterās house in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. They found a house on the Susquehanna River in Lewisburg, and Hilton took a job working with developmentally disabled people in a sheltered workshop. "Vicki goes out and finds an art show near Philadelphia. She comes back, puts the money down and says, ĪI just worked for two days. Hereās six weeks of your income. Are you ready to go back and play again?ā I say, ĪI donāt want to go back and play again. Iām tired of the circuit.ā She said, ĪWe canāt afford for you to have a job.ā" After a second, even more successful show they became members of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, which runs several excellent shows, an organization in which Hilton has become deeply involved. "Itās absolute magic," he says, ĪI gave Vicki a time limit. I said, ĪIām tired of this. Iām going to go back on the track that I was on when I was a kid.ā Our first art show with the guild is Franklin and Marshall. We made 400 million dollars, and that was the end of that. She said, ĪYou ready?ā And I went, ĪOkay, Iām ready.ā" They moved to the Northern Liberties in Philadelphia, and later, to Bushkill, to help revitalize the guildās gallery there. At the urging of the Jacob Stroud Corporation, and with a few more waves of a magic wand, they found themselves on Main Street with Designer Crafts. They also bought a house in Pocono Summit, outfitted a shop out back, and for the first time in their lives, they are living away from where they work. And theyāre outfitting a woodshop and look forward to working in a new medium. "Our friends who have a more traditional lifestyle are all retiring. Having Designer Crafts, we commute, we have absolute responsibilities. We do all kinds of things. So we finally got a job. Now that we have a job, we need a hobby." "Iām collecting tools like crazy," says Hilton. "Iām in guy heaven.