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
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
"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
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
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.
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."
Pop culture inspiration; born-again
Lobyn grew up with his
three brothers and sister in Indianapolis, and attended Franklin Central High
School. Like many boys growing up in the '90s, he was influenced by comics and
video games. He first learned that he could draw by copying such items.
"I would draw a lot
of things already drawn," Lobyn explains. "When you're younger, you do a lot of
things that are already drawn, you know, your anime, your video game, shoes,
black guys with shades."
When his mom became
a born-again Christian, certain materials suddenly became off-limits like, say,
anything relating to the X-Men. But his mother hadn't completely turned against
popular culture; she did let him watch Batman
on TV. As if in recognition of this fact, his repurposed take on the Bat-signal
rests on the floor of fireplace room. It's composed entirely of broken vinyl,
on a yellow canvas, measuring 52 by 28 inches — wider than the
flat-screen TV above it.
Lobyn never took to
the religious belief and practice that his mother tried to instill in her
children, and he left his mom's house to live with his dad when he was 16 years
old.But his mom, Kontente Meade, is still an
influence in his life; Lobyn credits her with helping him through some low
moments in the recent past.
Says Kontente Meade
about this time in his life, "He was looking for jobs, looking for direction in
life. I said, if the Lord has given you a gift, pursue that.... We would go out
to eat and we would just talk. I was so imploring him... I praise the Lord that
he did it."
Looking to the future
2010 was a great
year for Lobyn and 2011 is getting off to a promising start with the invitation
to Art & Soul, which showcases African-American artists, musicians and
performers at the Indianapolis Artsgarden. Timing was key to this good fortune;
as he was just emerging in his new art form, the Arts Council of Indianapolis
was reevaluating this annual event.
Says Shannon Linker
of the Arts Council, "Initially we would pull together kind of a group show and
ask more prominent artists to submit one or two pieces for the Art & Soul
exhibition for that year. And then we realized that we were missing an
opportunity to let our audience know about new artists.... So we decided to start
trying to find emerging artists perhaps who might not have had a big show in
town and try to bump up their careers a little bit if we could. So over the
past two years we've been using emerging artists."
portrait of Lauryn Hill started attracting the attention of patrons at the Artsgarden's
July 2010 Flava Fresh exhibit like nothing else on display, Linker saw an
opportunity to follow through on this new direction. "So he contacted me at
about the same time that I was trying to reach him," she says.
Art lovers from
outside Indy are starting to take notice. He exhibited his work at the African
Festival of the Arts 2010 and the Gallery Guichard, both in Chicago, Ill.
Ryan Hickey has an observation about people who encountered Lobyn's vinyl art
at ORANJE last September, but it applies elsewhere as well: "They might
not be a fan of the artist he portrays...they might not buy his work... but they appreciate
it and acknowledge it. Someone in his late 20s will say, I really like that Run
DMC while the parent in his 50s will say, yeah that Bob Dylan is really cool.
It crosses racial boundaries as well. My hat's off to him for being able to
admirer of Lobyn's art just so happens to be his better half, Natasha. Born in
Zimbabwe, but having spent much of her life in England, she speaks three
languages (French and Shona in addition to English). She shares the same
musical languages and tastes as her somewhat more provincial husband and she
may in fact be the biggest fan of his art. "I think it's phenomenal, edgy and
funky," she says. "It combines the two things he likes most, art and deejaying,
and it's a great way to recycle."
something even more important than art on both their minds. Natasha is pregnant
with their first child. Lobyn calls his in utero child, "the chosen one."
Already, he's had to make certain adjustments, giving up epoxy for fixing vinyl
to canvases (because of the fumes) and using a glue gun instead. More
adjustments are coming no doubt, but he seems as happy with the prospect of
being a father as Natasha is happy to be with her uniquely gifted husband.