June 7, 2018
If you’re a Phish fan, then you know Jim Pollock’s work—his graphics have defined the Phish experience ever since the beginning. We had a chance to talk to the iconic poster designer recently about his decades-long collaboration with the band, the things that continue to inspire him as an artist, and his designs for our latest Phish-inspired concoction, It’s Ice… Cream.
How did you first get to know the guys in the band?
I went to school with them at Goddard College [in Vermont]. Page and I showed up at Goddard the same year. After leaving the University of Vermont, Trey and Fishman ended up at Goddard as well. We all were going to this very alternative school that doesn't have grades…
Did you guys find yourselves collaborating early on?
I drew cartoons at Goddard. We'd do newsletters and stuff, and then once they started forming their band I would make posters for them to play up in Burlington, say, and stuff like that. And then I ended up leaving Goddard and going to Chicago and finishing my degree at the Art Institute of Chicago. But those guys continued to ask for art even after I left. And they would crash on my floor when they played bars in Chicago and whatnot. We just kept in touch.
What's it been like working with them over the years?
It's amazing. I've gotten to do more than I ever expected. My original idea was to become some type of cartoonist, some kind of comic or strip comic artist. I was very influenced by underground comics like R. Crumb and the stuff out of the Haight-Ashbury scene. Anyway, I was doing a daytime job and working on posters and merchandise at night. And then I got turned on to making linoleum prints, and I started hassling [Phish] management about doing posters using that style. It took them a little while but finally at UIC Pavilion in 1998, I brought a whole bunch of linoleum-print posters to their merch booth, without even asking them. Just told them to sell them. That's what started it. I started just doing these linoleum-print posters for them pretty much full-time after 2000.
How do you and the band decide on poster designs?
I usually send a few ideas, and then we just kind of explore one and approach it that way. It's like a back and forth. Now I print all my stuff. Or I print a lot of my stuff. I started printing on a bookbinding press, which is basically something you would glue a bunch of paper together to make a book. I used that to create prints, and then moved on to a Washington Iron Hand press from the 1890s, and now I'm printing on a Vandercook from 1955. They're all non-electric hand presses.
What do you like about the old hand presses?
Well, I have a degree in computer science and I know how to program. But when it comes to art, I like getting my hands dirty a lot more. I've had a lot of physical labor jobs over the years, and I think it's a really good balance for my mental and physical health, to be able to do the carving, printing, designing, all of it.
Can you tell us some of your favorite memories of working with the band?
Really, it’s just about having this really long relationship with the band and the fans. I've gotten to know a lot of people who have collected my work over the years. People have helped me sell my work or get other gigs. It's just this amazing network of people.
I love printing on site at their shows, using my bookbinding press. And I believe that's fed people's understanding of my process, which then in turn fed their interest in my work. And I'll be doing that this summer as well. Again. It started in '96, I mean, it's crazy.
Do you have any favorite posters?
I really like the Camden one. But my work has changed over the years, and the fans are very encouraging... If I'm trying something new, they're always behind me. It's amazing. But, you know, the new Ben and Jerry's print is one of my favorites.
It’s one of ours too! Could you talk more about your work on that?
We had such success with the Baker's Dozen flavor. So I started going farther with the fish people I draw. I feel like it's an extension of that original collaboration that we had. It was a challenge trying to mix the Ben and Jerry's and the waterwheel, and stuff like that, but I like challenges.
I like the piece because it's very simple. I like the blues and thought I'd take advantage of the “It’s Ice” theme. It's like a crazy scene of some ice truck driver, climbing in ice. An ice mountain or something? I don't know where this stuff comes from.
What still excites you when you get up in the morning? What do you still want to make?
I want to make a lot of things. I just like to make things, I guess. Fortunately, over my long career, I've been able to create a environment in which I can create posters. I actually just got a CNC machine and I'm experimenting with some stuff using that. It's just a matter of feeding some kind of art-making monster.
I want to keep doing the posters. I really like the whole process that I've created here. But yeah, I seem to be going in this new direction that's almost three dimensional and actually kinetic. I'm a big science fan. I've become very enamored with science and with my background and abilities using technology, I think I can create some interesting things that might not be on a piece of paper.
OK, we have to ask: What’s your favorite Ben & Jerry's flavor?
You know, I do like Phish Food a lot.
That's a good answer! So, what tops your list of Phish songs or albums?
I always say “The Wedge.” But I don't know, there's so many great songs. I love dancing to “Steam” a whole lot. There's some really good dance songs and “Twist,” and, I don't know. The list goes on. It's a great dance band, really. That's the joy of this right now. Getting together at the shows, and just enjoying ... it's really a lot of fun. And those guys are having a ton of fun, too.
You mentioned joy: How important is it for you to feel that in your work?
I feel like if you keep going forward when you get older you just try and go in directions that most feed you. I'm 53, gonna be 54 this year. A lot of people who are my peers look at me still going to Phish shows and they're like, "Why?" And I just try to explain it. It's a feeding, it's amazing, I get to make art for these nice people!
And what do you think about the idea that you're bringing joy to fans, by doing the work that you're doing? How does that make you feel?
Makes me feel great. When I started this I wanted to just make posters and I assumed that people would just put the posters up using thumbtacks in their dorm room, or whatever. And now, over time, now it's like an actual investment, and they frame it and they put it on their walls, and they tell me about it. That's just an amazing thing to know, that people are putting your work on their walls and sharing it with their friends. It's an amazing feeling. Like I said, I got into this wanting to be a comic book artist, but geez, I got back something that's even more valuable.
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