If you’ve gone to shows at Kilby Court over the years and casually grabbed a flier or two on your way out, you may not have realized at the time that you were acquiring a work of art.
But then, these aren’t your ordinary rock show fliers. They are more about the music’s fans than the bands. The artwork of Leia Bell has adorned dozens of rock posters, and will be collected—framed even—for a show at Ken Sanders Rare Books.
Originally from Knoxville, Tenn., Bell relocated here to study art at the University of Utah. She started attending indie rock shows at Kilby Court and, about three years ago, volunteered to help make fliers. Though Bell’s early efforts were just black-and-white handbills, Kilby proprietor Phil Sherburne soon suggested that she make use of her printmaking degree and helped procure a screenpress. Earlier this year, Kilby Court was named by Esquire magazine “one of the coolest venues in the country,” and with Bell’s works printed individually in vivid colors on heavy art paper, it has some of the coolest fliers.
Kilby’s motto has been “no rock-star attitude,” and that seems to go double for the posters, which use images of almost anyone except musicians, mostly kids listening to the bands. One of Sherburne’s dogs finds his way into a picture, sitting next to a sleeping slacker, and, in one of the more absurd images, a monkey is being fed with a baby’s bottle.
How do bands feel about these fliers that barely find space to mention them amid the incongruous images? Local bands are so unappreciated, Bell notes, that they are happy that someone is going to the effort for them.
She has a huge stack of photos she’s taken of people she knows to sketch from. “I don’t associate pictures with individual bands,” she explains. “I try to use photos of people who would listen to the music. People tell me, ‘I know that girl, I met her at a party.’”
These people are inscrutable. A girl drinking from a Champagne glass has a suggestive look. An unspoken drama is going on, between two girls talking barely out of earshot of a third in a doorway, or two guys with “indie-rock” beards hanging out by Kilby’s back fence. This is a far cry from glamorous depictions of band members or the psychedelic ego-stroking commonplace among the rock poster genre. But somehow her images capture the quality of the bands that play there. One comment on the Website Gigposters.com enthused, “Leia Bell’s style and Mates of State go together perfectly.”
More than being about the bands, they define a genre of music, Bell believes. In describing the audience, she thinks they describe the music as well. “They say something about what kids are like in the early 2000s,” she says. “Kids are rebellious and independent, yet somehow bored, lazy, floating through life. They don’t know what they want to do, but they don’t want to conform (though they tend to dress alike).”
Exhibition host Ken Sanders, an afficionado of ’60s rock posters, says, “Her work is spontaneous yet carefully thought out, focusing on an average moment in life just as a snapshot would.” A few images in the show will be images without flier verbiage, but narrative captions, just art for art’s sake.
After doing fliers for Kilby for about a year, Bell submitted some of the images to Gigposters.com. Based on the positive response there, she was asked to do fliers for other venues, not just in Salt Lake City but in legendary places like the Troubadour in Los Angeles and Rock City in London. Rock City asked Arthur Lee of ’60s group Love to autograph her poster for his show, but he declined since he lacked Bell’s permission.
Then this year at Austin’s South by Southwest conference, Bell had a booth with Sherburne at Flatstock along with 80 other graphic artists showing off their wares. She sold everything she took there. It was also in Austin that she met San Francisco art dealer Dennis King, who liked her work enough to include several examples in his upcoming book The Art of Modern Rock, alongside some of the most notable poster artists in the world. At a convention in Seattle, she sold all 500 of the refrigerator magnets she made of the poster images.
Raising toddler son Cortez with boyfriend Sherburne hasn’t changed her work; it has just given her less time to do it. “Someday if I had enough time I’d like to produce a graphic novel, or a fine art book of prints, with a narrative,” she muses. “ A full story, not just captions.”
Then maybe we could discover what’s really going on behind these mysterious faces.