Paul Whitehead is a household name for progressive rock and music history fans. His iconic covers for the first few Genesis albums were seared into my mind. From the bold and daring art of Trespass, to the whimsical Nursery Cryme, to the surrealistic imagery of Foxtrot, Whitehead’s images were as much a part of Genesis’s music to me as the instruments were. As I got to know him as an artist, past his legendary album covers for Charisma Records (Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and others), I became keenly aware that he was not just an iconic artist for famous album covers, but a highly inventive artist who had mastered various styles and mediums, from abstract art to murals.
Paul recently finished up a show as an artist-in-residence at the Ojai Art Center, presenting works from both himself and his alter ego, Trisha Van Cleef. I had the opportunity to talk to Paul at ProgStock 2020, and that evolved into a larger conversation about his life, the role he played in the musical imagery during the Charisma Years, his larger body of surrealist and abstract imagery, his murals, his spiritual and philosophical beliefs, and his various alter egos.
Please visit Paul’s website, Fine Art by Paul Whitehead, to buy some of his amazing paintings and images, and to learn more about his background and history.
How did you first discover that you loved painting? What were some of your sharpest memories from your early days of painting?
I was about 5 years old when I found that I could draw anything that I imagined. It was a great trick for the kids at school and they would challenge me. Painting came after that, and my work was always put up on the wall by teachers, which pissed the other kids off no end.
You’ve had a wonderful and prolific career as an artist who helps bands bring their albums to life with art. How much input from an artist did you generally take before you create their album art? Are some artists more hands-on than others?
I never do a cover if I don’t like the music the band plays, or without any real feedback from the band about the concept of the music or the goal they are trying to achieve. Some bands have no idea, and others are very educated about images. Genesis, particularly Peter, were very knowledgeable.
Many of the artist you’ve worked with have fit more of a “progressive” categorization- Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Renaissance, etc. What were some of your initial feelings with these bands and the artistic philosophy of progressive rock? Looking back, what were some of the highlights from your Charisma years?
Progressive always seemed a strange category to me, all it really meant, to me, was that they changed the tempo here and there and ventured into new ways of singing or presenting a song. I was a big jazz fan before 1970 so I was already familiar with complicated time signatures and improv. The Beatles were very progressive to me because they broke the 2 minute single tradition and played in all kinds of musical fields very comfortably. The problem with Progressive music, in my eyes, is that it hasn’t progressed. I think my work with Tony Stratton Smith was probably some of the best work I’ve done because he gave me, and the bands I worked with, a completely free rein to create whatever we liked.
Your art for Genesis’s final tour, The Last Domino is as much of a an artistic rendering of your relationship with Genesis as it is a commemoration of their final tour. Tell us about some of your feelings as you created that piece.
Well, I’ve always had quite a contentious relationship with the Genesis management team. I had to sue them to get any money out of them for using my images on merchandise and repackaging the albums. I own the original Genesis logo, so that was quite a fight to establish that. In the end, we agreed that we could both use it without any litigation. It’s funny, because I watched interviews with band, and some of them claim the covers were their idea, (particularly Tony) which is not true. Peter and I cooked the covers up together. The other guys in the band were not interested in collaborating with me, as they were too busy with making the music. The one they all claim to have had a hand in is Trespass, which is totally not true, So when they announced the Last Domino tour, I thought I’d create and image for merchandise that would express my feelings. If you look closely, you’ll see that that Phil Mike and Tony are knocking down the dominoes which will come back around and crush them. A nice bit of passive aggressive imagery?
Describe your process for creating an art piece in tandem with a musical artist or song.
I usually have lots of meetings, go to rehearsals, listen to demos of the songs and insist on getting my hands on the lyrics so I can get a feeling of what they are trying to say, then when we all agree on an image, I get to work. These days I do my sketches in Photoshop which gives me endless possibilities for change, the result is that sometimes the band is happy with the Photoshop version and they use that for the cover.
Who are some bands or songs that have been inspiring you lately?
I’ve just discovered Garbage and rediscovered Sparks, which I love. There is a four piece band in Italy called Gnu Quartet, who have become friends, I love what they do. They are basically a very progressive string quartet with a female flutist. I currently play the Theremin in a band called the Banderkunst, which is fun.
For the last few years, you’ve been attending ProgStock and painting during artist performances. How did this relationship start? What have been some of your most memorable experiences as both a listener and an artist during these performances?
You must understand that painting is usually a very solitary experience. You are in your studio alone with as much time as you want to create an image. Painting live is a real adrenaline rush. You have only so many minutes to paint the piece and you work constantly keeping your eye on the clock. I very often jam and exchange gestures with musicians as I work (for example the guitar player will come over and play a solo for me as I work). It’s great fun. The best example of this was when I painted Foxtrot (twice the size of the original) over a period of 3 days when The Musical Box played 3 gigs in LA. I also really enjoyed painting with Nektar and Brand X at Progstock. There is a band called The Tea Club- we had a great time working together at Progstock last year and it produced a very nice painting.
Many people who know you through album art might not know that you are in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest mural. Tell us about how that was developed.
I had a business for a while in the 80’s painting advertising on the sides of semi trailers. A hotel owner in Las Vegas saw an article in the National Enquirer about some of the trucks we’d painted and called me. He basically challenged me to design something for the exterior of a 30 story hotel. We agreed on the design and we got to work. It wasn’t until we were about 75% through the project that someone wondered how big the design was, and they did the calculations and found out that it was the largest mural in the world at the time.
As you analyze your art over the years, what are some of the most present and salient themes? Are there some themes and symbols that have always seemed to manifest, or have surprised you upon later consideration?
I think my two perennial images are the black sky of the cosmos and the idea that the sky is like a theatrical backdrop. This is the stage that we all play on. I also like playing around with perspective.
Another aspect of your personality that manifests in your work is your spirituality. What can you tell us about the Church of the Immaculate Transmission, and how your belief system informs and manifests in your artistic output?
I have been a follower of the Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda for many years and his teachings permeate my work quite a bit. I serve him regularly, follow his spiritual teachings and try to work any spiritual realizations that I have subtlety into my work. I don’t like “preachy ” art; it really annoys me. The Church of the Immaculate Transmission is kind of a satirical take on phony spiritualism the idea of the church and conventional religion. I created Father Paul as a joke and discovered that when you are in public wearing a priests white collar the world treats you VERY differently. I am an ordained priest, I can marry people and bury them and naturally there are advantages. In Italy, for example, you can park wherever you want and you get treated very well in restaurants and on planes. When asked what denomination the church is I always tell people it’s a church for Rock and Roll Hindus.
You have a doppelganger artist that you sometimes collaborate with! Tell us about Trisha Van Cleef.
Throughout the years – going back to the 70’s, I dabbled with cross dressing, finally I created a female character that I call Trisha van Cleef and got very comfortable going out and manifesting her in the real world. Naturally it was only a matter of time before I wondered to myself what kind of art she would create. She has the opposite approach to Paul’s carefully worked out and planned realistic paintings. She is spontaneous and very much in the moment and makes abstract images. She is a lot less self conscious than Paul and his approach to making images. Her last series of paintings are of deep space, galaxies and solar systems.
How have your opinions on the artistic medium of painting evolved throughout the years? What is your take on digital art, and have you ever dabbled with it?
I don’t think it’s evolved . As I said earlier I frequently a use Photoshop these days. I’ve been painting for over 50 yrs so I have a huge inventory of my own images to draw on as the source material, for example if I need a sky, I have hundreds of original skies to use from past work.
You recently had an art exhibit at the Ojai Art Center. Tell us about it!
From January 8th until March 3rd I was been the artist in residence at The Ojai Art Center for what I call one of my One Man – One Woman art shows. The month of January featured the work of Paul and Trisha has been on show for the month of February. Very different work which created a very different vibe in the gallery, both of us had a reception and during the course of the two months I created a 36 foot wide labyrinth which is now a permanent part of the Art center.
If someone would like to purchase your art, how should they go about doing so?
The best way is to go to my website Fine Art by Paul Whitehead
Thanks so much, Paul! Please check out Paul’s website and purchase some of his wonderful, iconic art, and make sure to be on the lookout for Paul’s next project or festival appearance!