A Celebration of Phans’ Art
It’s no secret that the fanbase surrounding Phish is an eccentric group of individuals, from all walks of life. Despite varying economic backgrounds, political affiliations and geographic locations, the one uniting factor has always been the love of the music and through the years, that love has manifested itself in diverse forms, most notably an artistic output that easily surpassed that of any group of fans on earth. Prior to concerts, fans wandering through the parking lot were able to find everything, both expected (hemp necklaces, fresh blown glass, stickers and fan designed and produced t-shirts) and unexpected (cheeseburgers or paintings). Until now, nobody has attempted to chronicle that output but “Phanart Pete” Mason is attempting to change that with the upcoming release of his book on this very subject. I had a chance to speak with Pete over a few evenings about his endeavor and what in the world would ever get him to undertake such a task.
Editor’s Note: Dan Greenhaus, who conducts this interview, has contributed over the years in a minor fashion as an informal advisor during the assembling of the book being discussed.
Dan Greenhaus: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us what exactly is Phanart?
Pete Mason: Phanart is a book that compiles all the lot art and other creative efforts of Phish fans from 1992-2004. This includes posters, shirts, stickers, paintings, their tattoos, the vanity plates so many of us got, and other random things that show the influence of the band through the fans
DG: Where did you come up with the idea in the first place? It seems to be an ingenious idea for a book, but also a difficult one to implement.
PM: Well, the initial idea came the day I left Coventry, that Monday night, heading down 91. I had some time to myself with my friends asleep in the car, and I ran through my head what we all just went through.
DG: For many people it certainly was quite an experience.
PM: The first thing was that those people, those same Phish fans will never be together again – any reunion would be a different thing, a different crowd, even if it was 95% old, 5% new, for example. The community I knew I would miss, and the thought about all that stuff that the fans made (but not necessarily bought) would be otherwise forgotten. Shirts get worn out, stickers fade, posters hang on walls or stay in tubes – being a history teacher and one for nostalgia, I felt that if could at the least get the ball rolling on a collection of sorts. After a few months and talking to friends – Phanart was born.
DG: When you put it like that, it really does sound like a great idea for a book. Not that I didn’t think so initially, but hearing you explain its genesis helps put it in perspective.
PM: Yeah, I realized within 6 months I could be getting in over my head, but it actually helped me get through grad school, having something keeping me focused, but not stressing me out.
DG: An idea such as this, a collection of the works of art by hundreds if not thousands of people, spread out all across the country, would probably be overly daunting to a whole lot of people. Getting started must’ve been pretty difficult. What was it like at the beginning?
PM: The start was slow. It took 6 months to crack 300 submissions, but I asked my friend John, who knew a lot of the poster artists at least by name, and he advised me that they were more approachable than I thought. Since it was all for charity and a fantastic way for them to get exposed to the entire Phish community and beyond, they were very receptive. I would get one person, then another, then another, and soon I had a few dozen artists – some of whom I had bought their art in the lots, not knowing their name till they sent me a folder of images for the book.
DG: Who are some of the artists involved?
PM: Some of the first were Jason Lees, Ryan Kerrigan, and Jason Kaczorowski, AJ Masthay and Jamie Huntsman, all of whom came on board and are featured artists in the book. That being said – all artists are in the book without receiving money for their inclusion. I myself receive no money at any point from the publication, making it wholly not-for-profit.
DG: Was the goal at the outset to focus entirely on art? Because I know you have also collected t-shirts, stickers and other such items that aren’t technically "art" per se.
PM: The focus was on art, yes. Art is a word with a VERY broad definition: art to one person is not art to another, but to Phish fans, a majority of this book can be appreciated by even the most casual Phish fan, as well as casual art fans. I know shirts and stickers may not fall into the general category of art for some, but in the grand picture of all these items, it took creativity and effort to make these designs, and I made sure the umbrella above Phanart did not close because of my own personal tastes or because something might not be art to 1 person in the crowd, let alone 100.
DG: Well, I think most people who have had experience, even briefly, within the Phish community generally and Phish parking lots specifically would tend to agree with you. If there is one thing that was never lacking in the community, it was artistic expression in a variety of areas.
PM: Ah yes, the artistic expression knew no bounds. The girls with the butterfly wings, the glow stick wars, the group of fans who would dress up for the sake of dressing up in an interesting way – performance art was a part of Phish shows as well. I think people remember this but don’t think of it as art, when it is art by definition! Definitely my favorite part of shows, music aside.
DG: Speaking of girls with butterfly wings, have you ever had any contact with the "bunnies?"
PM: Lol, the bunnies – yeah, one of the artist was one of them. We have a picture in the book towards the end.
DG: Well few in the parking lots enjoyed the performance art, and the free form expression permitted in parking lots more than the bunnies, so I’m glad to see them represented, but I’m biased because I think they’re also great people. Now, you mentioned that the book is not for profit, and you won’t be receiving any funds yourself. What made you make that decision and what organizations will be receiving the proceeds?
PM: The book is not for profit simply because that is the right thing to do. It sounds cheesy, but I found no reason to make money of the book. I didn’t make anything in this book (one sticker aside), and didn’t think I should make money because I got artists to send in work for the book. Making it for charity made a bigger goal, beyond selfish reasons – give the money to charity, a fan-based one at that, and the turnout/response would be better, and I could sleep better at night.
I chose the Mockingbird Foundation because they give grants for music education. Being an educator myself, I found this to be a natural selection. All the artists were happy to be part of the book knowing this, and as I said before, no artist in the book asked for any money or came unwillingly into the fold of Phanart. I think we had two artists who declined overall.
DG: Earlier you had mentioned that you felt after six months that you might be in over your head. What turned that around and enabled you to finish the book?
PM: Well, I started the website and got the first submission 10/1/04. By March 1st, I was in Florida interviewing an artist, meeting another near the cape, trying to layout the book literally with print outs and glue and scissors – I didn’t know what this would look like – so I decided 2005 and 2006 would be the time for me to collect everything. By the time 06 was over, I would be done with grad school, the word would be spread on the book, and when I started layout in early 07, I would be able to do so with a greater deal of ease, as the items came in. We all have our own ways of getting things done, and this was better for me. That being said, I had no intention of rushing Phanart. There was no reason to rush in my opinion. Sure, fans wanted to see it, but quality was more important than speed; far more important. Even the past 6 months I have made sure every single image is as high res as possible, so that it looks better in the book, and the book looks better as a result
Plus, I wanted this collection to be as close to 'complete' as possible. While I didn’t get everything out there (some stickers and shirts are LONG GONE), I am confident this book has between 90-95% of what fans made.
DG: What is the final tally of stickers, art, posters and such?
PM: Final tally – 1633 items. 339 stickers, 417 posters, drawings and paintings, 627 shirts (this one still amazes me), 167 license plates, 25 tattoos and 58 misc items (cars, hats and such).
DG: That’s quite a haul.
PM: Yeah, over 3.6 years and it was interesting. It was like a long storm, a long happy storm – light at first, then drenched for two years, then it tapered off. When the submissions slowed, I knew I was getting close being complete. Along the way, I organized them and credited the proper submitter/creator.
DG: So when all this was said and done, you had to get a publisher. What was that process like and with whom did you end up?
PM: That process was tough. From the beginning we triedPublishers wanted to see a finished product, so we had to wait till late 2007. We started shopping it to publishers, but what I didn’t realize was the uniqueness of this book. There is literally nothing else like it out there. 2 books are similar in nature, but nothing is truly like this book. So where we stand now is we’re in final negotiations with two publishers and hopefully we have an answer soon. In terms of spreading the word about the book, I have been doing ads in Relix, at the Jammys, and all around word of mouth. Effective I must say.
DG: Websites such as Phantasy Tour have helped I’m sure?
PM: Oh yes! Early on, and even up until recently, it has been a cornucopia of items. Fans share their license plates and things they made all the time, and a short conversation leads to getting the permission to use the image in the book. Very simple, and folks spread the word. Expresso beans helped a lot as well – all the posters are there! So I could look through the many pages of Phish posters, find what wasn’t official, and search out the artists. I owe them so much thanks – I could always rely on EB and Phishposters.com as well to answer a question, find an artist, or otherwise contribute to the effort.