WINSTON SMITH
Get's Candid
With Ginger Coyote
We at Punk Globe decided to feature an article on Winston Smith that Rebecca G Wilson had written... When I contacted Winston letting him know of our plans he suggested that perhaps we could do a updated interview with him. So I put together a few fast questions for him... Please read Rebecca's article for the real meat and potatoes about Winston.. I hope you enjoy my one on one with Winston.
Punk Globe:
Thanks so much for the interview Winston! Tell us about some of your latest artwork that you have done?
WINSTON SMITH:
I just finished some album art for the new 45 Grave album (their first in 25 years) but I’m still not sure how they’ll use it. That remains a mystery. I’m also planning a poster for Primus and another for the Surrealist Panel that I’ll participate in with Vale and Penelope Rosemont at the Anarchists’ Book fair at the end of March. In addition, I always have a dozen different side projects percolating and developing.
Punk Globe:
Who were some of your personal inspirations Winston?
WINSTON SMITH:
I’m afraid I’m as old fashioned as sealing wax. Most of my personal inspirations have been dead for centuries. Among them, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Hieronymus Bosch and others somewhat more contemporary such as the Dadaists and Surrealist artists. I don’t know very much about many living artists, accept the ones that are personal friends. They are very inspiring for me, the works of Chuck Sperry and Ron Donovan and Chris Shaw. Their posters are extraordinary. And the works of Shepard Fairey and Paul Mavrides and Hal Robbins are a constant source of wonderment. When I look at art magazines like Juxtapoz and High Fructose I see so many different versions of incredible art that it makes me proud of anyone who makes the effort at self-expression through any medium, be it art or music or literature. Just making the effort is 90% of what counts.
Punk Globe:
Do you remember the CD Cover that you did for Kathy Peck and myself for "Hear This" which helped raise funds for H.E.A.R.?
WINSTON SMITH:
That piece was called “I’m All Ears”. When Kathy asked me for some graphics for that album that was the first piece that came to mind. It was a privilege to have my work used for promoting Kathy’s H.E.A.R. project. She’s worked very hard for years on that and it’s had great beneficial effect. Dirk was also a strong supporter of her work.
Punk Globe:
Did you do the artwork for the Dirk Dirksen memorial?
WINSTON SMITH:
Yes, that was an honor to be asked to do that. Dirk was such a good friend to all of us and I loved and admired him and miss him very much. He was the calm eye of the turbulent punk scene storm in San Francisco and always had encouraging words and advice for those of us struggling to do our work in this community.

As for the artwork for his memorial concerts, I had made a massive collage version of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” that included photos of noteworthy (and unworthy) punks of the era. Many photos were by James Stark, F. Stop Fitzgerald and Richard McCaffrey. It was entitled “Never Give Up”. I altered my collage for Dirk’s Memorial Poster by replacing the faces with a multitude of photos of Dirk, even one of him as a child in lederhosen back in Berlin during the war. It was a riot of Dirk faces (and he could make some wonderful faces!), so there was a lot of variety.

I still miss Dirk all the time. I’m sure a lot of people miss him. He made such a big difference in our otherwise empty and pathetic little lives.
Punk Globe:
Can you tell us some of your personal favorites of all the work you have done?
WINSTON SMITH:
There are many compositions I’ve created that have never seen the light of day which I like very much. Some of them are in my books, such as “ashes to Ashes” (which was turned into a 3-D piece by Tristan Eaton for his book 3-D Art Book

Of the works that wound up on record covers, I’d say “Idol” (The Cross of Dollars) would be one of them. I made it around 1977 as a three dimensional piece. Then I made a 2-D collage out of it in ’78. I didn’t show it to Biafra till early 1980. That’s when he decided to use it for Dead Kennedys’ EP “In God We Trust, Inc.” I didn’t find out for 20 years that he didn’t actually have a record in mind at the time but wanted to do one so he could use that exact piece on the cover. I’m glad that my work inspired his creativity. We have always had a symbiotic working relationship ever since, bouncing ideas off one another and trying new directions. That was over 32 years ago and we’ve been “Partners in Crime” ever since.
Punk Globe:
Tell us some of the books that include your work?
WINSTON SMITH:
Actually, I don’t know. But I know that there are a lot of them so far. Besides my books published by Last Gasp of San Francisco (Act Like Nothing’s Wrong, 1994, Artcrime, 1998, All Riot on the Western Front, 2004) my work has appeared in lots of books about the punk underground. I’ve had my work used for several book covers, mostly books about politics (including best selling author Greg Palast’s books, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” and “Armed Madhouse”). I’ve also had many illustrations used in books, even a few that were college textbooks and a doctoral thesis (which is funny, since I am a high school drop-out). I think there is a list on my website for lots of the books but I’m not sure how to look that up since I’m so bad at computer research, or any thing on the computer, actually. I have never gotten the hang of using the computer. I’m very much a Luddite. My aptitude for computers or practically anything technical or mechanical is nil. I’m probably 95% right-brained. The 5% left-brain is probably just enough to keep my balance while walking up and down stairs, etc.
Punk Globe:
You did artwork for a George Carlin. Please tell us about that?
WINSTON SMITH:
I had done a huge show at C-Pop Gallery in Detroit in the summer of 2001 and on the way back stopped in Chicago because I was doing work for Playboy at the time (lots of double-page illustrations for stories and articles---but I still never scored a dream date with Miss July…)

I’d been contacted by Atlantic Records about doing a cover for George Carlin’s new album and I kept asking them for the title, since that would help me gather images to represent it. They kept saying, “Uh, well, you should probably let George tell you about that”.

So when we spoke on the phone on September 8th or 9th while in Chicago we had a long talk about the theme of his new show and what I could arrange as a compelling album cover. He said he really liked the work he’d seen in my books and was looking forward to something that would fit his subject matter. So when I asked him what his title was he said he wanted to call it “I Kinda Like It when a Lotta People Die”. Immediately I reassured him that he’d come to the right place since I had lots of images of catastrophes, earthquakes, sinking ships, etc.

So a day or so later we got back to San Francisco and the very next morning we awoke to a friend calling to say there had been this huge accident in New York City. We didn’t have television except for an old TV used to watch videos on. It only got one static-filled ABC station showing the attacks on the Twin Towers.

Like everyone else in the world, we sat there with our jaws dropping and a few hours latter the phone rang. It was George. We both talked about the horrendous events unfolding before us and he casually said, “Ya know, that title I had for the album… I’ve been thinking. Maybe I’ll change it to something else. But don’t let that change what the artwork will be”. I agreed and pointed out that that was probably a good idea. When the album was released around Christmas of that year he had re-christened it “Complaints and Grievances”. It was a really funny album and totally right- on so I was proud to have the opportunity to participate in that with George.

Because they said it would also be a vinyl release I made the original as a three-part gate-fold album that was 12’ x 36”. So the original is quite large and full of minute detail. Unfortunately they released it as a CD so much of the tiny details were lost in the reduction. I look at the CD now and even I can’t tell what certain things are. They did make life-sized poster of it but by the time I found out they were all gone (typical). George was a funny guy and a very nice cat. If he were still around he’d be having have a blast right now during this election year.
Punk Globe:
Tell us about your connection with Green Day and Ben Harper?
WINSTON SMITH:
I’ll make my long Green Day story short. I’d known Tre since he was a teen-ager up in Northern Californy where I lived years ago in a remote cabin out in the woods for years. No electricity or running water or telephone at my old wig-wam. It’s still that way. Very rustic.

We’d run into each other from time to time and he’d asked me a couple times about doing a record cover for his band. By and by I wound up back in the City years later and in the mean time he’d gone on to fame and fortune with his band mates in Green Day.

When they tracked me down in late 1995 Tre and Bill came over and we went through hundreds of my pieces till they found one in particular that caught their eye. So I used that piece to create the composition for their up-coming album “Insomniac”. It was probably one of the most bizarre pieces I’d made up till that time. (I entitled it, “God Told Me to Skin You Alive” after the first line Biafra utters on the first Dead K album. Curiously enough, Billie Joe, Tre and Mike each recognized it. How obscure is that??) I also made an additional piece for the back cover and an inside tray card image.

After the release we worked with a team to produce an animation of the front and back covers, where all the elements move and inter-act. Mike thought it was a computer animation but we actually cut everything out piece by piece and hinged them together to move them like puppets, a few frames at a time. It took two weeks of 12 hour days to prepare and create the elements for a two minute song. (We were lucky it was a short one!) I think there is a link to that video somewhere on Yoo Toob. The song was called “Stuck with Me”.

I still have the original of that album art for Insomniac in my archives. It was a singular opportunity to participate in something that became instantly visible world-wide and I appreciated that Tre and the Green Day Lads enlisted me for the project. All three of those cats are very good eggs and the worked hard for all the success they’ve achieved.

As for Ben Harper; I hadn’t known of him till I was moving the radio dial around one night and came across this astonishing music. It was an acoustic version of Ben’s song “Roses from my Friends”. (It was on KUSF, that wonderful and legendary radio station that was obliterated last year). I didn’t know who it was so I called them and the DJ told me. The next day I went down to Tower Records to look for anything this guy had done. (The “Power of Advertising”. It works!) Of course Ben had been around forever. It’s just that I’m so culturally clueless about everything (I’d barely even heard of Green Day before I was commissioned to do their album art. The last time I’d heard of them was in a long line-up at Gilman Street).

At some point later I heard he was going to be performing at the Warfield where Chick was working as the backstage caterer. I left a copy of one of my books for him backstage. Later I happened to be helping out in the kitchen, sweeping up and washing dishes when one of Ben’s road managers walked in and recognized me and said he was a big fan of my work. So one thing led to another and Ben asked me to do an insert for his next album “Both Sides of the Gun”. So I’m sure glad I was on dish washing duty that night.

Later he asked me to do the Gatefold album “White Lies for Dark Times”. He’s also collected some key originals from me over the years. He was great to work with and we became good friends. Ben’s one of the nicest and most right-on people I know. He even offered to perform live at our wedding but it turned out later he was scheduled to be in Australia on the big day. I reckon that means we’ll have to get married all over again next time he’s in town.
Punk Globe:
Have you done any other work with Jello Biafra besides your legendary work for The Dead Kennedys?
WINSTON SMITH:
After my work on several of Dead Kennedys’ singles and Albums (I think I did either the cover or some inside art in just about all of them) Biafra had me do covers for several of his spoken word albums. He also had me do covers for his albums with NoMeansNo and with D.O.A., I can’t remember them all but there is probably a list at the Alternative Tentacles website and maybe on mine.

Back in 1980 we were working together on the inside giant double-sided poster for the first Dead K album “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables” and a week or so later Biafra rang me up on the phone to ask me if I could come up with some kind of insignia or emblem that the band could use for a logo.

He explained that most bands went by abbreviations (like MDC for “Millions of Dead Cops”, etc.) and could I do something with the letters D and K? He said he was looking for something that would be, shall we say, graphically severe. I went right to work and that night and spent several hours experimenting with a type of angular design that (after lots of trial and error utilizing a secret method) I finally came up with the DK logo as it appeared in the center of the first Dead Kennedys album.

And, just for the record: any other version of how the DK logo was created is, to put it most charitably, “In Error”.
Punk Globe:
Tell us about your wedding in 2006?
WINSTON SMITH:
When Chick and I got married we couldn’t book Westminster Abby or the Coliseum so we settled on our neighborhood saloon, the Washington Square Bar & Grill. (What can I say? It was a short commute). Wavy Gravy was our Master of Ceremonies and it was a festive and joyous occasion. Short and sweet and lots o’ laffs.

Wavy’s red rubber nose dropped off during the ceremony but I retrieved it in time for the rings to be swapped. Since it was something I’d been putting off for over half a century we figure it might as well be fun for everyone.
Punk Globe:
Tell us what 2012 has in store for you?
WINSTON SMITH:
I’m not sure. As long as the Mayan Calendar doesn’t interfere, and if all the planets don’t line up on one side of the solar system causing the sun to go nova, then I hope to accomplish good things this year. Since no one is really going to hire a 400 year-old raggedy-assed, grey haired old punk artist for any “real” job I kinda have to invent my own. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. (Hell, I never even learned the old tricks).

After many years of working on my kitchen table (or the top of a wooden stool, actually) I was finally fortunate to locate a studio that is almost big enough for all my crap. I am hopelessly disorganized (partly due to my being more than a little dyslexic) so if something’s out of view it’s out of mind. The only cure for that is lots of surface area is needed. The good thing about the studio is that from time to time I can use it as a gallery for small shows.

I actually have several ideas that have been simmering for years that would make either interesting graphic novels or children’s books (though I’m not sure how profitable that will be, since most children usually have so little hard cash to spend after their lunch money’s spoken for…)

What I am looking for are interns or helpers who are either good with computers, excel at organization, have lots of free time and don’t need to be paid. (In short, someone who is independently wealthy, has endless energy (and patience), and actually stayed in school long enough to study the skills that I was too dyslexic or lazy to acquire).

As a broke artist I’m always scrambling to make ends meet so about all I can offer is my artwork in trade (and the satisfaction of knowing they’ve helped an old geezer underground artist to get his work out into the world). So any interested parties with talents and skills to spare are welcomed to forward their applications care of my website. Like I say, my lack of computer skills means I usually don’t see most e-mails sent to me but if it makes it through the pipe Chick will probably spot them and let me know. (Being twenty years younger than me, Chick is light years better at using computers, which is a big help).

So there are always new projects to pursue and deadlines to meet. I am always available for album art and poster work but I just need to have a long lead time since, as I say, all of my work is “hand-carved art”, made in the old–world tradition (that is: slowly). But so far, I’ve never missed a deadline yet. Though sometimes I feel like I’m never going to catch up with all that I have planned. Biting off more than I can chew has been my life’s work. Why change now?
Punk Globe:
Any Internet addresses that you would like to share with Punk Globe readers?
WINSTON SMITH:
Hmmm… outside of my own website, www.WinstonSmith.com, I am so utterly clueless about what’s available on the inter-web that I doubt if I’d have any suggestions that most people aren’t already aware of. I can barely turn a computer on or off, which seems to surprise some people who think my work is done with Photoshop. I wish I knew how to work Photoshop and other computer stuff that would speed up my production and organize my work. Instead, I just use the same knife and glue that I’ve always used for the last 35 years. Plus lots of 70 year old magazines and books and cardboard. It’s worse than just “low tech”. It’s like the cave paintings of Lascaux, it’s positively prehistoric.
Punk Globe:
Can you tell us about your connection to George Orwell?
WINSTON SMITH:
When I was a kid my older brother was an avid science fiction reader. So when I was a young teenager back in 1963 he suggested I read Orwell’s novel “1984”. (Later on it became assigned reading in most schools but usually not till people were somewhat older. I lucked-out to get exposed to that book at an early age when most of my school mates were still watching “Wagon Train” or “Annie Oakley”).

The novel was like a light bulb going on since it explained in cold, straight language how things actually work, and how they have always worked. Orwell wasn’t “predicting the future”, he was just describing the present (as well as the formula for centuries of state tyranny and manipulation of the masses).

In the late 1960s I ran off to Italy since it was cheaper in those days to live there and study art than it was in the United States. (Unfortunately that has all now changed, as so much else has). After nearly 7 years living outside the U.S. and seeing this country as everyone else in the world regarded it I finally moved back to America around 1976 (just in time for all the Bicentennial hype).

In the mean time I had re-read the book and when I got back to America the contrasts could not have been more striking. I was shocked to see all the changes that had occurred during my absence. When I left there was a progressive movement that was inspiring positive change, though some of it was indeed random fighting in the streets and culture pranks, giving the establishment an easy excuse to clamp down on civil liberties. But once I returned, I felt like Rip Van Winkle awakening from a long slumber, as if all that energy and hope for change had been somehow derailed and defused.

For one thing the economy had changed as soon as the real costs of the war in Viet Nam became clear and the majority of those people willing to stand up for a new society had caved-in and joined the Establishment (now there’s a word you never see much anymore). They were all relaxed and watching television non-stop and the meaningful aims of the youth movement of the Sixties became the dissipated “Me” generation of the ‘70s. (Now it’s the “Me First Generation”).

When I first returned I lived in back in Boston for a while and it seemed every where I went there were television “security” cameras everywhere, not just in banks and office buildings but in dime stores and doughnut shops. And no one seemed to care. They had all grown used to it as a reasonable trade-off for more convenience. It really was a matter of “Give me Convenience or give me Death” (to quote a title of one of the last Dead Kennedy albums).

At that time I’d been utilizing a couple of different pen names for some various art styles I was experimenting with such as Aaron Blurr, Krass Vermin, Rangoon Dandy, etc. One of them was Winston Smith, since it seemed to me that nowadays everyone was essentially that character. (Which is probably why Orwell used the name Smith, being the most common and anonymous name in the English language---which I’d personally always thought was the most undistinguished and boring name anyone could get born with).

So that’s the one that stuck, and since then I’ve actually lived most of my life under that boring name (about 35 out of nearly 60 years now). I figured I owed it to my folks and their good Irish name. After all, since my brand of “art” was so counter-culture and (at least for their generation) very shocking, then I figured it would be far easier for me to change my name than for my whole family to have to go change their name. As they saw it, I was doing them a favor.

In the mean time the analogy has become even more fitting, what with the take-over of computers in global society, never mind the excuse of “security”. The one interesting thing for me has been to watch how less and less people are aware that “1984” was ever written, much less are outraged by the erosion of our civil liberties and the multitude of environmental insults that have lead us to the brink of global climate change. Apparently “1984” is no longer required reading in schools. Too bad. That means people will have to learn it the hard way. Or not at all.
Punk Globe:
Any words of advice for young upcoming Artists?
WINSTON SMITH:
I really wish I had some helpful advice to offer. I would say that the most useful thing I’ve done in life is probably to provide others with a bad example of what not to do. I obviously have no formula for success or I would have managed a better outcome by now. Any consistent monetary success has so far eluded me. Any artistic success I’ve had has been a combination of dumb luck or just being in the right place at the right time. That’s not really anything you can plan for, anymore than one can plan for being struck by a trolley or getting clobbered by a meteorite.

As an artist you should always hold true to your core beliefs and remain confident in your own skills and vision. Developing those skills is probably most important, since I’m a good example of someone who never did. I have my own vision but I wish I had the technical skills to match them. Therefore it’s always been a struggle for me to truly express that vision since my abilities are limited by my woeful lack of skills. Being able to make precision cuts in tiny bits of paper is almost the limit of my technical ability. Perhaps I should have gone to medical school and then I could’ve made a good living as a surgeon (---maybe at a pet hospital. Pets can’t sue for malpractice).

Where I to have it all to do over I would have stayed in school and learned the basic skills an artist needs to know. I was always too interested in everything enough to narrow down my focus to just a few specific disciplines.

Of course, if I had turned myself inside out to learn certain things it would all be mostly obsolete by now. The redoubling of computer information on a weekly scale truly does mean that “everything you know is wrong” (or, at least, obsolete).

That is probably my only main regret (though I’m sure there are a few runners-up): not getting a good education. As a youth I never had the patience to study or the focus to learn things in a procedural way. Experiencing life first hand and valuing time with people and appreciating and encouraging others is, I believe, what we are here for. You can’t turn back time. So use it wisely and savor the moment. In the end it isn’t more money or more luxury or more comforts that you’ll want, it’s more time.

Of course, if I were given more time I’d probably just spend it making more mistakes. But mistakes aren’t the same as regrets. So don’t be afraid of making mistakes or making a fool of your self (after all, I’ve made a career of that. That’s one of the core elements of the Punk ethos). If everything went according to plan what a dull world it would be. Accidents lead to adventure and that can enrich your life and your artwork as much as anything else. Like they say; it’s not the things you do that you’ll regret in life. It’s the things you didn’t do.

So I reckon I would recommend that as a young artist you should aim to absorb as much as you can about life, more than art. It is that which will help you become a better artist. And don’t rush it. It will take a lifetime.
Punk Globe would like to thank Winston Smith for taking the time to answer these questions to coincide with the fantastic article that Rebecca G Wilson had written.....




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WINSTON SMITH