Psychedelic Poster Artists
Lee Conklin is an artist and graphic designer best known for his psychedelic concert posters he created for the Filmore in San Francisco 1960’s and 70’s. His most iconic image is psychedelic portrait of a lion which was used as an album cover for Santana’s debut album. He designed posters for many bands including Santana, Cream, The Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, Yardbirds, Credence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly, Fleetwood Mac, and many more. Today many of these original posters are sold for thousands of dollars and are collected all over the world. Lee Conklin currently lives in Northern California and continues to make art.
Lee Conklin was born July 24th 1941 in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey and grew up Monsey, New York. “Lee was the sixth of seven children and graduated from Spring 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.“ (1).
Lee Conklin says, “I didn’t start out initially to be an artist, but while I was studying History and Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I took on the role of cartoonist for the college paper called the “Calvin College Chimes”. I met my wife Joy there, left school, got married and moved to Florida (1965 – 1966). The Army grabbed me and I cooked for a year in Korea. They let me out in 1967 and we moved to Los Angeles.
In L.A., I did some pen and ink work and some of it was published by the Los Angeles Free Press (remember “Don’t be a creep, buy a Freep”?), which was cool, and I read an article in Time about the “Summer of Love” and that San Francisco was becoming the center of the Universe for music and art and since I wanted to be a cartoonist, my wife and I decided to move up there to see what we could find.” (2).
The psychedelic and anti-war cultural movements in San Francisco were ignited in the early and mid-Sixties with the introduction of LSD from the merry pranksters with the super pure orange sunshine acid as well political protest. At that time LSD was legal and this incredible substance had a powerful influence on Haight-Ashbury San Francisco. A new form of art and music were emerging which was a clear departure from the music and art of the previous generations it was called psychedelic. Concert halls were having psychedelic music, posters and psychedelically informed audiences dancing in wild new ways. By 1967 LSD was illegal and thus the quality and quantity of LSD available declined but the art and music it inspired continued to be the most popular of the day. The press began running stories of Haight-Ashbury and thousands of young people poured into San Francisco looking for their tribe marking the end of the psychedelic revolution and the start of prohibition and wanderlust for the psychedelic youth. It was after this decline that Lee Conklin arrived in San Francisco and developed what would become the apex of his career.
Conklin recalls, “I heard about the Fillmore and that Bill Graham was hiring artists from the area to make posters for his upcoming shows, and so one Friday night I went there with some drawings and showed them to him. He must have liked what he saw because he asked me if I could do a poster over the weekend for the following week’s show! He chose one of the drawings I had already done and I spent the weekend doing all of the lettering.” (2).
“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.” (1).
Despite his self-proclaimed lack of experience in print his posters are compelling using vivid color, custom lettering, and rich with surrealist inspired psychedelia. These vintage posters were often hand rendered, and printed in limited editions so that very few originals of these prints remain in circulation today. He created 33 Posters for Bill Graham and the Filmore many of which are some of the finest examples of the psychedelic movement in design.
Lee Conklin continues his story, “Back in the day” I had no personal connection to my fellow poster artists and so no amusing tales. Fast forward to 2012, I find myself hanging out in a New York hotel room with Wes Wilson, David Singer, and John Seabury (Mouse was in the house as well, somewhere as were several other younger talented poster artists.)” (3).
”From then on for the next two years, I had a pretty steady gig doing posters for Bill and the Fillmore West (Ed. note – he did over 30 posters in 1968-69). At the same time, the Santana band was playing there pretty frequently and I was well aware of their music, both from performances and their demos, which received extensive airplay on FM radio in San Francisco. One day, Bill asked me to do a poster for a show that Santana was headlining and so, with a little inspiration from a Muse named Mary Jane, I remembered seeing a picture of a lion in a book of animal picture I had and used that image as the basis of my drawing. Even then, I knew that I was making art for future generations and so even though Bill usually liked posters in color, I detailed this one in pen-and-ink. I only made one image, and the next morning he told me that he was going to print is as it was, so he must have been happy with the results.”
“Santana also thought that the image was really great, so afterwards he contacted me and asked me to redraw the image for the cover of his debut record. Although the drawing I created really was not inspired by Santana, I guess that the details and the nature of the images impressed him and the people at the record label. My challenge has always been to subvert the poster form to whatever my muse insists on and then to convert my psychedelic experiences to any medium I’m working in. I made it my mission to translate my psychedelic experience into paper. Later on, in the early 70’s, I took acid and when I went to art class, all I could do was sit and stare at the teacher…LSD had little to do with my most-creative efforts (as a druggy, I am over-rated)!” (2).
Conklin says of psychedelics, “While Acid may have contributed some imagery boost, designing a poster while under its direct influence is not an option. Cannabis for me has been the most effective way to summon the muse… In my life, a kind of religious persecution that has kept us out of the mainstream.” (3).
Conklin and his wife Joy left San Francisco and traveled throughout Northern California, living in an old bread truck. They eventually crossed the country, settling in Middletown, NY, very close to the town where Conklin was born. It was here that they started a family. During these years, Conklin worked in a psychiatric hospital as a therapy aide. He continued his art work in his spare time and sometimes would show his art at some of the regional art fairs in the area. In the latter ’70s, the Conklin’s moved back to Northern California, living for many years in the Petaluma area, which has been a home to a number of the poster people. Conklin worked with for many years with trees and reforestation projects. (3).
By: Transpersonal Spirit