Making Art of Song

From Shards of Smashed Vinyl Records

John Welch

Empire actor Jussie Smolett with Lobyn's Return From AfricaBecause the essence of a people or an era is distilled in its art, popular music playlists have been called “the sound track of our lives.” For Walter Lobyn Hamilton, a 30-year old artist whose work has most recently been featured on the set of the Fox television hit, Empire, this distillation occurs in vinyl recordings of alternative hip hop, reggae, rock and protest music.  

Lobyn, Baquiat He grew up with a love of vinyl.  His grandfather and father had large record collections and encouraged Lobyn’s love of dee jaying as well as record collecting.

Known professionally by his middle name, Lobyn, is a self-taught artist based in Indianapolis, Indiana. The artist credits his association with Bombay Sapphire, which is a collaboration between Bombay Gin and Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation founded in 1995 by brothers Russell, Danny and Joseph "Rev. Run" Simmons with helping to bring his art to public attention. Bombay Sapphire is curated nationally by Chicago gallerist Andre Guichard who also serves as the ‘Empire’ art curator. Lobyn was a winner in the 2013 Bombay Sapphire contest.

He has never attended art school on the college level but loved to draw in high school.  He was so meticulous as a limner that the shading in a single work might take a full semester. After trying a couple of college level non-degree, Saturday drawing classes at an art and design school, Lobyn concluded that he would never have the facility for painting and that he didn’t want to pursue a formal education in fine art. He also learned that none of the graduates of the art school were full-time, thriving fine artists. Most taught, were graphic designers or writers. He resolved not to "invest my essence in shaky results."

Lobyn, Abby RoadToday, Lobyn is a full-time, professional fine artist who credits the start of his vinyl art career to an act of destruction. After crushing and breaking many of his beloved records in a bout of anger and sadness he found beauty and order in randomly shaped shards littering the floor.

Lobyn, Dark Fantasy (detail)The spontaneity of his smashing start continues in his work. This is evident in Dark Fantasy and Gil Scott Heron which respectively show his working methods of ‘shard’ and ‘cutout’ vinyl on canvas. These compositions are strikingly intricate and complex.  In both works Lobyn, Gil Scott Heronthe placement of vinyl shards on canvas shows the interplay between spontaneity and control. While careful drawing or outlining on the canvas provides some structure, the essence of play and randomness guide how vinyl shards are selected and fit to the composition, or are meticulously cut to match drawn shapes in the works. 

“I deal with and sort through the pieces that were broken and take from what was given,” Lobyn explains.  “The scary thing is that the piece that was needed was always provided. There is no set place for the pieces until the piece reveals itself and a place is found for it.”

This process can be extremely painstaking:  “Maybe 10 different shards will go five different places on the image just to cover a sliver of a line.”

In the good ‘ol analog days, handling the vinyl LP was a ritual experience that encompassed more than just listening to the music: album cover art was posted on dorm walls, liner notes were read by aficionados, care was taken to hold the record by its outer edge so as Lobyn, Malcolm Xnot to smudge the grooves, and the groove itself became slang for getting into the music (i.e., ‘grooving’ to the beat). Recalling this experience, Lobyn says, “There is an unspoken bond between the record and vinyl owner. From the smell of the cover on the LP to the gentle needle settling on the grove, playing vinyl is quite sacred and ritualistic. Being able to recreate the icons I grew up listening to and resurrecting political activists by using musical artists, who share those same perspectives, is indescribable.”

The range of subjects in Lobyn’s art signal both the depth of his artistic intent and how these iconic figures contradict what he views as the superficial or materialistic aspects of the Empire show.  He says the difference between his artworks on the Empire set and what the show represents are analogous to the 1970s Superfly sound track versus the Superfly movie:  

The two pieces that were featured on Empire were Return from Africa and Dark Fantasy: Huey P. Newton EditionReturn From Africa was a massive piece 5ft by 5ft which showed a woman with lines in her face and her hair in the shape of the African continent.

There were LP labels in her hair which were from the musical artist that was chosen to represent the nations of the continent. Looking at that history. Looking at the genesis of where music began and the gaze that she is giving through the screen makes you take a step a bit back.

“This is the original empire,” she is saying. “Never forget.” Also as if like, “this is how far we have come?”

The second piece showed up in Cookie’s office and it is of a big afro woman all black with a custom label on her breast. The label is yellow with black font. The label reads “Free Huey,” and in between the “Free Huey” it has the Black Panther symbol.

My work was in direct contrast with what the show [Empire] was representing just as the message of Curtis Mayfield was completely opposed to what the movie [Superfly] was glorifying. Just as the soundtrack did little to sway the masses as much as the movie did, I believe the same can be said about my work on the show. I am thankful to have been that other perspective. That is what I am proud of.  A voice to the contrary.

The "contrary" ideologues depicted by Lobyn include civil rights leaders, black revolutionaries and peace activists. 

Lobyn, Bob DylanLobyn, Bob Marley“I want the work [art] to represent the music and message of the record more than the person behind the message,” he says. “My work reminds me of when I go to church. People would focus more on the individual who brought the message than what the message was and how to make it a part of their life. I would like the imagery to be less about an icon and more about commentary, whether it be social, political, or just about every day silly things we go through on the planet.”

The Duke University Nasher Museum’s 2010 art exhibition, The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, covers virtually all aspects of art-making associated with vinyl and reconciles the old high versus low categorizations of art. Lobyn’s vinyl art project would have been at home among the art exhibited in this show and will undoubtedly find its way to future ones that engage this subject.

Lobyn, Jimi HendryxIn his catalog essay for The Record, curator Trevor Schoonmaker explains how the record resonated with 20th century artists and continues to do so with contemporary ones. His exhibition is a compendium of ways in which records embody cultural memory and meaning Lobyn, Lauren Hillthat is continually added to by each new record owner, each time a record is played. The exhibition explores how artists have recognized this inherent aspect of records and translated it through their own creativity and vision.

Lobyn, Vinyl DownpourSurveying the long  pedigree of visual art involving vinyl records, The Record demonstrates this art’s international scope and multifaceted expression (e.g., as artifact, metaphor, portrait,  transcendent object).

In his artist statement for The Record, Dario Robleto says, “…the vinyl record is more than a black disc on a turntable: it is inscribed, in its very substance, with the story of time and human life.”  Lobyn’s approach to art-making adheres closely to Robleto’s beliefs about the vital Lobyn, Soul Revolver (number 1 with a bullet)nature of vinyl recordings as signifiers of an age and Schoonmaker’s idea about the record’s ability to give us a sense of belonging while simultaneously transporting us.

Return From Africa in progress. View shows African continent shape of hairTwentieth century artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, and Jean Michel Basquiat, to name a few, are represented in The Record show as is 21st century vinyl artist Satch Hoyt whose Soul Time, 2005-09 and Celestial Vessel, 2009 use vinyl to create sculptural artworks that are different in appearance from Lobyn’s but engage a similar underlying cultural impulse to embrace meanings and associations signified by the record.

Empire actor Malik Yorba with Return From AfricaWith a dazzling facility for drawing, composition and precision assemblage, Lobyn demonstrates his own style and technique within the longstanding tradition of the record in visual art. His call to make art of the record is unusual for one of his generation, many of whom have never handled or listened to analog discs, while at the same time his aesthetic and cultural impulse to make art of records shows a continuum with the sensibilities of earlier generation artists.

Noting Robert Rauschenberg’s art for the cover of the 1983 Talking Heads LP, The Record catalog essayists Jennifer Kabat notes he (Rauschenberg) always wanted to “work in the gap between art and life.”  Lobyn’s creation finds its own resonant place in that gap.

Lobyn with self-portraitLobyn received a Creative Renewal Grant in 2014 from the Indianapolis Arts Council to re-engage dee jaying which remains an ongoing passion.  He is represented by E&S Gallery, Louisville, Kentucky and his work is in the collections of entertainers DL Hughley, Tom Joyner and other private collectors. Public and corporate institutions have also begun to collect his work including the Indiana State Museum Collection, the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System and Johnson Publications.

John Welch, Ph.D., is an art historian and museum educator who lives in Philadelphia.