California poster/comic artist Frank Alan Bella talks about Family Dog artists, Beat movement & counterculture art

"I would have housing built on the moon and send all the rich that have no souls, the evil corporations that poison the planet, and anyone that has hate in their heart on a one-way trip."

Frank Alan Bella: The Art Of The Mystery

Frank Alan Bella is a well-known California rock poster artist (Bill Graham Presents, Robby Krieger of The Doors, TRPS). He’s also a comic artist, poet and writer published in dozens of magazines and journals, including Artist/Writer, BOHeME, and Leonard Cohen: You're Our Man. He also has self-published several chapbooks containing his poetry. Frank currently lives in Clearlake Oaks, CA. His favorite motto: "Living day to day, night to night, waiting for my muses, and angels, to whisper in my ear." Photo by A. Nabeshima 

"Mystery characterizes my artwork. I don't know where it comes from, or whether I'm going to draw, or write. It all depends on which muses visit me after the sun goes down."

Rock poster artist Frank Alan Bella has worked for greats such as Bill Graham Presents and Chet Helms' Family Dog. In 1993 when Robby Krieger played Paris for Jim Morrison's 50th Birthday Celebration his official tour t-shirts featured artwork by Bella. Frank Alan Bella talks about Chet Helms, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, George Plimpton, John Lee Hooker, counterculture art, psychedelic posters and Beat literature.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

Photos Courtesy of Frank Alan Bella Archive © / All Rights Reserved

What were the reasons that you started the cultural/philosophical researches? What characterizes your artwork?

Curiosity, and the desire to dance with Kings, are the absolute reasons. I've always been drawn to the legends; their art, their books, and their songs. I've always wanted to be like them. Mystery characterizes my artwork. I don't know where it comes from, or whether I'm going to draw, or write. It all depends on which muses visit me after the sun goes down. Usually an image or words appear in my head and the only way to set it free is to turn it into molecules or pixels. Then, I can see it with my own two eyes, touch it, or show it to the world if I wish. Research is a big part of the process when I have to hunt for inspiration. I'm actually addicted to it, but there's always a risk of getting trapped in that rabbit hole too long. Time is my biggest concern. It's more valuable than all the treasure in the universe, and there's less and less of it with each passing day. Intelligence is madness, knowledge is death of the unknown. 

What has been the relationship of music and Beat literature in your life and art? How does it affect your inspiration?

Music and Beat literature have a direct and personal connection in my life and art. I've created posters and handbills for bands since I was a teenager. This past weekend I was one of the featured artists at the TRPS (The Rock Poster Society) Festival of Rock Posters in San Francisco, CA. There was a lot of legendary artists there, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Lee Conklin, David Singer, etc. It was a pretty incredible day!     (Frank Alan Bella & Allen Ginsberg)

My connection to the Beat Poets and other writers goes back to the 90's when I worked at San Jose State University designing the promotional posters/flyers for their Writer's Series. Famous writers would come and do lectures at the campus auditorium. I got to hang out with them and actually became good friends with a few. This was where I met Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, George Plimpton, etc. I stayed pretty close with George up until his death. Still have his handwritten letters and postcards from our correspondences. George created and edited the "Paris Review" which published interviews with the greatest writers and artists in history. This included everyone from Hemingway to Kerouac. He let me design a cover for the "Paris Review" but he died before it was published. It never got used, but I still have the beautiful pen & ink original. I did have the honor of being interviewed by the great George Plimpton. It was published in "Doors Collector's Magazine."

In 1995 I did all the promo materials for the big, 3 day "Kerouac and Kerouac, the Legacy" benefit for Jan Kerouac, Jack's daughter. The benefit raised money to pay for a kidney transplant that Jan needed.  It was great hanging out with her during these events, and it was a total shock when she died soon after. Music and the Literary World have always been a big inspiration to me. I'll always feel like I won the lottery when I think how blessed I am that I was able to meet so many of the legends behind all of these magic songs, poems, books and movies. Sad that some are no longer with us, and happy to still be friends with some of them today.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Definitely, at the top of the list is legendary rock poster artist, Wes Wilson and the great (RIP) Chet Helms, concert promoter for Family Dog, etc. Wes opened the door to the magical kingdom for me, and Chet pulled me further in. Wes Wilson is a true king, and still has my back to this day. I can't imagine my career being where it is now if it wasn't for those two.  (F.A.B & Chet Helms)

Meeting Allen Ginsberg was incredible. I designed the promo handbill for his 2 day appearance at San Jose State University in 1992. The first night he did a solo performance but I had to leave early because I also had tickets to see Robby Krieger, the guitarist for The Doors. Robby was playing at JJ's Blues a few blocks from the University. While I was still in line waiting to get into JJ's, Ginsberg had this guy run over to hand deliver one of my handbills to me. It was autographed and he wrote on it, "Good For One Satori." That moment is definitely way up there on my list of biggest smiles in my life! Ironically, I met Robby Krieger after his show that same night and he hired me on the spot to be his promo artist. I ended up designing a series of posters/handbills for several of his performances at various venues. My art also ended up on his backstage laminates and his European Tour T-Shirts. Robby was a great guy to work for!

The next day I made it to Allen Ginsberg's second appearance at SJSU, which was also part of a big Beat Generation Poetry Symposium. Michael McClure, Diane dePrima and other Beat poets were also there. After the show Ginsberg did his meet and greet, and I actually got to sit next to him and sign autographs! Great weekend, I actually hit a double, right out of the park. Having a shot with John Lee Hooker in the back of his Limo, and sitting in a movie theater with Peter Fonda sharing a pint of Wild Turkey while we watched two movies he starred in were also memorable moments. I can go on and on, so many great meetings, and all fantastic in their own way.

What is the best advice ever given yo you?

The best advice ever given to me was from Wes Wilson years ago. He told me to always do my income taxes every year, fill out the forms honestly and always pay the little bit I owe. The IRS (Tax Man) will ignore you for decades during your poor years. But you can bet your ass, the moment you achieve success and finally start making some really big money, they'll lock down your bank accounts, take everything you own, and smack you down so hard you'll have to run away to France like Robert Crumb did! I also love my girlfriend, Antoinette's daily advice to always stay positive, and positive things will happen.  

"Definitely, at the top of the list is legendary rock poster artist, Wes Wilson and the great (RIP) Chet Helms, concert promoter for Family Dog, etc. Wes opened the door to the magical kingdom for me, and Chet pulled me further in." (Photo; Frank Alan bella & Wes Wilson)

What are your hopes and fears for the future of comix? What do you miss most nowadays from the art of past?

I don't really think about it much, I'm sure they will always be here in one form or another. I really love the new digital, eBook versions. I can actually have 10,000 comic books on a flash drive in my pocket now! As a result of a comic book store I once owned and closed down in the 80's, I still have the entire inventory of over 50,000 comics. I have to hire a moving company truck and crew to move those damn things each time I relocate. I'm definitely all for saving trees these days! I miss the "real" sweat and ink look of the classic books. You could actually feel the soul of each genuine old school artist on each and every page. There's still great stuff coming out, but pretty much anybody with a computer and a great graphics program can whip out a comic these days. And, they do. There's even comic apps people can put on their iPhones. Way too many books out there to weed through to find the rare gems. Personally, I sort of retired creating comic books about 20 years ago. I was on a pretty good roll there for a while. I was in a bunch of stuff, mostly underground. I even hit mainstream for a short period of time when "Mirage Studios" actually published a couple "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" stories that I drew. I also published a bunch of my own comics back in the day. Lately I've been getting the urge to get back to the comic drawing board. So many more options these days, and the right book, with the right promo could possibly generate mountains of cash! It can even end up being the next big Hollywood movie.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the nowadays comic artists?

Nothing really, rarely read any comics these days. Don't have the budget or the time. I'm attached to a computer sometimes working 20 hours a day. Too much stuff to finish in just one lifetime. I always have a television on in the background running classic sitcom TV shows. They always make me laugh. I like stupid comedies because I don't have to think much. If I had the serious shows on that force you to think every couple minutes, I'd never get any work done. What really makes me laugh and smile all day long is our tiny little dog. She's funny as hell!!

"In my youth, the images that hung on my walls and filled my favorite books, seduced me like no woman or devil ever could't inspired me to take my first steps on this road to the imaginary land of artist nirvana, fame and fortune." (Photo: Frank Alan Bella & Stanley Mouse)

What do you learn about yourself from the underground culture and what does counterculture art mean to you?

What I learned back in the day when I was first discovering the underground culture stuff, was that I wasn't alone. It felt good to know that there was other artists just as crazy, or even crazier than me out there. An army of talented people that needed to express themselves with no rules, no walls, and no censorship. It's not healthy to suppress things. Sometimes you have to get those little demons out of your head, and set them free!

To me, when I hear the term "counterculture art" it takes me back to the 80's. It's been around a long time and now it's just a label. I believe it's time for a new movement, something fresh and entirely a new kind of crazy. Time to counter counterculture, flip it on its belly, and hit it hard! Oh, and no safe word.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of underground comix and psychedelic posters with your artwork?

In my youth, the images that hung on my walls and filled my favorite books, seduced me like no woman or devil ever could. It inspired me to take my first steps on this road to the imaginary land of artist nirvana, fame and fortune. They are the direct lines to my artwork, like strands of DNA sprinkled in my ink. No matter how much I polish my personal style, they will always be there.

"Time is my biggest concern. It's more valuable than all the treasure in the universe, and there's less and less of it with each passing day. Intelligence is madness, knowledge is death of the unknown." (Photo: Frank Alan Bella & Timothy Leary)

If you could change one thing in the world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would have housing built on the moon and send all the rich that have no souls, the evil corporations that poison the planet, and anyone that has hate in their heart on a one-way trip.

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

I once heard that while Dr. Suess was drawing and coming up with ideas, he would throw most of the sketches away. I would go back to that period of time and dig in his garbage can.

How you would spend a day with Jack Kerouac? 

My day with Jack Kerouac would be spent drinking and talking like mad men with neither one of us ever getting a complete sentence out. Then we would loudly go out in the night and read poetry somewhere.

What would you say to Rick Griffin? What would you like to ask Robert Crumb?

I would tell Rick Griffin that a week before he died, I almost bought one of his original airbrushed leather jackets in his store on Haight Street, but then decided I'd get it the next time I was in San Francisco. Big regret.

I would ask Robert Crumb to draw my portrait.

Frank Alan Bella - Bella Studios Home

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