Art Rock: Jim Phillips

San Jose-born and Santa Cruz-bred iconic skateboard and rock graphic artist Jim Phillips is enamored with street style art, psychedelia, and the golden age of comics—and all of these influences show in his wide variety of work. For 15 years, Phillips was the art director at Santa Cruz Skateboards where he designed skateboard decks, tee-shirts, and advertisements. He got his start in rock art when he became the artist for one of Neil Young’s bands in 1977, and went on to design for the likes of The Jerry Garcia Band, Phil Lesh, Willie Nelson, and many others. Philips was once the art director for Maritime Hall responsible for some of San Francisco’s coolest rock posters at famous venues like the Fillmore. We really love the poster he did for a George Clinton show at Maritime Hall back in 1996. The piece led to a very interesting meeting with Clinton, and Jim Phillips tells us all about it for this week’s Art Rock.

The Live Buzz: How did you go about designing the poster for George Clinton? Did they ask you to or did you bring it to their attention?

Jim Phillips: I was art director for Maritime Hall at that time, and I was commissioning many of the famous rock poster artists of San Francisco like Mouse, Kelley, Moscosso, and many others to create the show posters. I had created the venue’s first Grand Opening poster, and then in-between the other artists I would assign myself one to create, or if an artist flaked out on me I would take care of it. I’m not sure which case this one was, but I was fairly busy also doing Bill Graham presents and Fillmore posters simultaneously.

LB: What was the inspiration behind the artwork? How did you come up with the concept?

JP: At that time I was making every attempt to develop new imagery while upholding the traditions set forth by the revolutionary art movement of psychedelic poster art, which drew heavily from Art Nouveau and neoclassical Jugendstil rendered with colorful optical twists involving unique hand lettering. To this end I became intrigued and even obsessed with actresses from the silent screen era of Hollywood of the late 1880s through the early 1900s. One of the most beautiful silent screen actresses was Barbara Lamar, and I derived this painting from her screen images, and combined colorful light show elements and the artistic flair of psychedelic lettering. My goal was to hide or embed my lettering into the composition so as not to interfere with the primary image, and you can see how my hand drawn feather lettering accomplishes this. One interesting note was that over the next few years after creating the poster, which became one of my more prominent posters of the series, I never heard anyone recognize my model – Miss Lamar – and I attributed that to the liberty I took with her portrait, having no real interest or need for an accurate portrayal. One day I was doing an interview for a young reporter for a Japanese magazine, and when I showed this poster she immediately said, “Oh, Barbara Lamar!” I was astounded, and told her how no one had ever recognized my model, that I knew of. I asked how do you know Barbara Lamar? She nodded coyly, “I study your culture.”

LB: Did you ever get the chance to meet the band?

JP: It’s an amazing story that I will have to keep somewhat obscure. As art director I often visited the star performers in the green room. On this night I was unaware where the George Clinton band was holed up until my good friend Professor Poster informed me of a room in the massive Maritime Hall building where they were relaxing after their fabulous show. I was excited to meet George and I couldn’t wait to ask him how he liked my poster. We knocked and several huge guys let us in and the Professor introduced me to George Clinton. I said, “Hi I’m the art director here and I did tonight’s poster!” George looked at me funny and asked, “What poster?” I said, “You haven’t seen the show poster?” He said, “No…” So I said that I would get one and be right back. I ran up to the office where one of the venue’s managers kept the stack of 50 press sheets that they made me sign for each poster printing. No one was there so I grabbed two sheets and ran back to the floor with Clinton’s room. I thought I was doing a service for the Hall by making sure George received a few posters, or in this case uncut press-sheets, which included the postcards and tickets along side the poster. I gave Clinton the poster sheets and he loved them. We chatted awhile and then I went back to the office. The manager was there and from my haste he could see that the posters were disturbed. He said he had counted them and two were missing, and if I knew who would have taken them. I thought I was on good solid ground having performed my good deed of getting George some posters before he left for the night, so I freely admitted that I had taken them to give to George, and waited for the appreciation for my noble efforts. The manager came unglued and began yelling at me and accused me of stealing them. I was crushed, and tried to explain how George didn’t get to see our beautiful poster of his show, but I was cussed at and in my frustration I cussed back. I was shoved, and I shoved back. I was pushed against the door which broke open and I fell out into a room where about a dozen people were apparently listening and I looked up to see the shocked looks on everyone’s face, including some friends from Japan who Dolly and I brought to the show. I tried to regain my composure and calmly told the manager that I would replace the sheets from my own stash at home, and left. After that things were rocky there for me, and it was the beginning of the end. There can be a lot of stress around concert hall operations from time to time, there’s a lot of money involved with putting on a show and I wasn’t the only one to get verbally or physically pushed around. So my creativity tended to lean towards the Fillmore posters where my art sensitivities often got politely run roughshod but at least it didn’t get physical.

LB: What other bands have you designed for?

JP: I was band artist for a Santa Cruz band Neil Young formed in 1977 called the Ducks, and other notable acts were Jerry Garcia Band, Rat Dog, Phil Lesh, Moby Grape, Willie Nelson, Leftover Salmon, The Tubes and many others.

LB: What’s your design process like?

JP: From the 60s through the late 80s I used pen and ink for most everything, creating all my own lettering from scratch. For color I mostly used Rubylith overlays although for a few posters I developed a blue line plate system for inking red, blue and yellow which I would mix into full process color. After 1992 I began using a computer for my color separations but I still drew everything in pencil first, and scanned my drawings. Originally I used pen and ink for the key lines but eventually I dropped that and developed my coloring directly from the pencil sketches, using light and shadow to carry delineation of form. I continued creating unique hand lettering but as computers proliferated the technique was less and less valued as many people assumed it was just computer fonts with special distortion software, a click instead of my actual countless hours of labor. This has been a common theme with old world craftsmanship falling by the side of the road while click art rips through on the super highway.

LB: Who do you consider your biggest influence(s)?

JP: I have been deeply influenced by the hundreds of amazingly talented comic book and comic strip artists from the Golden Age of Comics, because I grew up before television and entertained myself that way. In many of my posters, as I have said before, I tried to find new avenues within traditional art forms of psychedelic posters, especially during the advent of computers when I had the greatest access to full color printing. I hold my friends Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, and Victor Moscosso as the kings of rock posters.

LB: Are you interested or active in other artistic mediums?

JP: 98% of my fans are skateboarders, and I’m very comfortable within that genre. Skateboards are rolling silkscreened canvasses that are exhibited in streets instead of the confinement of stuffy art galleries. I was art director for fifteen years at Santa Cruz Skateboards starting out on the first dawn of the urethane wheel revolution that occurred in 1974. I’m still active in the skate and surfing markets.

Read Jim Phillips’ complete history in his book: The Surf Skate and Rock Art of Jim Phillips, and check out his rock poster history in The Rock Art of Jim Phillips, by Schifferbooks.com

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