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Christopher Peterson Interview

by Alex Lenz

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If you were one of the lucky attendees of the Phish concert in Salt Lake City, UT on July 15, 2003, perhaps you picked up the limited edition poster (printing of 600) created specifically for the show by artist Christopher Peterson. A painter and illustrator hailing from San Francisco, Peterson has designed a large number of concert posters over the years, especially for Bill Graham Presents. Since 1995, he has conceived works of poster art for such artists as Phish, Willie Nelson, Brian Setzer, String Cheese Incident and Tracy Chapman to name just a few.

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In one form or another, Chris has been an illustrator for his entire career. After spending his adolescence growing up in Westport, CT, Chris traveled to Boston for his first year of art study at the Art Institute of Boston. After his first year of school, he made his way out to California and finished his schooling in illustration at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

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Suffering briefly through a few laborious and menial part time jobs, including printer, sporting good store employee and lackey for a bakery, Chris jumped right into the freelance world of art and illustration. His career path started him down the editorial road, working in New York City for the New York Times as his first, and second professional clients "Currently there are four kinds of work that I do: concert posters; concept art/storyboards for architects, products, stage, theater and advertising; paintings, fine art; and general purpose illustration for clients such as Pepsi, Heineken, Duracell, etc..." Regarding his entrance into the concert poster scene, Chris "went through the front door."

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During a mid-life crisis in 1991, Chris created a Paul McCartney piece to bulk up his print and illustration portfolio. He showed the piece to Arlene Owseichik, the art director of Bill Graham Presents, who liked his work enough to hire him for the BGP-130 Phish poster in 1995. Then, Arlene liked the Phish Syrup Can poster enough to hire Chris to create posters for John Hiatt, Taj Mahal, and then Elvis Costello... and the rest is history. He has been active in designing concert posters ever since.

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BGP liked Chris' Phish piece, and the band speaks highly of his first foray into concert posters, but the next time Phish rolled into the bay area, Phish management decided not to go with BGP for another poster. "Phish's management didn't want BGP to publish any more posters because they had plans to do a big line of their own merchandise, and they felt that BGP's commemorative posters would have the effect of diluting their market. Phish does not strike their own deals with venues in exchange for a small percentage of posters, which is partly why they didn't want BGP to publish any more posters. This is a real trend, although you would have to consult Phish's management to get the actual story."

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As a collector of Bill Graham posters, I took the opportunity to ask Chris about the limitations that Bill Graham Presents places on the artists working for them. His reply was fairly casual- after working with Bill Graham Presents (BGP) for so many years, he can essentially work within their limits with his eyes closed. Specifically, he remarked about certain size limitations, a few technical things and certain placement of lettering. BGP prefers the band lettering to be largest, with the date, time and venue information smaller. "They do have preferences as to how large or small some lettering items need to be, which I am well accustomed to now. In any given piece, however, my interpretation of these preferences will vary depending on what the image is, and how lettering fits in with it."

"I usually end up going through the process a couple of times with BGP before we are both satisfied with the poster... The best posters have a lot of impact- they read simply, like a postage stamp." We spoke at length about what's involved with the rendering of a concert poster. "Research is very important to me; research is germane to the spirit of the poster. With any poster that I work on, I want to link the poster to the specific event that it is intended for... I try to identify the band's identity with the city and venue that they're playing in. Also, I try to relate the poster to the times that we are living in." Chris went on to speak about the concepts that are suggested to him and how in order for a poster to have good impact, it must be successful on all levels. From aesthetic pleasure, to the information, to pleasing the promoters, it's not only art but it's a business science as well. According to Chris, working with Phish was like his normal poster design routine times ten.

"They [the Phish Organization] are really nice people to work with, they sent me 20 or so CD's, Phish stickers, etc... they really wanted me to get into it, more than the music itself. They take a very communicative and collaborative approach to poster work." Chris reveals a glimpse the story behind the new Phish poster.

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"The new poster was originally acrylic on watercolor paper. The glimpse into the Phish poster is really like this: When I did my original Phish poster in 1995, they told me Phish were smart boys from Vermont, so I immediately thought of a maple syrup can as a convenient vehicle for the lettering. Then I thought I could give it some visual tension by picturing an animal, other than a fish, so the most appropriate animal was a Vermont Hereford cow. It was the same thing with Salt Lake City. The alternate animal theme was successful the first time, and Salt Lake City provided a perfect opportunity to use it. If you drive through that area, there are some funky roadside attractions, each with a series of signs for miles, warning you of your proximity to it. The road sign in the poster says: "Next Right! See PHISH- IN THE WILD", and then you see the bison. It's about visual tension and a historical theme. Everything in it has a relationship to something pertinent. Yes, it's a rock poster, but it's also a reference to the region, to the great painter Charles Russell, to an endangered species, and the unique ripple in American culture created by the combination of this rock band and the windswept plain."

Chris listens to the artists while working on their posters. But his personal taste "...starts with the Beatles, their influences, and goes from there. It's a really long list. I tend to be attracted to the classic songwriters and rockers of my youth, and any music that triggers a feeling. Here's a short list of artists from my record collection: Beatles, Lyle Lovett, kd Lang, Sting, Police, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, Johnny A, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, Tim Finn, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Diana Krall, Diane Schurr, Glen Miller, James Taylor, Yes, Pretenders, Don Henley, Ricky Lee Jones, Dead (Grateful and otherwise), Cake, Mark Knopfler, Shawn Colvin, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Stephan Grappelli, Django Reinhardt.

Whatever Chris' personal tastes may be, he does not play favorites to musical talent. He is very professional and will work with most any band.

"As long as there is a comfortable business arrangement and the band has a unique quality, I work with them. That's my job."

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