Stephen Byram is a lot more than an artist of CD covers, but the graphic designer has created work for some well known acts. He crafted the covers for the Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill,” Slayer’s “Reign in Blood,” and first two Living Colour records.
Byram, 57, of Guttenberg, is one of four local New Jersey artists who were featured at Suckerpunch Art Gallery, a new gallery space that opened last month in the Chambord factory building in the industrial southwest area of Hoboken. Suckerpunch, run by Wayne Martine and Mark Rosenthal, held its grand opening last month and included Byram’s work, among others, until July 9.
For the opening, Byram had a freestanding construction, a large painting, a color print, and a set of 20 drawings arranged in a grid on display.
Byram’s work is a dizzying assortment of drawings, typography, and texture.
Martin worked in artist representation and in marketing for CBS Records.
From Calif. to NYC
Byram was born in Oakland, Calif. After completing high school, he attended several community colleges before studying art and design at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
“I grew up in California in the ’60s, which was marked by car/surf culture at one end and hippie/counter culture at the other,” said Byram last week. “It was a very optimistic, naïve, experimental, stupid, wise, wasteful, fecund, excessive time – a great daunting place to grow up in and learn how to make a mess, good ones and bad ones.”
He said that this surf and hot rod culture had a visual style that attracted him as “a kid who was outgrowing comic books.”
Byram said that music-related art, which centered out of San Francisco, inspired him. While in school, he imitated the work of other artists, which led him to discover his own talent.
“During this time I developed a great passion for music as well, but lacked any musical talent, so I figured maybe I could do album covers,” said Byram.
“It depends on how you define graphic designer.” – Stephen Byram
“I ended up staying here,” said Byram. “There was a lot to do.”
When Byram arrived in New York City, he found music-related work quickly. The Beastie Boys’ album, which included the hit “Fight for Your Right,” was the first hip-hop record in history to crack the Billboard top 200.
In addition to the Beastie Boys and Slayer, Byram has designed packaging for jazz musicians like Tim Berne, Paul Motian, Uri Caine, and Dave Douglas in the past 20 years. He said he is particularly proud of his work for Berne’s Screwgun Records and for the Munich-based Winter & Winter/JMT label.
Byram said that he doesn’t get as many covers to design today because of the state of the music industry.
“These days, as far as big record companies are concerned, packaging for music is pretty obsolete,” said Byram. “Unfortunately, in their struggle to remain profitable, they frequently see the packaging as a necessary evil instead of an added value to the consumer.”
He said that whatever may replace packaging has yet to be decided on. He said that one option is creating CD covers that “move,” a photo-hologram-like concept that can go with live performance. He said that many well-known acts already take advantage of this, but as technology advances, smaller acts will be able to create similar covers.
Style of his own
Byram’s work is a dizzying assortment of drawings, typography, and texture, which makes it hard to define him just as a graphic designer, since the latter term sometimes conjures up the idea of sterile art.
“It depends on how you define graphic designer,” said Byram. “I would consider myself a heavily-fine art influenced, Dada-inclined graphic designer. I consider my work to be mainly figurative with the occasional expansion of that figure into an abstract landscape.”
He said that designing a cover starts with “personalities” involved and what Byram is thinking. Then he dreams up of visuals that complement the music.
Typography has always played a big part in his work, which he said stems from his love of comic books, race cars, and psychedelic posters as a child in California.
He said his commercial and fine art tend to differ, depending on whether he collaborates with other artists and photographers.
Presently, he likes finding debris and reusing it in his art, like wood and broken or discarded objects. He prefers creating art with glue, nails, screws, “bits of paint,” paper, graphite and pixels, when he uses his computer as media.
He said his work has matured over the years due to his experiences and convictions.
Hudson County is home
Byram, 57, has lived in Guttenberg since 1993, after moving from North Bergen with his wife Cindy. He said that they moved to the town because they liked the area and its proximity to New York City.
Byram said that in his free time, he enjoyes cooking, reading and traveling, but most of his time is spent creating art.
“Hudson County is a real rich mix of culture and people,” Byram said. “I find it constantly engaging and inspirational, sometimes maddening.”
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.