From the Nov. 9, 2009 Chicago Sun-Times:
Artist behind Parliament Funkadelic art struggles to get by
Chicago’s Pedro Bell was the artist behind some of music’s most iconic album covers. Now his life is anything but a pretty picture.
November 9, 2009
BY KARA SPAK Staff Reporteremail@example.com
Thick dust covers the gold lame shirt and silver leather coat in Pedro Bell’s closet.
The clothes are remnants from a brighter time when Bell, a rainbow Afro wig on his head and platform shoes on his feet, strutted through Chicago as a charter member of the ’70s funk revolution whose sound is heavily sampled in rap songs today.
“It was psychedelic from a black perspective,” Bell said.
Bell, 59, designed the cover art for more than two dozen George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic albums. Under the name Sir Lleb (Bell backward), he wrote the albums’ liner notes, peppering them with cartoonish drawings, clever puns and names like “Thumpasaurus” and “Funkapus” that remain synonymous with Clinton’s music.
“George Clinton gets a lot of credit for the conceptual dimension of P-Funk, but actually Pedro Bell was a big part of that with his texts and imagery,” said Pan Wendt, co-curator of a gallery exhibition in Toronto called “Funkaesthetics” which featured Bell’s work.
Now, as Bell’s art receives increased recognition in the art world, the artist struggles to survive.
Almost totally blind, Bell can’t see the dim hallways of the Hyde Park Arms, the shabby SRO he calls home. His ankle is swollen from a wound that won’t heal. He receives dialysis three times a week because severe hypertension damaged his kidneys. He recently beat an eviction order on a court technicality.
And despite the commercial success of Clinton’s music, Bell said he didn’t profit from it.
“He should be well-taken care of,” said his younger brother Maillo Tsuru, who has been flying back and forth from his Denver home to help his brother find affordable assisted living. “He has work that is very famous.”
Bell first heard George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic on the 1970s underground Chicago radio station Triad, he said.
“I found the record company and sent a letter and said I wanted to do stuff,” he said.
He started designing concert posters and playbills for the group’s Chicago performances, then branched out into national press kits and promotional material.
Clinton asked him to do the artwork for his 1973 album “Cosmic Slop.” During most of his collaboration with Clinton, Bell worked jobs as a postal worker, security guard and for an auto parts manufacturer.
Despite the day jobs, he lived the funk philosophy, popularized in the music of Clinton, Sly Stone and Funkadelic member Bootsy Collins. Their creed was “free your mind and the rest will follow” and “when you’re going down you’re still up,” Bell said.
“We believed where the funk was going to take us,” he said. “We’ve got philosophy to back up the music.”
Museum of Contemporary Art curator Dominic Molon featured Bell’s work in his traveling exhibit “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock ‘n’ Roll since 1967.”
“They looked somewhere beyond to find alternatives to the kind of weak realities of African-American life in the ’60s and ’70s,” Molon said of Bell and Clinton’s collaboration.
Wendt noted that Bell’s creations weren’t meant to be “high art.”
“They were business, they were funny, part of life, meant to be spread around widely and shared,” he said.
He says he thinks Bell’s original paintings, stored at a friend’s house, are worth “a lot of money for sure.”
Bell said he thought his involvement in the funk movement would sustain him beyond a falling-out he had with Clinton more than 15 years ago. Clinton’s agents did not respond to requests for comment.
“We really believed that if we [did] this, we’d be able to support ourselves,” Bell said.
Bell’s financial situation, though, is increasingly bleak.
“We’re just looking for collectors at this point,” Tsuru said. “There’s no reason a world-class artist shouldn’t have patrons.”
Hipped to this via Joe Carducci at The New Vulgate