When you walk into Walter Lobyn Hamilton's fireplace room, in his modest half of a double on Indy's near-northside, you'll notice right away that there's something out of the ordinary. Displayed on the walls are icons of the past 50 years of popular music, across wide varieties of genres on unusual looking canvases. These are Lobyn's portraits of musicians he listens to and plays as a deejay; a number of these portraits are currently being featured at Art & Soul 2011 at the Indianapolis Artsgarden.
A portrait of Bob Dylan rests on the floor, leaning against the wall. Dylan's gaze seems fixed across the room at a portrait of Erykah Badu placed on a shelf. There's a canvas portraying Bob Marley in the corner. Marley looks exactly like Marley and Dylan looks exactly like Dylan (of the BlondeonBlonde-era), but it's the medium that Lobyn uses, when combined with his amazing technical precision, that lets you know you've stepped into the dwelling of a unique and gifted artist.
You see, these are no ordinary portraits.
Lobyn uses broken shards of vinyl LP records — a product that once supported the entire music industry in its grooves — as his medium. But his portraits are built on a firm foundation of realistic portraiture and a confident line. Take, for example, the portrait of Erykah Badu. He uses vinyl — often thin little shards, each piece painstakingly glued to the canvas — to delineate Badu's features from the shoulders up to the hairline. Where the shards are used to precisely portray her shoulder and the curve of her neck, they have the fluidity of a well-executed line drawing.
Her hair is where the vinyl really comes alive, and largely departs from realistic portraiture. Her hair is everywhere; it's a huge Afro composed of jagged and curved pieces of vinyl of varying sizes stacked one on top of the other as well as LP centerpieces bearing her name. And there's another centerpiece with the logo "Motown," denoting a certain Detroit-based record label, which brings to mind a whole era of African-American music. Badu's hair is rich and thick and seems to have infinite depth while, at the same time, reflecting light. Such are the properties of this new medium of repurposed vinyl. You might describe these properties, if you're an art critic, as both "sculptural" and "painterly."
You can also find in the fireplace room a self-portrait that Lobyn finished recently. In it you see the image of a lean African-American man in profile with his hair in long dreadlocks on a white canvas. If you're so inclined to describe this portrait as "painterly," you should note that the only paint in the work is the white house paint he used to prepare the canvas. The delineation of his own facial features is, again, more akin to a line drawing (in shards of vinyl) than a painting.
As in the Badu portrait, Lobyn's portrayal of his own dreadlocks is a collage of numerous LP centerpieces including one of an Isaac Hayes record; there's also an eight-track cassette tape of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band and a cartridge from a Super Mario Bros. video game. All of these items represent influences in Lobyn's life as a man, an artist, and a deejay.
In his self-portrait, the 25-year-old Lobyn is calm and serene, looking forward at a point beyond the canvas. In person, he is approachable and laughs easily. After inviting you in, he might talk to you in the fireplace room while the TV is playing a concert film, say, an Exodus-era Bob Marley live from London or a new movie release. (The 2001 film Waking Life by Richard Linklater is one of his favorites.) He might offer you a glass of wine. And if you ask him, he'll tell you about his search to find his artistic bearings — a search that hasn't always been easy.
The eureka moment
It was an act of destruction, about two years ago, that led to Lobyn's eureka moment. During that time, he was in chronic pain because of a twisted ankle and related foot problems. His mobility was limited and so was his ability to earn a living and provide for himself. Alone in his basement, in an act of frustration bordering on despair, he slammed down a bunch of LP records on the cement floor.
These records were
not just bygone artifacts of another era for Lobyn, a freelance deejay, who got
gigs at college parties, working with his turntables, mixer, and laptop. And
now, a bunch of his prized LPs were shattered on the floor — what could
he do besides clean the mess up? But he didn't; he left it all there. It wasn't
until he came back to the mess of broken records several months later that he
had his big idea. "And I was like, I wonder if I could make them into
something," he says. "Because before then I just paid attention to drawings. I
What he made them into was a portrait of Jimi Hendrix — his first portrait in this new medium. Using his considerable skill as a sketch artist, he drew the outline of Hendrix's face in pencil on a wood board, working from a photograph. Soon he had a dead-on resemblance. He then glued small shards of vinyl, using epoxy, to follow the pencil lines on the wood. ("I draw first then put them on, and I like letting the pencil lines show so that you don't take the drawing aspect for granted," he says about his artistic style.)
He used larger jagged pieces of vinyl, glued one next to another, to represent Hendrix's hair (in more recent portraits he uses much larger quantities of vinyl, as well as LP centerpieces for the hair). He painted the background red, but left Hendrix's face unpainted, unvarnished, so you can see the cross-section of tree rings in the particular cut of wood that the portrait is placed on. And, amazingly enough, it wasn't that much of a struggle to do all this; it came quite naturally to him.
Lobyn hadn't only found a use for the LPs that he had so impulsively destroyed. He had also, quite possibly, created a new genre. And vinyl is a medium with enormous visual appeal when it comes to representing hair — African-American as well as Caucasian.
"I've seen some people who've worked with vinyl records as a medium," says Ryan Hickey, co-founder of ORANJE, billed as "Indiana's Premier Art & Music Exhibition," to which Lobyn was invited by a juried panel in 2010 to showcase his work. "It's clear that it's an image of Bob Dylan or of Kanye West or Run DMC or Lauryn Hill," he continues. "It's obvious that he's trying to create a very clear image. At the same time, to use vinyl record to create that, I think that's incredible. Incredibly creative and incredibly original."
And, one might add, incredibly gifted; aside from some art classes here and there, Lobyn is essentially self-taught. "I took a painting class at Herron once," he says. "Pretty much the only thing I found out about that is I'm a pretty bad painter. But I already knew how to draw. Just from that I tried to progress."
The Arts Council of Indianapolis' Shannon Linker, who organized the Art & Soul Festival, describes his artistic presence as a great asset to the city. "Lobyn has an innate ability to recreate these images in an amazing way and I think the fact that he's touching on his love of music and performers, that really draws people to his work. The quality is amazing, what he's able to do technically. But you get more than that from it. He's been a deejay. He's been spinning these records a very long time and that's been a really big part of his life as well."
The DJ, his father's son
Before Lobyn became a vinyl record artist, he was actively spinning; freelance deejaying was his primary creative activity outside his day job (he currently works in an accounts-payable position at a residential center). He continues to deejay, although he hasn't yet spun at an opening of his own art. It's a prospect he dreads, he says somewhat jokingly, because it's impossible to deejay and keep your eye on your artwork at the same time. But he did reach a milestone recently; he worked the Fashion Show at the 2010 Black Expo, setting up a vendor's booth there for his art as well.
His father, Clayton Hamilton, can claim some credit for influencing his son in this direction – he gave him a deejay kit when he was in the ninth grade. But his father has been influential in many more ways than that. The elder Hamilton was the one who introduced his son to musicians like Bob Marley as well as to some a little closer to home.
"I kind of grew up listening to John Mellencamp," says Lobyn, who includes a Scarecrow-era Mellencamp among his past vinyl-on-canvas portrait subjects. "My father and I, we'd just ride around, you know; we were able to get a lot of different influences from him."
Clayton also had an influence on his son's life as a visual artist. Lobyn recalls as a child his father taking a brush to the wall of the bedroom he shared with his three brothers. "He painted this huge Pac-Man about eight feet wide, eight feet tall, that had a blue ghost in his mouth and he was chomping it. He painted it with house paint."
His father also had a unique art project of his own. His canvas, as it were, is on a cement wall that you might catch a glimpse of if you're driving north on College Avenue. It used to be adjacent to his property, but he's since moved. You can see it at the intersection of 38th Street, across from Church's Fried Chicken. The wall, measuring four feet tall and around a hundred feet wide is currently painted with the logo, in three foot-high letters, "Technology on the rise. Humanity? OMG! WGH! LOL! HMM?" It's a commentary on technology and text messaging by a former employee of AT&T, who's been retired now for two years.
The first slogan Clayton Hamilton ever painted on the wall was one that read, "Be strong. Be proud. Don't fall pray." TheIndianapolisStar published a photo of a teenager walking past the "Don't Fall Pray" part of the wall back in 1988 — under the caption, "Message Flashes out a Warning." But the warning, according to the elder Hamilton, was as much about religion as it was about gang violence or the like — a message that was lost on The Star.
"They're just humanistic insights that everybody probably has," says Clayton about his work. "I have a big tapestry. I could say things that maybe people would be interested in, maybe they won't."
"We would always be there, watching him do it, me and my brothers," Lobyn says. "We didn't help him out though. It was like his Jaguar."
"When you have children around you, they'll pick up on something," says Clayton. "You always hope your children will take up and run with it. And find out their abilities. It seems like that's happened with my children. They picked up on what they were exposed to and took it up and ran with it."