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 into Hotel Cadillac, a notoriously seedy hotel building that sits vacant at the corner of Chestnut and Elm Street. “That place. It was-it was a wild time for a little kid,” Billy reflects. He described a front desk at the entrance of the building, and just past it was a cigarette machine mounted on the wall. “For some reason, I was very interested in that cigarette machine,” he says, “I thought it looked cool or something.” Past the cigarette machine was a small, shady bar area where Billy would witness other tenants and guests binge drinking and chain-smoking every day. “Growing up, my grandma and my dad were both alcoholics and I was in bars basically my whole life,” he continued, “so, it was kind of comforting to have one there.”

“I want people to feel comfortable even though they're looking at something that's not comfortable at all.”

While substance abuse is evident in nearly all of Billy’s work, Billy makes a conscious choice to portray these scenarios from the perspective of the most vulnerable; children. “A lot of the times when parents or families are addicted or abusive, they don't think about the other people in the situation who are growing up with that stuff, and how it can affect them mentally and change how they see other peoples’ families,” Billy says. “Like I remember growing up and staying at certain friends’ homes, and I'm like ‘Wow, you have a legit family. You guys sit at the dinner table together, and your dad comes home after work and hangs out with you,’ stuff like that.” Billy’s work offers a window into the lives of children who grow up in homes that are not as idyllic as that of his friends’. “I try to make artwork to show either young people, or people who have already grown up, that they're not alone in the things that they've experienced. I try to make it less scary to look at and think back on.”

This past June, Billy left his hometown of Rochester, New York to pursue a MFA at Lesley University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “There are so many people that truly love Rochester and never want to leave,” he remarks. But Billy’s relationship with his hometown is more complex, as it is for many others who grew up outside of Rochester’s southeast quadrant, in neighborhoods with frightening rates of poverty, homelessness, and addiction that far outweigh that of the national average. “Moving away is hard, but something clicks in my artwork. Separating myself from the physical pain of the memories helps me better create them visually.” Though Billy hopes to distance himself from the pain of his past, he does not intend to acquiesce to the comfort of routine, but rather, to continue to seek comfort in the uncomfortable. <<

View more of Billy Lyons’ work on his Instagram, @BillyTLyons, or website,