Visual Arts » 3D

The Record-Breaking Artist

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Art has always come naturally to Walter Lobyn Hamilton, who has been creating works of art since he was a young boy.

“I used to watch television with my family, and I would be drawing at the same time,” he says. “I would go down to the library on Broadway Street and get the Eastbay magazines and usually the Nintendo magazines and draw from that, or I would be in school drawing the latest sneakers that I couldn’t afford that everybody else had.”

Walter Lobyn Hamilton's Malcolm X portrait uses actual recordings by the Civil Rights activist. His original technique incorporates various pieced-together shards of records that form the likeness of icons. - COURTESY OF WALTER LOBYN HAMILTON
  • Courtesy of Walter Lobyn Hamilton
  • Walter Lobyn Hamilton's Malcolm X portrait uses actual recordings by the Civil Rights activist. His original technique incorporates various pieced-together shards of records that form the likeness of icons.

Hamilton took three classes at Herron School of Art and Design after high school, but that’s as far as his “formal” training goes. He never thought he’d make a living as a full-time artist.

The universe, however, had other plans.

During his early twenties, Hamilton spent his days working as a direct care provider and his nights spinning records as a deejay at private parties and weddings. But that came to a screeching halt after injuring his leg.

Unable to get to his day job or his gigs as a disc jockey sent Hamilton into a tailspin. “I am an artist, but I always wanted to be a deejay,” he says.

So he confined himself to his duplex and withdrew from life. “People thought I was losing my mind,” says Hamilton. “I was very alone, very depressed.”

What they didn’t know -- neither did Hamilton, at that time -- is that he was heading toward a breakthrough.

One day while reeling over his situation, Hamilton became enraged. In a fit of anger and frustration, he went into his basement and started destroying the very thing that he loved: his vinyl record collection.

Soon, those circular, shiny black recordings, that he once held and cared for like a newborn baby, became shattered specks scattered across his basement floor.

While picking up the broken pieces from the mess he'd made, Hamilton had an epiphany.

“I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can turn this into something,’ “ he says. “Now, that sounds all jolly and fine, but that was the worst day ever.”

Hamilton transformed those jagged fragments into an eye-catching three-dimensional image of Jimi Hendrix, which sits above the fireplace inside his home.

The Muse of Miles Davis,  illustrates the more streamlined way that Hamilton currently creates his vinyl-styled portraits.  - COURTESY OF WALTER LOBYN HAMILTON
  • Courtesy of Walter Lobyn Hamilton
  • The Muse of Miles Davis, illustrates the more streamlined way that Hamilton currently creates his vinyl-styled portraits.

Using the vinyl shards, Hamilton began outlining Hendrix’s eyes, nose and lips, but it’s the musician’s hair that draws you in. The wild mane is layer upon layer of broken vinyl records in varying sizes, collaged together like a 1,000-piece puzzle.

That was in 2007, and it’s still the one that gives Hamilton the most satisfaction.

Since then, he has created a collection of 300-plus works (most in the image of famous musical or political icons), and garnered lots of attention, and a following among art galleries and collectors, including some celebrities.

Hamilton’s work has been featured on FOX Television’s hit show Empire (on episodes 7 and 11); is carried in three galleries (in Chicago, Miami and Louisville); and for the past three years, including this year, has sailed the oceans as part of nationally-syndicated radio host Tom Joyner’s annual Fantastic Voyage cruise, which raises money for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

This year, Hamilton had about 20 pieces onboard the cruise ship.

“You know, I’ve raised (more than) $30,000 for HBCUs through the Tom Joyner Foundation and my artwork,” says Hamilton, whose work starts at $2,200 and can take anywhere from hours to months to create. “I’m able to help keep colleges open, and I don’t even have a college degree. It feels good.”

Hamilton's very first vinyl masterpiece -- a Jimi Hendrix portrait -- remains above the fireplace inside his Indianapolis home. - COURTESY OF WALTER LOBYN HAMILTON
  • Courtesy of Walter Lobyn Hamilton
  • Hamilton's very first vinyl masterpiece -- a Jimi Hendrix portrait -- remains above the fireplace inside his Indianapolis home.

Although he’s gaining more notoriety through his art, Hamilton started out showing his work in the basement at Broadway United Methodist Church. And Hamilton, the man, stills comes across as humbly as his beginnings as an artist.

“I never believed in being a full-time artist, and when I say never, I mean never, ever, ever. Even now, it never enters my mind, at least not sustaining it,” says Hamilton, who is in fact making a living through his art.

“Even now I’m always like, ‘This is probably the last month I’ll be a full-time artist.’ But I think maybe that’s a motivating factor so I don’t stay complacent.

Hamilton still lives and creates in the same duplex in Indianapolis where he first started (actually, he now lives on the other side of the duplex). Walk inside the front door to his home and it’s the large-scale works of art that greet you.

There’s Malcolm X, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, among others, and rows of white canvases in different sizes resting against the walls.

His ideas come from his childhood, specifically poster art.

Hamilton repurposes tens of thousands of records in his vinyl works.  - COURTESY OF WALTER LOBYN HAMILTON
  • Courtesy of Walter Lobyn Hamilton
  • Hamilton repurposes tens of thousands of records in his vinyl works.

“All of these images from MLK to Malcolm X to Bob Marley, they were all posters on my wall when I was growing up,” says Hamilton. “I’m re-creating the poster art that I grew up on, I’m Just using a different medium.”

Hamilton often uses the recordings of the icons that he’s depicting to create the images. For instance, the large-scale Malcolm X piece was created using actual recordings from the Civil Rights activist. He also intertwines the album labels in his work -- sometimes it’s in the hair, in the body or near the bottom of the piece.

“Sometimes I use the actual recordings because people like to identify things very quickly, and it just helps with that identification,” says Hamilton, who turned 30 just yesterday (April 23).

“Some pieces I can’t do that on like the Louis Armstrong, because there was really no place to put it or it would have been off balance.”

Not all recordings however, are up for grabs. Some are deemed untouchable or too sacred to use. One of those is Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” on 78.

“I would say that I have broken up one of them (a “Strange Fruit” recording on 78) before and I felt very bad about that. That one is on the Tom Joyner cruise, and I hope they’re happy. If no one buys it, I want that one back,” Hamilton says, with a chuckle. Luckily, he scored another copy, which he vows to never destroy.

He also had second thoughts after breaking up the Malcolm X music -- a box set of records. “Now, I wouldn’t do that to any more original presses or rarities.”

There are also certain works that Hamilton keeps for himself.

“Like my first piece, my second piece, and I have my third piece (that I did out of 45s),” says Hamilton. “I keep certain things because I realize there’s historical significance -- a technical significance, a technical-making history. I want to keep some of the history.”

Hamilton stands next to Dark Fantasy, one of two works he created that appeared on the hit FOX Television show Empire. - COURTESY OF WALTER LOBYN HAMILTON
  • Courtesy of Walter Lobyn Hamilton
  • Hamilton stands next to Dark Fantasy, one of two works he created that appeared on the hit FOX Television show Empire.

It was those early works that Hamilton created in a style that can only be classified as freehand -- in which he pieced the vinyl together until it formed the image he was after. These days, he says, the work is more calculated designs using a blueprint, with less layering.

“But it’s still dope in its own way,” he maintains.

Still, Hamilton is moving back to his original way of creating, mainly because of the freedom and creativity that it provides.

He’s also going back to spinning discs in a full circle move, thanks to an Arts Council of Indianapolis Creative Renewal Fellowship he recently won. Hamilton will use his fellowship money to travel to some of the best record stores in the country and abroad. He believes this journey could possibly change the way that he creates.

“I see it possibly leading me away from letting the imagery lead the work, and letting the music lead the imagery instead. It’s kind of like that religious perspective. Getting back to the essence of the music and what does the music represent,” says Hamilton. “That’s exciting, but it’s also scary to me because there’s already a built-in psychology and market for identifiable figures, and I play off that.

“I’m very afraid of going to the next phase, but I’m forcing myself to go …”

Bravely, fans of his work will likely follow.

(From left to right) Off the Wall MJ and Return to Africa exemplify the 300-plus works that Hamilton has created since he began in 2007.  - COURTESY OF WALTER LOBYN HAMILTON
  • Courtesy of Walter Lobyn Hamilton
  • (From left to right) Off the Wall MJ and Return to Africa exemplify the 300-plus works that Hamilton has created since he began in 2007.

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