Brooklyn artist and designer Kevin Lyons has always worked at the intersection of art, culture, and music. In his latest solo exhibition, Baker’s Dozen, Lyons has partnered up with the team at Detroit’s Inner State Gallery/1xRUN to create an entirely new body of work showcasing his signature monsters, as well as a unique take on his own donut characters which pay homage to the late, great Detroit producer J Dilla. Music always finds a way into Lyons work, so it’s no surprise that he found inspiration for his newest project from the sounds of Detroit. We caught up with Kevin while he was in Detroit to discuss Baker’s Dozen, including the influences for the show, the beginnings of his monsters and much more. Read on for our full interview and be sure to snag a piece from Baker’s Dozen at 1xRUN right here while you still can. . .
Kevin Lyons: First and foremost, I tried to think of something that really would be fun to work on. Detroit is such a strange, amazing, quirky place. I wanted to try and capture a little of each. Because it’s Detroit and we just came off of Murals In The Market there was a certain sense to do something that had some connection to the city itself. For the mural festival, I did a mural on Gratiot Avenue that paid homage to all of these iconic jazz musicians who were born and bred in Detroit.
Those included a few hip-hop heads that continued the Motor City jazz tradition like Karriem Riggins and of course, J Dilla. As I painted each day I listened to a lot of J Dilla’s recordings, whether it be for Slum Village, with Madlib, De La Soul, or his solo stuff. So I was in a certain mindset already. J Dilla was in my head, bouncing around in there as I started to conceive of my show. On the mural itself, I featured Dilla as a donut, referencing his iconic “Donuts“ album. I often draw donuts mixed in with my Monster characters. So the thought was to combine these two cultural elements in a creative way. That became the cornerstone of the show itself with what I am calling the “Donuts” Wall.
The guys at 1xRUN had been encouraging me to do a Monster cut-out figure for a while. So instead of just doing my normal, typical Monsters, we thought a wall-mounted wood donut character would be an interesting art piece. And with the Dilla “Donuts“ inspiration, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Graphically it looked fun and simple, and it gave me a great base for color and various mediums. So we took the main wall and made this a cut-out “Donuts” Wall.
1x: How exactly were the donuts made and created? Are they each completely hand done and one of a kind?
Lyons: Well, I really wanted to take full advantage of my mini artist in residency, and use all of the amazing skills and talents of the crew here in Detroit. So the team here at 1xRUN cut three different donut shapes out of premium-grade plywood. Then I just went at them with all different materials. Each one is a combination of aerosol and acrylics, drips, and hand painting, all with different painting techniques and color combinations. We silkscreened three colors on top: a fill in, sprinkles, or frosting. Then we did the line work that turns it into the character. So each one is totally unique. We made a group of 31 donuts to represent the 31 tracks of the classic Dilla “Donuts” album. Each donut is named after a track on the album and they are all hung in sequential order.
1x: What’s the significance behind donuts for you personally?
Lyons: Donuts are something that I’ve been drawing for a very long time. Ever since the Monsters came around, the donuts kind of appeared as well. I first started doing the Monster characters for my two daughters. My youngest daughter is obsessed with the look, the taste, everything about donuts as a whole. She’d often make me draw her donut dudes when she was little. As a natural result of this, I would end up including a donut in a lot of my Monster compositions. They are funny, round, goofy little guys. She just loves the whole aesthetics of donuts. It made me see them the exact same way. There really is something very, very friendly about being a donut.
1x: For those not familiar with the now classic J Dilla album, “Donuts” and it’s significance, what about that album had an impact on you?
Lyons: When I was in art school from 1988-92, De La Soul’s “Three Feet High and Rising” had just come out, and then came A Tribe Called Quest. You had Gang Starr with DJ Premier and Pete Rock. You had Stetsasonic doing “Talkin’ All that Jazz.” The Beastie Boys “Paul’s Boutique” come out at the very same time as that De La Soul album, and all of these albums were so laden in amazing jazz samples. Packed with jazz and funk and reggae references, beats, sound bites. It was the very height of sampling. And it was a really important time for me creatively. Those albums became the soundtracks to my early days as a designer and an image maker. I was finding my way in the world and visually trying to develop some sense of my own style – my own approach.
1x: Tell us about the three different donut characters that we have here.
Lyons: I did three variations because I thought it was a nice mix. They are three of the main characters that I do: the sullen eye dude, the “I’m up to something” kinda dude, and then the more kinda cutesy relaxed, mellow dude.
1x: What about the rest of the show? You have a lot of other work and drawings in this show aside from the Donuts…
Lyons: The rest [of the show] centers around this “Monster Party” that I continue to do, which is a pattern, or a group shot of my Monsters celebrating, or partying, or protesting, or rioting, or whatever the case may be. I wanted to experiment using all of the talent that 1xRUN has to offer in terms of silkscreeners and artists that are here. People who are really good at technically printing or using materials. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to use the studio here and do a little mini-residency where I’m doing something new and making one-of-a-kind Monster parties, versus doing a serial edition of 100 digital or silkscreened prints. These pieces in this show are much more exclusive and much more individually driven. Each piece is truly unique unto itself.
1x: What are some of the elements of these pieces that you tried to approach differently with this show?
Lyons: I really wanted to formally move on how I approached drawing these characters. When I first began drawing the Monsters, they were very character driven. They were graphic. They were black outlines with bright colored fills. They were harkening back to the age of childhood TV and animation that I was so influenced by. Going forward I wanted it to be more of a one of kind, more subtle, less black outline type of thing. Soften up the contrast. So here at Inner State I’ve been playing with more watercolors, washes, screen prints and transparencies. This was a good chance to formally move those along. So the Monster’s look and feel is much more hand-done, more worked on and layered up, less of a quick outline with a joke attached to it. It feels much more like you’re looking at a fully realized piece of art versus a quick graphic.
The monsters are all self portraits of me in some way. They all have my personality in them. They’re all screaming, or relaxed, or raging against the machine. Whatever it is that they do, they are all aspects of my own personality. How I configure them and draw them is very much like like I’m giving each one a personality.
1x: What were you doing before the monsters stylistically?
Lyons: I was doing mainly graphic design. I was taking hip-hop quotes and doing a lot of hand typography. Some of it would be silkscreens over photographs, lots of concept work, painting on album covers. Things like that. It was primarily words and a little bit of imagery, but it was usually sampled imagery – a photograph or a graphic or a logo rip off. Some take on that. For me, my Monsters made it possible to break away from design by prescription. It was really interesting to all of the sudden have something that was unique, and that I could do for other people and they would want me to do it, versus being a creative director, an art director or a designer, when you are basically told what to do. Whereas when you do “art” or personal work, in this case, these characters, it changes the whole way people approach you. When you create something original, it has no rules. Clients go from prescribing a project to simply asking me to do me. It really freed me up.
1x: So were you an art director right out of college? What was your time like in art school?
Lyons: No. I went to film school at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). It was so much fun and I met so many great people that I still work with today. After that I went to New York City and worked for Nickelodeon for 2 1/2 years. I loved the experience. There wasn’t a lot of film work there, so I started doing music flyers and album covers – returning to my first love, graphic design. I didn’t love the idea of doing design in school. It seemed really boring as an 18 year old. So I did film and animation to have more fun and learn new stuff. Then when I got out every job, including Nickelodeon, always fell back on my design abilities. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Plus I was good at it and really enjoyed it.
There was this party in New York called Giant Step. It went for over ten years straight. It’s still going in some form. It was this after hours party that basically was the height of the acid jazz movement in New York City. I did the logo for it, and the fliers, and I would paint live behind the musicians. I would be painting and collaging behind Guru, Nice N’ Smooth, MC Solaar, The Roots, Pharaoh Sanders, Digable Planets, Roy Ayers, Massive Attack and so many others. It was insane for me at such an early age. It really got me started in the independent aspect of New York design culture. I didn’t have to do work at a traditional design firm or anything like that. I just did my own thing. It allowed me to meet a lot of cool individuals. Opened lots of doors.
1x: Let’s talk a bit about your background, what place did art have in your early on in your life?
Lyons: My parents were hyper educated, but not necessarily “into art.” As a kid I was exposed to what everybody else my age was exposed to: Sesame Street, The Muppets, Garfield, Warner Brothers, Bugs Bunny, Hanna-Barbera. These are all influences that I carry with me to this day. A lot of my characters are derivative of those, consciously or unconsciously.
1x: So where did music begin to fit in for you?
Lyons: As a kid in high school there was alternative music, like The Smiths, stuff like that. Any kid that had a little bit of angst back then listened to The Clash, The Ramones, The Talking Heads as they were all anti-establishment bands. They weren’t your traditional pop. Then I got into punk pretty hard with bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains. I was huge into Bad Brains. Then one day I’m in the punk section of a local record shop and I see an album by a group called Public Enemy, and I just thought they must be a black punk band like Bad Brains, so I bought the album. That album, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” changed my whole shit up. It was my gateway into hip-hop and altered my life in so many ways. To me hip-hop was taking over where punk left off. It was anti-establishment. It was angry. There was lots of energy. I was a young kid. I thought I was going to go up against the world and do a bunch of revolutionary shit, fight the power and everything else. I was an 18-year old kid transitioning from punk into hip-hop and wanting to make some sort of mark on the world.
1x: So then through hip-hop you then got into jazz?
Lyons: Yeah, I did, through all of the sampling. With hip-hop they were pulling all these Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane samples. Blue Note Records. James Brown. Lonnie Liston Smith. Grover Washington Jr. Quincy Jones. Lou Donaldson. Freddie Hubbard.
1x: Do you remember the first jazz album that really resonated with you?
Lyons: John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” It is the closest thing to church for me. Close to a higher power.
1x: Were there any live shows that made any impression on you or was it mostly studio stuff?
Lyons: For live shows that wasn’t until when I got to college. In high school it was some hip-hop shows, but it was smaller bands. I remember going to see groups like 2 Live Crew, Ice-T and The Meat Puppets. They were big concerts, because it was the era of the big ticket. Def Jam tours. Stuff like that.
Even during college I was a bit of a workaholic, and I would just listen to music all the time because it was always the background to my work. I became this sampler, because I’m a designer I always need a bit of content to work from. So I would use hip-hop lyrics for my inspiration for my pieces, t-shirt designs and everything. It’s not just the beats. I love words like “bubblegoose down” and “ski goggles.” Those words are really fun to draw.
1x: What else do you have in the works as 2016 wraps up?
Lyons: From here I go to Paris for a project with Colette and Mr. Men & Little Miss. I am also working on a project related to the NY Knicks through Los Angeles-based Monorex. Plus I am launching a t-shirt line of my Monsters…called Natural Born Monsters.
Kevin Lyons was interviewed in Detroit at the 1xRUN Studio by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba. Pietro has previously interviewed Ricky Powell, Doze Green, Fred Armisen, Janette Beckman, Leni Sinclair and Shepard Fairey among others for 1xRUN. Follow him @pietrotruba