New York artist Helen Hersh talks about the art of Rock n' Roll, Bill Graham, Village Theater and the 60s

"The 1960’s were an amazing time to be alive and involved. Today I see the youth struggling with the way life is for them."

Helen Hersh: Let The Rock Colors Roll

Helen Hersh is an artist well-known from her rock poster at late 60s. Designed sheet music covers for Hansen publications including Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT”, and Scott McKensie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to wear Flowers in your Hair)”, as well as some advertising items for the Moby Grape including a poster for “805”. Poster designer for the Village Theater  for their ROCK Concerts, including Wilson Pickett, Moby Grape, Simon and Garfunkle, Charles Lloyd, Procol Harum. Designed numerous newspaper ads for Gary Kurfirst including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Rascals, most appearing in the VILLAGE VOICE. Designed two posters for Bill Graham’s Fillmore East, 1968. The Who, Buddy Guy, and The Mother’s Of Invention. Designed and painted in day glow paint the Space murals for Nick Ungano’s ROCK NIGHT Club called “SPACE”. First Art Director for ROCK MAGAZINE (7 Issues), designing the whole magazine and all of the needed illustrations, and by line banners.          (Photo by Torre Lenze, 1969)

Including Brian Jones, Elvis, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, with the BEATLES. Designed and painted two store front signs for record stores in the East Village, one of 7th street and one on second avenue. Designed and illustrated 4 ROCK posters for Atlantic records, Moody Blues, John Mayall, Savoy Brown and Ten Years After. Designed the new logo for WINDFALL MUSIC for Gary Kurfirst, album covers for SOUL SURVIVORS “TAKE ANOTHER LOOK”, for MYLON, and 4 book covers for VIKING PRESS. Art Director for ENRICO ALEXANDROS RELEASES designing logos, movie titles, press books and one sheets. Designed and illustrated numerous theater posters for OFF OFF BROADWAY AND OF BROADWAY Theater productions. Exhibited paintings and illustrations at BENTON and BOWLES Advertising Agency Gallery. Cloud background paintings for TIME MAGAZINE cover June 1976. Cloud paintings used in NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE. Exhibited painting in a juried show entitled “BROOKLYN 81”, The Brooklyn Museum, NY 1981. Exhibited cloud paintings at Gallery Madison 90, NYC autumn 1980- summer 1981. Exhibited painting in “BROOKLYN BRIDGE”, a juried show at the Brooklyn Museum for the centennial of the BROOKLYN BRIDGE, 1983. Exhibited painting in a juried show called SMALL WORKS OF ART, Brooklyn, New York Fine arts painter. Faux grain wood work 1987 to present. Create and design aesthetic movement wall stencils 1987 to present. Design paint jobs for BYCYCLES 2004 to present. Redo of a poster for two plays by RONALD TAVEL for the THEATER OF THE NEW CITY, 2014. Owner of Mount Prospect Orchids 1990- present specializing in rare and exotic orchids. Owner of Hamish Hog Antiques specializing in rare items from the aesthetic Movement in the US and England 1981 to present.

Interview by Michael Limnios     Artwork, Posters © by Helen Hersh

What do you learned about yourself from the Rock ’n’ Roll culture and what does “Rock ’n’ Roll” mean to you?

I was not your regular run of the mill person, I had been very sheltered and was extremely shy, and all I had and wanted was to be an artist. ROCK AND ROLL fit me perfectly, but the shyness kept me from doing more. I am glad to say I am no longer shy, and if I could turn back the clock it would be knowing what I know now to re-experience what I had then. It might turn out better, or it might not it was always about my art work. Friends of ours got married about 10 years ago in Cleveland. My husband and I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. I was madly in love. I felt so at home remembering all that was my life flooded before me. Two years ago our best friend got us tickets to see JERSEY BOYS on Broadway for a Christmas present. During the performance they announced in the play that they were going to be inducted to the ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME. A lightning bolt went off in my head and I turned to my husband and said I want to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of FAME. I went home that night and proceeded to write a letter to the then CEO and President of the museum tell him of some of the art I had done, and saying I wanted to donate it to the museum. We have no children to leave my legacy to. About a month later I got a phone call from Greg Harris the new CEO and President.

We talked and he was very receptive. I made an appointment to go to Cleveland and meet with him in early June. I brought with me 96 pieces of original and printed art work that I donated. He was rather shocked at the huge amount of material I had done. The half hour appointment turned in to more than an hour of talking and asking me questions. I talked about Bill Graham and told him I had gotten stoned with Jimi Hendrix. He kept asking how it all happened, and I said it was like a snow ball going down a mountain. At that time and to this day there is no category for artists and photographers in the ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME. It is something I am hoping to correct. Again this year I went to Cleveland and met with Greg Harris with another group of about 45 more examples of my ROCK artwork that I donated. There are still some missing posters that I hope to turn up and go to Cleveland again this spring. And once more there has been no attempt to create a category for artists and photographers. I find it so hard to believe, but I am not yet giving up. That is my dream!!

How do you describe and what characterize your artwork and artistic philosophy?

I always describe myself as being born with a paint brush in my hand. I never remember a time when art was not major in my life. I was always very stylized with my art work. That became reflective in the first ROCK posters that I drew for the Village Theater. As time went on I became more involved finding a complex style. When I drew ROCK art I was extremely involved with the culture and the sound. My samples for my portfolio for the ROCK groups I love is very reflective of my emotional involvement. See the Moody Blues and Donovan covers.

Why did you think that the Acid Pop Art culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

The 1960’s were an amazing time to be alive and involved. Today I see the youth struggling with the way life is for them. I considered myself very lucky to have been around at that time. Maybe the drugs had something to do with it, but reflecting back, I can definitely understand the youth of today wanting to go back into a time that might have seemed more fun to them.

"Here are two covers I drew and designed for Rock Magazine. One is when Brian Jones died, and the other is when it was thought that Paul McCartney had died."  (Artwork © by Helen Hersh)

How important was music in your life and how does affect your mood and inspiration?

I do not particularly like the music being produced today. I personally like listening to classic rock most all the time, there is still something magical about the sounds and lyrics being told. Bands I only briefly listened to in the late 60’s I find myself really liking today. I always feel like I want more. But I also have come to love opera and classical music as well. In my early teens I loved ROY Orbison, and was delighted to meet him after a concert. About that time BEATLES music arrived here in America along with the ROLLING STONES. I instantly fell in love with the STONES, and today I gladly pay for a ticket to see them in concert. I was very fortunate, as I never had to pay to see ROCK concerts in the 1960’s and 1970’s, doing the art work had its perks.   

Which is the moment that you change your life? Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

It is hard to remember when exactly my adventure with ROCK and ROLL began. I had a chance meeting in 1967 with Dee Dee Hansen at Michael Lang’s head shop in Coconut Grove, Florida. (Yes the Michael Lang that produced WOODSTOCK)…We became instant friends. She knew I needed a summer job and was an artist. Dee Dee had me come to dinner at her house and meet her father. I had no idea that Charles Hansen owned one of the largest sheet music publishing houses. I got a job and went to work on that Monday. This was the summer of 1967. My first ROCK art work was designing the sheet music cover for Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT”. I went on to do a few promotional pieces for the Moby Grape, including a poster for their hit “805”. I was enrolled in Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn, New York starting that fall. I moved to New York, and after 15 minutes at Pratt, I quit. A huge decision that changed the course of my life. Three days later I got the job as artist for the Village Theater then producing ROCK CONCERTS. I have always loved Rock music, and although extremely shy loved the idea of doing this. I was at the right place and right time.  

The time I was at the Record Plant in Manhattan with my friends from the group THE PURPOSE who were getting ready to record a demo. We were sitting in an open area getting stoned when Jimi Hendrix walked up and started talking to the guys, about their music. I was introduced to him as the woman who was to do their album cover. We shared a joint at that time, I laugh as I have Jimi Hendrix’s germs running in my body. That’s funny. That is now to be the title of my upcoming book, I GOT STONED WITH JIMI HENDRIX.  

Are there any memories from Fillmore East and the late Bill Graham which you’d like to share with us?            (Artwork © by Helen Hersh, Fillmore East, 1968)

My meeting with Bill Graham was set up by my friend John Morris who had been involved with the Village Theater. I was so shy it was a very difficult meeting for me. I was aware of the Psychedelic art work that had been done for Bill on the west coast, and had nothing like that in my portfolio, the flyers for the Village Theater were  good but nothing like the 2 -3 colored posters from the west coast. Bill was extremely nice to me, I will always remember that day. He was kind and caring, not a hard mogul mega producer. He looked at my college drawings as well as the Village flyers. He pondered for a while then turned to me and said “I will give you a chance”. He then asked me how much I wanted and I told him. He thanked me and got up and left. I then went to the office with John and he gave me the details of the names on the poster and how I was to set it up. I was ecstatic, as he also gave me a group of the Fillmore West postcards to use as inspiration. He said put them under your coat as everyone wants them. I left and when home and worked out my first Fillmore poster which was for the WHO and Buddy Guy. Bill received it well when I brought it to him and I was given another poster to do for the MOTHER’S of INVENTION Last NY appearance until Peace. I was also paid twice what I had asked for, he had a set price he felt the art work was worth to him and since I did not try to overcharge in the beginning I was rewarded. That really touched me as he could have given me what I asked for.  He treated all that worked for him with extreme kindness as long as you did what you were supposed to do. I was also issued a Fillmore East back stage pass which got me into the theater for all the concerts as well as back stage to meet the performers.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What does to be a female artist in the Rock ’n’ Roll industry?

Life was very free, I cared about getting my rent, phone and electric paid and money for a new pair of shoes. Drawing all the time and improving my style. Hanging out with friends, and getting high. Life was very simple back then. Today it is extremely complicated. But I am still a shoe junky.

Being a female artist was an interesting experience. There were not a lot of us in New York. I was very lucky as the Village Theater was just up the street, and my going there after I quit Pratt looking for work was perfect timing. After it closed many jobs came from the people involved with the Theater. They knew they could depend on me to deliver the art on time. A lot was newspaper ads for ROCK concerts. I had always hoped it would lead to more album covers but that did not happen. I was my own agent. There were not many agents in New York that wanted to take on an unknown female artist. I made the appointments and I went on the interviews with my portfolio. I spent every day drawing and expanding the art in my portfolio. Getting in the door even with having done Fillmore Posters was not easy. I also experienced some compromising situations with the all male art directors. More details will reveal in my book which I hope to finish soon.

I guess I miss some of my Rock friends. I had become close with Richie Ingui from the Soul Survivors, and he would always come by when he was in town and hang out. I was also friendly with Don Stevenson from the Moby Grape.

We connected when they played the Village Theater, as I had met their manager at Hansen Publications, who I had an instant dislike for and they had just fired him. He had tortured me on the “805” poster that I did, and I will always remember that. As I lived 1/2 block from the Theater, I invited them back to my apartment to get stoned. Over time I was to sit in on their recording sessions as I was to do their next album cover.   

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

This is a kind of a tough question. For me it would be that I had gotten more art work that the Donovan album cover I drew was used, and the Moody Blues did not use their child hood best friend for their covers. That’s sort of more than one thing, but my reality.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the Psychedelic Art of 60s and 70s?

The art from that period was totally amazing, and very inspirational. As I was part of that art movement I am not sure what made me laugh, except some of the fun experiences I got to live. What touched me was how wonderful so many people were to me during that time, yes I was providing an art service, but a few people went way over board to help me. John Morris, Gary Kurfirst, Bill Graham, Richie Ingui from the Soul Survivors, and Don Stevenson from the Moby Grape, to name a few. Without their constant help I would have never accomplished the huge amount of ROCK ART I created during the late 1960’s to early 1970’s. 

What were the reasons that made your generation to start the Psychedelic, Social, Political, Spiritual searches?

Again another tough question to answer. Drugs coming to life certainly took a hold during that time, people were floundering, the war in Viet Nam was escalating and people in general were scared. It was strange and maybe not all of a sudden people realized that there was something else out there, they want to explore it, and the drugs certainly helped, a way of connecting to a real GOD.

"I always describe myself as being born with a paint brush in my hand." (Artwork © by Helen Hersh, Village Theater, 1967)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I had a few very favorite Rock groups. I adored the ROLLING STONEs, and guess I regret not trying to figure out a way for them to see my art work and to do an album cover for them. Certainly by 1970 I was good enough. But I also loved the Moody Blues and Donovan. My cover sample for Donovan was shown to his manager. To this day it might have been the one of the greatest pieces I have created, but managers can be territorial.

I guess what one day I would like to change would be the day I went to Cobham England to meet the Moody Blues to show them my art work and try to get an album cover for them. I was staying in Barnes, about an hour bus ride from Cobham. When I called The Moody’s manager was extremely receptive to me and set up an appointment immediately. I was ecstatic. I had briefly met them back stage at the Fillmore East when they did a concert, but that was not the time or place to ask about an album cover or to show them my art work. I guess I could have asked them if they want to come to my apartment and get stoned and look at my art work… or yes the want to see my etchings line, not going over too big. I was not a groupie. And yes I had two semesters of real etchings in college, I loved doing them. If I had met Mick Jagger that would have been my line as I did do a fantastic etching of him. BUT I was too shy to try that since we had no real common ground as I had with the Moby Grape. I had done a magnificent piece to show them what I could do for them, a picture attached. Their manager and three of the five showed up for my appointment. They were very nice and carefully looked at my portfolio and the sample cover I had drawn. But they dropped a bomb on me by telling me their childhood best friend did their covers. I would want it to be that the three were fascinated by my work and wanted me to draw their next album cover.

(Artwork © by Helen Hersh, Village Theater, 1967)





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