Lee Conklin: Mindbender

Lee Conklin: a Mind-bending, Colorful, and Psychedelic Man (Part 1)

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

In the 1960s there were many parallels to past revolutions. The Boston Massacre was replaced by Kent State, Sit-ins for Civil Rights peacefully replaced horrific battles, and the Common Man of Payne became known as a hippie.

The Lush forests, rolling vineyards, and Golden Gates rising over the ocean sprang a voice in the wind...

For a new generation that was once again echoing the sound of revolution a new townhall was needed to gather. Those halls in California had names like the Fillmore West, Avalon Ballroom or The Matrix. People would meet there to discuss, ingest, and dance their night away. The music and ideas that spoke to the audience galvanized an artistic movement and carried on the fire.

One man who helped create this forum was named Bill Graham, the owner of The Fillmore. Graham needed a way to tell people about what was happening though, and also to announce the next great band to speak to everyone. He turned to some of the local artists of California for his symbols and billboards.

Lee Conklin, one of those artists, advertised a revolution visually and created art that stands the test of time. Next summer some of his original 1960s concert posters will be displayed at the Tweed Museum(More information will be coming soon).

Interchanging images with a freedom that outpaced Dahli; Conklin’s work will be realized over centuries yet to come. So who is Lee Conklin, what experiences have affected his art, and what can he share with us today?

Lee Conklin was born July 24, 1941 in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and grew up mostly inMonsey, New York. His dad was a house builder, and his mom was a nurse. Lee was the sixth of seven children and graduated fromSpring Valley High School in 1959. Influenced primarily by the pen-and-ink mastery of Heinrich Kley and Saul Steinberg, he found art as a way of expression.

I asked Lee about growing up in New York and then his time attending college inMichigan if he ever misses the Northern climate?

"New York, yep, Michigan, yep, you must mean me,” Lee joked. “I miss the summer thunderstorms, that’s all. No plans to pass that way again, but no plans not to either. I spent some time in Michigan but did not leave my heart or any other organs there. In fact that’s where I got my better half. The truth is that gravity still sucks, only Love can save us. Find it, hurry."

Lee did not initially pursue a career in art. Instead, he began studying philosophy and history while attending Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While there he met his wife Joy, left Calvin in 1965, and married her in 1966. They lived in Floridafor a while, before Lee was drafted into the army and served for a year as a cook inKorea.

He was released from active duty in May of 1967, at which point he found himself inLos Angeles. While there some of his pen and ink illustrations were published by the Los Angeles Free Press. When he was looking for work as a cartoonist he read in Time Magazine an article about the poster artists and music scene in San Francisco. He and his wife decided to relocate there.

The first art I ever saw of Lee’s was when I was 18 years old. An old hippie and his mom moved to my hometown from San Francisco and brought with them these old postcards. There were three, but they were very pricey. One had a big chunk missing out of it, another was cut into an egg shape, and the last had tons of detail and a list of future shows on the back. I had thought for many years it was for a show atBerkeley, but when I asked Lee about it many years ago he corrected me saying in an email, “Thanks for the hoopla - confusion, “Berkeley Barn”? You got the right artist? No wonder you think I'm so hot… “The Barn in Rio Nido”, perhaps.”

In 1968 Lee and his wife found themselves in San Francisco right after the 'Summer of Love'. Lee began doing a series of posters for Bill Graham and the Fillmore West.

In the book, The Art of the Fillmore, Lee tells about his first meeting with Bill Graham.

"It was a Friday night in February. I went into the Fillmore with my drawings, and Bill (Graham) just liked what he saw. He (Bill) needed a poster done that weekend for the following week’s show, so I went to work adding lettering to a drawing I had previously done - one that he especially liked.”

BG101 is that first poster Lee did. Drawn and printed true to its original ink and pen, the poster showed two people embracing in a closeness that extends to clasped hands instead of lips. The evening’s moon watches down on the scene and flowers are borne from marching birds in the bottom.

Up until then, Fillmore images had gained fame using colors and words in all sorts of styles and shapes. Lee used the images to express new ideas and take the mind where it hadn’t been previously. He went on to draw and paint 33 more posters for the Fillmore series alone. Wes Wilson, Bonnie MacLean, and David Singer are the only artists who have contributed more to the Fillmore and Bill Graham.

A great artist sees things around them and interprets it to others. Lee took the love, psychedelia, drugs, and mind-bending conscience to create advertisements for an experience. Among the many bands he painted posters for include: Cream, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Buffalo Springfield, Sly and the Family Stone, The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Steve Miller Band, Jefferson Airplane, Jeff Beck, Yardbirds, Country Joe and the Fish, Iron Butterfly, Fleetwood Mac, and many more. Today many are sold for thousands of dollars and are collected all over the world.

Lee Conklin arrived in the mecca of hippidom just a bit too late.

"I arrived in San Francisco in November of 1967 after being detained by the U.S. Army,” Conklin said. “So I missed the Summer of Love… I guess it was Utopia, but unsustainable. It was in fact a far different world than I had known before my stint in olive drab purgatory (at least it wasn't Hell; just Korea). There were still more angelic smiles than I had ever experienced anywhere, more music, and artistic behavior generally. But War and my growing awareness of toxicity in the mainstream culture (greed, injustice, environmental degradation, etc.) were bricks that kept me from floating away. Now they are boulders.”

So back in the swinging 1960s what was the wildest party Lee attended?

“A peace demonstration at SF Civic Center," Conklin said. “There were plenty of nudes, not much sex, but lots of love. Oh lost and by the wind grieved ghost."

When it finally came time for me to get married, just six days shy of my 30thbirthday, there was only one thought that popped into my head when my soon-to-be wife asked what the programs should look like. I imagined Lee Conklin, the famous Fillmore poster artist, designing an amazing concert poster-like artwork for the cover. This would be one crazy thing to ask a famous artist to do, but really amazing if it could get done.

Luckily I convinced him to do the job for an amazingly low fee, but when it came in the mail a month later I was disappointed at first. It didn’t look like a concert poster and appeared to just have our names scribbled on the front.

I looked at it for a few minutes, and then the genius began to emerge. Our names were actually in the shape of a dove, and it was in our wedding colors of blue and orange. The piece was elegant, yet it had everything I really wanted despite my own preconceived ideas. What other artist could do that?

On our honeymoon we travelled to meet Lee at his home in Columbia, California, way up in Yosemite. While there we were shown drawings and art that truly was life changing. We also were presented with a gift, a larger version of our wedding artwork.

Most people recognize Lee’s work from his poster that later became the cover for one of Santana’s greatest albums. Known to collectors as BG134, it was advertising a show for Santana and The Grateful Dead. Utilizing pen and ink, the bands' names are centered around a drawing of a lion. The people concealed in the image are part of what makes this work so outstanding. The deeper one looks, the more that can be seen.

After a poster was drawn or painted it had to be brought to a printing press where colors were laid on top of each other to create the piece. The colors that were chosen became an art in itself. Depending on the mixture and concentration of the inks the overlay process would directly lead to the outcome of the piece.

"I consider myself a primitive when it comes to overlays,” Conklin said. “I had scant experience or training in graphic technique when I got my first poster gig (BGP101). Rick Griffin had such great control of color design by using blue line prints of his drawing to make complex displays of color. I wish I had learned his secret sooner, I would have copied him for sure. But now it’s archaic. I never quite knew what I was doing. I never knew what colors I would use till I picked them off the printers chart. No mock ups, or color comps. Is it just me or is history accelerating?”

In a computer world today these issues are non-existent.

“I think there may be a prejudice against digital media. It sounds so easy, "computer generated" and it is true that now anyone can produce professional looking graphics. My challenge has always been to subvert the poster form to whatever my muse insists. No matter what the medium. I always resented the tedium of cutting overlays for colors. Colorizing is a lot more fun nowadays. The hard part of digital is all the choices available. It takes at least as much time for me to design a poster on PC as on paper. I feel lucky to have had it both ways.”

Over the last few years Lee Conklin has done rock posters for the BGP New Fillmore series for bands such as Zero and Abraxas. He has also done pieces for the New Family Dog series featuring performers like Etta James.

Due to the popularity of his work, Lee gave away all of the early Fillmore series posters allotted to him. He does have a few 60's posters from the Fillmore era and other events for sale on his website. He also does original works and other items for sale on his website: www.leeconklin.com

Lee Conklin is not only an amazing artist, but he’s also a great man. He takes time to reflect and speak with people about who he is and what he has done. Art is usually a hobby that rarely receives the financial rewards it gives to the viewer. Lee joked that, "Only poor people like my art. I'm bragging, not whining. (The only good presidents are dead presidents). Make art not money.”

What advice does Lee have for artists today?

"I don't remember a time before my compulsion to make images got started. There was no option for me but Art. Advice to artists: Live simply, keep your tools handy, and ignore advice." And another bit of advice, "Don't follow leaders, and watch out for parking meters etc."