Leia Bell Interview
by Steve Mendoza
Leia Bell is one of the new group of artists exploding onto the rock poster scene. Her impressive body of work has upwards of 150 posters, despite only three years in the business. The majority of these prints are for the Kilby Court - a venue that she and her husband own and operate. Between nightly club shows, a new print every few days, and a growing family life, one might ask how she finds time to do it all. Leia was kind enough to take a few moments and fill us in...
SM:Thanks for taking the time for this Leia. So for those that are unfamiliar with you and your work, how did you get started in the poster business?
LB:I went to art school for printmaking, and for a while after I graduated I just assumed that I would never use my degree. I was working a minimum wage photo lab job when I became friends with Phil, the owner of an all ages venue in Salt Lake City called Kilby Court . He was extremely overwhelmed at the time, doing pretty much everything to run the venue on his own: booking shows, returning emails and phone calls, performing maintenance on the building, making fliers for the shows, and still doing his other job building custom furniture. I offered to make fliers for him using images from my sketchbook, to help relieve some of his stress (and I also thought it would be fun). I started out doing black and white Xerox handbills. Then when Phil discovered that I knew how to screen print, he suggested that I make limited edition hand-printed posters for all of the shows instead. Since I already had a recognizable style, the little, colorful posters would be a sort of trademark for the venue. People could look at the posters and instantly know they were for a Kilby Court show. Now almost 4 years later, Phil and I run the venue together and we have 2 little boys (Cortez and Ivan).
SM: Most of your posters are for the Kilby Court. What's the live music scene like in Salt Lake?
LB:Salt Lake has a very active local music scene. Other than the fact that most of the new bands seem to be trying to out-scream one another (and I feel too old to get into that kind of music), I really enjoy being a part of it-and I mean, I truly LIVE in it. I literally live next to the venue, so I can't really get away from it even if I wanted to. I think the kids really enjoy having a place they can play for their friends that is all ages. We do a record number of shows-2 shows a night at least 5 nights a week...
SM: Wow, that's insane. With that many shows a week, how do you decide who to do promo for?
LB:Many of the bands are repeat players at Kilby, and so we get to know them as friends. They hang out in our backyard and we'll have some beers. I definitely try to do posters for the bands that we've become friendly with. Sometimes the local bands on a particular bill ask me if I'll do the poster so that they can have a memento of the show... I'd design posters for ALL of the shows if I had the time though. When I was pregnant with Cortez (so basically before I had kids) I was printing up to 5 posters a week.
SM: I recently found out that Brian Bell, of Weezer, is your brother. Will we ever see a Leia Bell / Weezer poster?
LB:Don't I wish! Actually it's funny, I was just on the phone with my brother a few hours ago and this subject finally came up, so it looks like it will happen soon! I have designed a t-shirt and a cd insert for my brother's other band though, and it felt really great to work together on a music-art endeavor.
SM: Any musicians or bands in particular you would jump at the chance to work with? How about other gig poster artists?
LB: Sonic Youth was one that I always dreamed about, and I finally get my chance as I am working on a poster for them right now. Also I would love to do posters for The Pixies, Eminem or Britney Spears (I not-so-secretly LOVE popular music and I think it would be a challenge), and of course WEEZER. Very soon I hope to be working on a collaboration poster with several other female poster artists (there are still too few of us out there)! I worship Tara McPherson and Chloe Lum of Serigraphie Populaire, they are my heroes...
SM: You have such small numbered runs. And they're all so varied - runs of 40 or 74 for example. Rarely a "nice, even" number of 250 or so. Surely you can't justify that by saying that's all you can sell. What's the motivation there?
LB: Sometimes it's as simple as that's all the paper I had lying around, or that's as many prints as I could get done before the ink dried in the screen... All I can do is work within my means. When my older son was very small I didn't have him in daycare, so the number of prints in an edition was based around how long he would take a nap. If he slept for an hour, I could maybe get 60 pulls in before he woke up, so that set the edition size. I never felt a desire to make everything a set number, though recently I have felt that 100 is a good number. There are enough for advertisements, enough so that I can save some for myself, and have a substantial stack to sell later.
SM:The size of your posters is so unique. I've heard people say they love how small and distinctive they are, and I've heard people say you'd take your work to the next level if you did things more on the 24 x 36 level. What's your take?
LB: I have had several arguments/discussions with Jermaine Rogers about this-I see him as a mentor and I value his opinion. He says that bigger is better and all that-which makes a lot of sense, but in the end I feel like it just isn't "me"... If I did gigantic posters I wouldn't be able to print them myself in my little studio. I'd have to pay someone else to print the run, when the printing is my favorite part of the whole process. I get really excited about seeing the next layer of color put down, and I have been told that my posters are very textural. I'd be afraid of losing that if I went through an outside printer.
SM:Oddly enough, Jermaine (bigger is better) and Paul Grushkin (keep em small) were the people I had in mind for this question. I've briefly had discussions with each of them at different times, and they each weighed in as we skipped around on various artists.
LB:I do take to heart and value both of their opinions, but in the end I think I will stick to somewhere in the middle (but on the smaller end)...
SM: Will we ever see the 24 x 36 poster?
LB:Well, not if I get my way! I started out doing handbill size screen prints so the advertisements would be eye-catching by their color and image, not their size. For the first year or so, I was the Kilby poster artist AND part of the street team that put them up around town, and I hated how most of show advertisements were so big there was no room to put mine up without covering someone else's work. I'd like to stick to that "small but striking" ethic if at all possible.
SM:Your posters have the ability to consistently make people feel emotion. What do you attribute that to? Is it something that you consciously try to convey?
LB: This is a completely subconscious thing for me, at least I can't really explain it so that must mean I'm not outwardly thinking about it, right? I guess I am a people-watcher. I like to study people's mannerisms and facial expressions. I have more often heard that my images of people remind the viewer of someone they know because I simplify the characters so they could be just about anyone.
SM: Where/how did you get the idea to base your posters off of pictures? Explain the process for us of deconstructing a picture and turning it into a screened poster.
LB:I started college as a photography major. I would take photos of people and then print a line of text onto the paper to describe the scene that was taking place. Somewhere down the line I realized that I really missed drawing, and in a drawing I could edit out the unnecessary bits of the picture, so printmaking seemed like a natural progression for me. Just yesterday I was talking with Phil about different drawing/painting styles. He is an amazing realism painter and everything has so many dimensions to it. He says he sees everything in shapes as he begins to paint. I, on the other hand, see everything in lines, completely 2-dimensional. I look at the dogs lying on the floor in the living room near me, and in my head I see it as a black and white line drawing. I work best from photographs because they are already flat (unlike real life). After I have a completed line drawing, I can visualize it with text on it. I draw all the black lines first, then I can do color separations from there.
SM:I know at least some of these posters are based off pictures that you've personally taken. So do you consider yourself more of a photographer than illustrator/designer?
LB:I don't really think of myself as a photographer anymore. Nowadays my photographs are merely stacks in a desk drawer that I can thumb through as reference material for poster art. I'd love to be seen as an illustrator or printmaker above all other things.
SM: Are the majority of the people in your posters personal friends of yours? How do they feel about being a part of all of this?
LB:Most of the people in my posters are my friends or at least acquaintances. I have drawn my friend Amila for several posters. She is from Bosnia and has an amazingly beautiful face and features. I borrowed a stack of photos from a great photographer friend of mine, Russell Daniels. I went through 2 huge boxes of his prints getting some great reference material. Sometimes I'll see a person in town that I think I know, but then suddenly I realize that it's just because I've done a drawing of them in the past. I know that Amila is very proud to be on the posters, but I'm not sure how others feel about it.
SM: I think it'd be hilarious to be in one of your posters. Do people ever approach you requesting to be in an upcoming print?
LB: Yes! I think it's awesome-I only hope they think my interpretation is flattering...
SM: Ha, none of your friends have given you feedback yet?
LB:A lot of the photos I've drawn from in the posters are from years and years ago, so many of the people I haven't seen in a long time. I literally have dozens of boxes of photos that I have taken that I use for reference. So I will rifle through them looking for a moment I want to capture in a drawing. It might be that I pick older friends on purpose because it's a nostalgia thing for me (and they can't bitch about the way I've portrayed them)... I have done posters featuring fellow poster artists though, including: Jay Ryan, Tara McPherson and Jermaine Rogers.
SM: I've heard that you've done posters and announcements for private occasions. Do you approach this any differently than doing a show print? Do the people that commission your print provide input and look over drafts, or is this more of a free will effort?
LB:Most of the commissioned work I've done has been from people who like the look of my show posters and they want a sort of mock-poster with their info. It's fun for me because it's something a little bit different, but I approach it the same way I do a poster. I prefer doing posters and my own art prints however because I only have to please myself and there's no pressure to make it perfect.
SM:As far as I know (and please correct me if I'm wrong) everything you've done is silk-screened. Would you ever consider doing a different method of print? Etchings or offsets for example?
LB: The main reason I do screen-printing is because it's quick, easy and inexpensive. I think my true love is etching though. I am saving my pennies at the moment for an etching press, so maybe in the future you will see some Leia Bell intaglio posters.
SM: Out of your two children, which one do you love more? Just kidding... - but you've never hid the fact that family is an important facet of your life. Does this impact or inspire your work in any way?
LB: Without realizing it I'm sure my kids impact my work. As with all parents, once you have kids you can't imagine your life any other way. The main way they impact my work is that I can't work as much as I would like. If I could I would print 16 hours a day, but for now I am limited to 9-5. I suppose this also inspires me to work as hard as I can when they are in daycare. I want them to be proud of what I do as well.
SM:The "animal planet" series is a big hit from all the people I've spoken to. How did this come about? Is it a new direction for you, or just something you're dabbling in?
LB: I think I am always looking for ways to stay fresh with my art. I can't remember exactly, but I recall an art professor saying that you must re-invent yourself as an artist (Madonna-style!) every 2 or 3 years I can't remember which. I have been doing posters for about 3 years, so it must be time... I saw this photo of a polar bear swimming and I instantly saw it as a poster. Honestly it was an experiment and I lucked out-- I did that drawing in under an hour.
SM: So does that mean we can expect to see more of the animals?
LB: Definitely! I have three fine art prints in the planning stages involving animals. The first will be two giraffe, then possibly an elephant and a river otter (for my dad). There will also be more animals in my gig posters. It's kind of funny because I draw images based around my life. Before I had kids I drew mostly young adults, partiers, etc. Now I draw animals because my son gets so excited when he sees animals, even drawings of them. His enthusiasm for life in general has been a great inspiration for me (even though he is screaming his head off at the moment hahaha).
SM: While at Flatstock 2, I heard that your stay at the Austin Convention Center ended a little early. What happened?
LB:I didn't leave early; it was just that I had sold out of everything by the end of the first day. It was a complete shocker (and an awesome surprise) since I went there with no expectations. I mostly went to meet some of my favorite artists in person, and have a good time.
SM: I brought a friend to Flatstock 4. She's a stranger to the poster community, and your booth was one of the first she stopped at. After walking the entire floor, she went back. Your stand was the only one she made a purchase at. What do you attribute your accessibility to?
LB: I'm not sure how to answer this... Everyone has different tastes when it comes to art. Maybe my posters are just less expensive because they are small, so people feel they are affordable...
SM: Explain the Tomahawk/Melvins poster to me. You seemed really stressed out about your style matching up with those bands.
LB: This was the first poster I ever did for bands that I didn't listen to on a regular basis, so I was stressing (unnecessarily) that it would show through in my poster. I was thinking about it way too much, and once I just let go and forgot about trying so hard to make an image fit, it finally worked out.
SM: Do you get any feedback from the bands or promoter?
LB:If it is a show at Kilby Court I am always there so I get to talk to all the bands. Everyone is always so nice and appreciative of the effort I went to to help promote their show, especially on our level as a venue. Kilby only holds 200 people, so the bands don't have a "rock star attitude". I've done a few album and cd covers based on the posters, and the most flattering thing of all, a girl in one band got the image from my poster tattooed on her back!
SM: Do you still feel those anxieties about matching bands and images?
LB: Nope, I just forget about it and go with my gut.
SM: So you're trying to do a second print for the Apollo Sunshine poster. What's your vision on what this will be? Size changes, color changes, paper, etc etc. (Editor's note . this question was asked a few days before the poster became available to the public)
LB:It's a little bit bigger than the original and more of a square format. It's also lacking the text, so it is just an "art print". I also made it ten colors instead of five... It's my plan to make a series of Animal art prints, all the same format. Actually I think the next one will be the elephants from my Eyedea & Abilities poster, followed by the dogs on my Supersuckers poster.
SM: Do you ever sell original art/sketches for your posters?
LB: I do sell the original sketches for the posters, a lot of the older ones are already gone though. I try not to get too attached to my drawings because I always feel like I could improve upon them.
SM:Ok, your response practically begs me to ask THAT question. Every artist's most dreaded question... Do you have a favorite print? A least favorite? You can always use the fallback of them being like children or pets and you love them all, etc etc, but are there any that you look at today and say "that turned out just like I hoped" or "I wish I had done this one differently?"
LB: I always feel like I can improve upon each poster I do. Every one is a learning experience. There are probably 50 or 60 posters that I did in my first year that aren't posted on the web because I feel they aren't good enough for the public to view. I don't REGRET doing any of them though. I had a friend years ago whose body was basically one giant regrettable tattoo gallery-at least that's what I thought about it at first. But he said that he loved all of them (even the Tazmanian Devil!), because they were a part of his history and they described a time in his life. It's not exactly the same, but I feel a similar "historic" regard for my posters. As far as favorite print, even though I love animals, I am partial to the sassy girl images. One of my older ones, the Magic Magicians poster has always been my favorite.
SM: You're the only major poster artist I can think of that doesn't have a website. How do you manage distribution and publicity for your efforts?
LB: Right now I do all of my business via email, but my website is done, it's just been a real pain trying to get it up since I had someone else create it for me, and now I can't seem to track him down! I hope to have it up in the next couple of weeks though, and it is going to be www.leiabell.com.
SM: I've never heard anyone say a bad thing about your posters (other than being upset that they don't have one), but I'm interested in hearing who you'd rant and rave about. Give it up... who should we be keeping an eye on?
LB:There's no possible way to list ALL of the current artists who inspire me because there is so much amazing work going on out there, but off the top of my head: Jay Ryan, Dan Grzeca, Tara McPherson, The Little Friends of Printmaking, Mat Daly, Serigraphie Populaire, Daniel Danger, and (fellow Salt Lake artist and poster-maker) Trent Call.
SM: If you had to get out of the poster scene tomorrow, what would you do?
LB: If I didn't have any more posters to do, I'd spend as much time as possible working on art prints. I'd get that etching press and make a limited edition book of prints. I'd also love to get into children's book illustration.
SM: Not to date this interview, but are there any new posters or events on the horizon that you'd like to give us a heads-up on?
LB:Right now I'm working on a collaboration poster with my friend Trent Call for a Sonic Youth show in Salt Lake at the end of this month (July 2004). It's basically two different posters printed on the same sheet but the drawing is connected through both sides.
SM: Any advice for aspiring poster artists that might be reading this?
LB:Check out some other artists. studio set-ups to see how it all works and what materials you will need. Ask lots of questions, but never feel like you must conform to a certain design style.
Written on July 14th, 2004.