Nels Jacobson bringing rock poster art to Arthaus Projects

Since the 1960s, gig posters have been revered and collected as valuable in their own right, apart from the performances for which they were created. More than just publicizing an upcoming concert, gig posters have taken on a life of their own and have become iconic, singular pieces of art.

Arthaus Projects has announced the opening of “Paper, Pigment & Rock Performances,” a new exhibition showcasing the rock poster art of Nels Jacobson. The exhibition opens at 6 p.m. Friday, and is on display until June 29.

Jacobson has been researching, writing about, and creating rock poster art for almost 40 years. For as long as he can remember, Jacobson has had an interest in visual art; whether it be graphic design, sculpture or photography. Although he has had the good fortune of visiting some of the world’s great art museums over the years, he has had no formal art training.

“English literature, philosophy, and then law were my areas of major focus in school,” he said. “So to the extent I’ve achieved any discernible level of competence in creating rock posters, I imagine it’s attributable to trial and error, persistence, and probably osmosis – after carefully studying the work of poster artists I admire.”

For Jacobson, it was his interest in music that inspired him to start creating posters. Born and raised in Chicago, he gained an appreciation for rock, jazz, and blues – the music of Muddy Waters, the Butterfield Blues Band, Buddy Guy, and many others.

In the late 1970s, Jacobson moved from Chicago to Austin, Texas, where he served as manager at Club Foot, a music venue featuring local bands and touring acts such as U2, REM, James Brown, and B.B. King. After leaving Club Foot, he founded Jagmo Studios, a design firm specializing in graphic art for the music industry.

“When I moved to Austin, Texas in the late 1970s, I was happy to find a vibrant musical scene there as well,” he said. “I was fascinated by the posters being used to advertise many of the live performances. Often, the illustrations on these posters were smart and beautifully drawn, and for me they added an important visual element to the music.”

In 1981, Jacobson began working at a large local rock club, and then became bar manager and promotional director. This position allowed him to hire many of the artists whose work he admired.

“It also gave me the chance to create music-related art myself, to say something about the music visually, and to experiment with styles and techniques,” he said. “After a few years when I left my job at the rock club, many other clubs, promoters, and musicians began to hire me, and I soon was able to support myself as a freelance designer specializing in music art.”

Where Jacobson draws inspiration for the posters he creates depends on the music, which for him is essential to the creative mood.

“During the 1980s, when I was hired to create a poster, I would purchase the band’s LPs or CDs for inspiration – this was long before music became available online,” he said. “I find that listening to a band’s music animates my imagination. It reveals the spirit and soul of the band, and often generates a feeling that I can use.”

For the simple sketches and collages he attempted first, he used markers and x-acto blades. By the mid-1980s, he was using a Rapidograph pen to create the crosshatching, stippling, and lettering found in his more mature efforts.

Jacobson has participated in dozens of poster shows with other artists in Austin, Texas, Chicago, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and he has had solo exhibitions of his work in Austin and Oklahoma City. Among the places his work is archived are the University of Texas, Texas State University, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Among the artists featured in Jacobson’s posters in the exhibition is Roky Erickson, who first gained fame in the 1960s as lead singer of the 13th Floor Elevators.

“The band was well known, particularly in San Francisco and Texas, for its psychedelic sound,” Jacobson said. “So, in 1992 when I was asked to create a poster to promote a benefit concert for Roky, I aimed for a psychedelic look.”

Another poster features Public Image Ltd (also known as PIL), an English post-punk band formed by singer John Lydon, formerly of the Sex Pistols.

“I wanted an intense edgy look for the hand-drawn portrait of John and also for the lettering,” he said. “The stretched wiggle of the large ‘PIL’ on the left was created on a photocopier and the other lettering effects were achieved by manipulating rub-on letters.”

Jacobson was once asked by the promoters of a Grace Jones concert to design a poster around the theme “Put Some Grace in Your Face.” At the time, Jones was a well-known supermodel, singer, and actress.

“She had a readily recognizable style,” he said. “I tried to capture the power of her striking looks with a very simple portrait.”

When Jacobson created his Dead Kennedys image in 1984, he had only been designing posters for three years and wasn’t yet comfortable with pen and ink illustration for such a poster.

“Luckily I found an old family photograph that fit the mood I was looking for,” he said. “I hoped that printing the photo predominantly in red, along with highlighting the word ‘Dead’ in red, would be eye-catching and add a tone of solemnity to an otherwise irreverent poster.”

For his 1988 Iggy Pop design, as with the PIL poster, Jacobson was looking for some edginess in the lettering and even a bit of twistedness to Iggy’s portrait.

“The lettering was created by manipulating rub-on letters,” he said. “The slight warp to Iggy’s face was achieved by stretching and twisting the image on a photocopier.”

Jacobson was also hired to design a poster for a concert by country singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who has a background in Eastern metaphysics.

“When I was hired to design a poster for one of his gigs at the Austin, Texas, venue La Zona Rosa, I combined Eastern symbols with elements reminiscent of imagery associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe,” he said. “The poster is hand-drawn and hand-lettered.”

Jacobson said he finds creating a rock poster fulfilling on several levels.

“It satisfies the need to communicate locally, and with the wider world,” he said. “It serves the urge to contribute something meaningful to the culture – something that enhances people’s relationship to music. Plus, the creative process itself can be immensely enjoyable. Most importantly, it is gratifying when people view the poster as more than a mere advertisement.”