Billy Lyons: Re-Envisioning Memories Through Art

>>At first sight, Billy Lyons’ art appears to be bright and playful, a comical cross between Pablo Picasso-style cubism and 1990s Nickelodeon. But upon closer observation, the subject matter makes itself known. The green slime in the painting that once resembled Nickelodeon’s golden age now closer resembles the mucus of a sick child, and it is now apparent that the small object pinched between the woman’s fingers is, in fact, a crack pipe. These realizations come to the viewer the same way in which they would come to a child growing up in this environment, and Billy Lyons knows this firsthand.

Photographed by Marielle Scott, Assisted by Vincent Alban

The story behind many of Billy’s paintings takes place at a house on Child Street, located in a poverty-ridden neighborhood on the west side of Rochester. It was here that Billy witnessed drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and police raids. It was also here that Billy began making art. “I used to be watched by my neighbor, and he would always have a stack of coloring books,” he says, “I would follow the lines in the coloring books and it taught me how to make clean shapes at an early age.” These elements remain central to Billy’s work today.


Photographed by Marielle Scott, Assisted by Vincent Alban

“It's good to look back, and reflect, and then try to create the way that a memory made me feel on a canvas or a piece of paper.”

Billy’s art vividly encapsulates traumatic events that occurred throughout his childhood, but it also captures the emotions that he felt during those times. As is true of most adults, many of Billy’s earliest memories are blurry... and without reliable sources to recount what took place, the emotions that he felt during those times are all that is left. The paintings that fall into this category are distinguishable by their background. They have no discernible time or location, only a chaotic semblance of words, shapes, and colors, similar to the way people experience fragments of memory. “Usually, it all starts off with thinking of a memory from when I was younger,” he explains, “And then I start thinking about how it made me feel, and I try to create something that will make other people feel the same way that I felt.”


The paintings that illustrate specific events are painted “cleanly” Billy says since these memories are less blurry. The night Billy’s home was raided by police was just one event that lent itself to become subject to his art. What was to Billy, a childhood home, doubled as a trap house. In exchange for drugs, dealers were permitted to use the home at night. On one occasion, while in bed with his mother, Billy was awoken by a dealer busting into his mother’s room, clutching large bags filled with drugs. The man threw the bags towards her, quickly instructing her to hide them while the police began tearing through the home. The next time the door opened, it was with guns drawn, and flashlights cutting through the darkness of the room. An officer shouted, “Just a mother and child, all clear.” When the officers left, Billy’s mother removed the bags from beneath her nightgown and her child’s diaper.


After Child Street, came a series of various living situations, many of which were not ideal. “I’ve essentially moved every year of my life, for my whole life,” Billy says, “My parents would get evicted or have falling outs with landlords, stuff like that, so we would have to keep moving. I grew up kind of all over.” After one of many evictions, and a number of days spent homeless, Billy and his parents moved