Interview with poster artist Nels Jacobson, a.k.a. Jagmo -- has been creating rock posters for 30 years

"In its purest form, rock music – and art – is a celebration; it’s a rebellion against the status quo, a challenge to complacency. And I believe that sometimes it has the power to break down negative racial, political, and religious boundaries."

Nels Jacobson (Jagmo):  Music For Eyes

Chicago native Nels Jacobson, a.k.a. Jagmo, has been creating rock posters for 30 years. He moved to Austin, Texas in the late 1970s and served as promotional manager at Club Foot, an Austin concert hall featuring local bands and touring acts such as U2, REM, BB King, and King Sunny Ade. After leaving Club Foot in 1983, Nels founded Jagmo Studios, a design firm specializing in graphic art for the entertainment industry. During the next ten years, he worked with numerous local performers, promoters, and clubs - receiving the annual Austin Chronicle Music Award for best concert poster five times. He helped organize the 1987 Texas-U.S.S.R. Musicians' Exchange and as tour manager accompanied the musicians to Helsinki, Leningrad, Kiev, and Moscow. As original art director for the annual South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW), Nels designed the official logo and oversaw conference graphics from 1987 through 1992. In 2000 he created the logo for Nashville's Next Fest music festival.              Photo: Jagmo © Nels Jacobson

Nels has written a number of articles on poster art, including a two-part piece titled "The Maverick Tradition: Postering in Austin, Texas" that appeared in Wes Wilson's OFFtheWALL poster journal, and "Armadillos, Pecadillos, and the Maverick Posterists of Austin, Texas" which was published in Prints and Printmakers of Texas, the Proceedings of the Twentieth Annual North American Print Conference. In addition to his graphic design activities, he has been practicing law since 1995. Licensed in California, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas and with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, he practices primarily in the areas of copyright, trademark, and entertainment law, and has written and lectured extensively on these topics. Nels is a founding board member of the American Poster Institute (sponsor of the Flatstock poster shows), and a director of The Rock Poster Society and the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture. He served for several years on the packaging GRAMMY committees for the San Francisco and Texas Chapters of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and he has been Director of the SXSW Continuing Legal Education program since 1997.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What were the reasons that you started your Rock n’ Roll culture and visual art research and experiments?

The music is what caused me to start creating posters. I was born and raised in Chicago, and as I was growing up I gained an appreciation for blues, jazz, and rock and roll– the music of Muddy Waters, the Butterfield Blues Band, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Luther Allison, Willie Dixon and so many others. When I moved to Austin, Texas in the late 1970s, I was happy to find a vibrant musical scene there as well. And 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, I began working at a large local rock club, and then became bar manager and promotional director. This position allowed me to hire many of the artists whose work I admired. And 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. 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 free-lance designer specializing in music art.

"I miss the hands-on aspect of the graphic design process – working with pencils, pens, paper, and cutting tools. Computer design programs are helpful, but I prefer working in the real world with tangible things." (Posters by Jagmo © Nels Jacobson)

What is the relation between music and image? How does the music affect your mood and inspiration?

My inspiration depends on the music, and it 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. 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.

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock culture? What characterizes your artwork and philosophy?

Rock taught me that music makes me happy. I first noticed this with rock and roll, but I’ve come to realize it’s true for all music. Live music makes me especially happy. I hope my artwork is characterized by curiosity, optimism, and honesty, and I hope it provides as much enjoyment to others as music provides me.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Many of my friends and acquaintances have been generous with their time and advice over the years. Often the advice they’ve given me has been helpful. In particular I remember a brief encounter I had with David Amram, the jazz and classical musician, after a performance in Austin at the Armadillo World Headquarters. He didn’t offer me advice exactly, but the way he treated me created a lasting impression. Encountering him in the near-empty auditorium after almost everyone else had left, I told him I liked his music and had read his book. He thanked me and made a point of asking me my name and shaking my hand. It meant a great deal to me that he seemed to care who I was. At that moment I learned how important it is to show respect to people who take an interest in your work.

"Rock taught me that music makes me happy. I first noticed this with rock and roll, but I’ve come to realize it’s true for all music. Live music makes me especially happy." (Posters by Jagmo © Nels Jacobson)

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

I miss the hands-on aspect of the graphic design process – working with pencils, pens, paper, and cutting tools. Computer design programs are helpful, but I prefer working in the real world with tangible things. And as a music collector, I miss vinyl records and album covers, and the warm detail of analog sound. Digital art and music can be convenient but as a poster artist and collector, and a fan of books and magazines, I miss the physical sensation of touching something and holding it in my hands; I really enjoy the tactile aspect of paper. I fear art is becoming impermanent and inconsequential – disposable. To the extent that some people still seek out vinyl records and printed books, I am cautiously hopeful that we won’t lose these things entirely.

What do you learn about yourself from the counter culture and what does Underground Art mean to you?

The counter culture has shown me a viable alternative to mainstream culture. I prefer the slightly subversive. To me, Underground Art is art that may not be recognized and understood by the established art world or by smug, self-important critics out of touch with the streets. Yet it is often the most adventurous, challenging, and worthwhile art.

What is the impact of Rock n’ Roll music, art and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

In its purest form, rock music – and art – is a celebration; it’s a rebellion against the status quo, a challenge to complacency. And I believe that sometimes it has the power to break down negative racial, political, and religious boundaries. Rock’s primal rhythm is a common language that transcends cultural stereotypes. It allows us to expand our horizons and communicate across differences in background and point of view.

"The music is what caused me to start creating posters. I was born and raised in Chicago, and as I was growing up I gained an appreciation for blues, jazz, and rock and roll– the music of Muddy Waters, the Butterfield Blues Band, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Luther Allison, Willie Dixon and so many others." (Posters by Jagmo © Nels Jacobson)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Family Dog artists and 60s psychedelic art with your projects?

Popular American culture exposed me to the Family Dog posters of Wes Wilson, Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, and Victor Moscoso while I was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s. Chet Helms was organizer of the Family Dog dances in San Francisco, and he was the one who hired the artists. Chet had moved to the Bay Area from Austin, as had many other young Texans in the ‘60s, including artists Gilbert Shelton and JAXON, and musicians Janis Joplin, Powell St. James, and Roky Erickson and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. The Texas artists became active participants in the San Francisco counter culture, while back in Austin those who hadn’t relocated to California reacted to the San Francisco style with their own distinctly Texas take on it. This is particularly true for posters promoting shows at The Vulcan Gas Company and the Armadillo World Headquarters. These are some of the posters that I found when I arrived in Austin in the late 1970s – work by Jim Franklin, Jim Harter, Micael Priest, Guy Juke, Danny Garrett, Kerry Awn, Sam Yeates, Bill Narum, and others. They moved and inspired me. I relocated to San Francisco in 2000 where I met Chet Helms and most of the local poster artists – both the young ones and the 1960s veterans. In 2007, I moved to Detroit, another city with a rich psychedelic poster history. Through all these changes I’ve done my best to be faithful to the disparate traditions that awakened and fueled my love of poster art.

"I hope my artwork is characterized by curiosity, optimism, and honesty, and I hope it provides as much enjoyment to others as music provides me." (Posters by Jagmo © Nels Jacobson)

Where and why would you really want to go for a whole day with a time machine and what from your memorabilia (books, records, posters etc.) you would put in a "time capsule"?

I think it would be wild to visit Paris in the 1920s – to talk with artists like Picasso and Salvador Dali, writers like Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot, composers like Eric Satie and Cole Porter. To catch a performance by Josephine Baker would be amazing. For the time capsule, I’d include a book of poetry by Vladamir Mayakovsky. It was given to me by a friend before I left for a brief tour of the U.S.S.R. with a group of Texas musicians in 1987. Each poem was printed in both Russian and English. Mayakovsky’s imagery is very powerful to me. And he was a poster artist as well as a poet. I would also include the LP “East-West” by the Butterfield Blues Band. It always makes me happy, particularly the title track and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” The final thing I’d place in a time capsule would be an oil painting I purchased from the gifted Texas artist and musician Guy Juke (DeForest White) 15 years ago. It is of a nude woman viewed from behind, and conveys to me a sense of sensuality and mystery.

How you would spend a day with Willie Nelson? What would you say to Freak Brothers? What would you like to ask Nelson Mandela?

In 1980 I participated in the first “Willie Nelson Distance Classic,” a 10K run at Willie’s Pedernales Country Club outside Austin. I still have the t-shirt. At one point during the race, I looked to my right and found that Willie was running alongside me. As I remember it, he seemed to be running very easily. It looked like he was feeling no pain as he cheerfully jogged past me. If I could spend a day with Willie, I’d tell him that story. Then I’d ride around with him in his tour bus and I’d ask him to take me to his favorite BBQ place for dinner. I’m not sure what I’d ask the Freak Brothers – Freewheelin’ Franklin, Fat Freddy, and Phineas. I might ask about Gilbert Shelton, the artist who created them. Whether they feel he’s portrayed them fairly, and if they feel they’ve changed much since the 1960s. Maybe I’d ask them what it’s like to be two-dimensional celebrities. If I could speak with Nelson Mandela, I’d ask him how he had the moral strength to survive being imprisoned unjustly for 27 years. How, when he was released, he seemingly harbored no bitterness or malice toward his persecutors – how with dignity, humor, and good will he was able to usher in a period of forgiveness and rebirth for South Africa. And if I had the chance, I’d also like to ask him to talk about music – what music he liked.

Jagmo / Nels Jacobson - Official website

Posters by Jagmo © Nels Jacobson

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