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Making Waves

[whitespace] Jim and Jimbo Phillips
George Sakkestad

New Wave: Jim (left) and Jimbo Phillips continue their reign over the local graphics scene.

From psychedelic and punk-rock posters to surf and skate graphics, local father and son artists Jim and Jimbo Phillips have created a local arts legacy--and an international cult following

By Mary Spicuzza

JIMBO PHILLIPS ducks into a dark corner of the Phillips family garage. He emerges smiling triumphantly, dusting off a '70s child's skateboard with his hands.

"Here it is--my first board. See, it still rides," Jimbo smiles, maneuvering it across the concrete floor. His tennis shoes hang over the bright red deck, which is less than 2 feet long and covered in a blocky Santa Cruz Skateboards logo.

Jimbo's dad, longtime local artist Jim Phillips, points to a diminutive yellow board hanging on the wall. He recounts dropping off his wife, Dolly, at the Capitola Mall, and taking Jimbo skating around the surrounding parking lots--long before the days of skateboarding ordinances.

Most garages boast a treasure of family history. But unlike the storage places in neighboring Eastside homes, the backyard shed of Jim and Jimbo Phillips is piled high with Santa Cruz art history. Stacks of Santa Cruz Skateboard decks designed by the Phillipses, who created hundreds of decks for the local company NHS during their long tenure there, rest under angled drawing tables. Cabinets reaching up to the ceiling are covered in surf stickers and logos--many of them Phillips creations. In a cleared back corner, shiny metal silk-screening equipment is already covered with objects from Jimbo's latest project, a T-shirt company he and a friend are forming: Sick Ink.

Psychedelic Paints And Papaya Diets

FLIPPING through a Japanese surf magazine on Jim Phillips' coffee table, I realize that even his living room is internationally famous. A 1998 issue of a Japanese surf zine, Surfing World Japan, showed photos of his Eastside home as well as of Jim and some of his most famous creations.

"It's kind of strange to open up a Japanese magazine and see a picture of my living room," Phillips shrugs. "I'm not sure what it says, exactly."

In the same article, Jimbo smiles from his drawing table in a spread on the next page. Surf music and culture have recently been all the rage in Japan, Jim explains, popping in a videotape of Phillips the Elder in a Toyota sports pickup commercial that has aired throughout the country.

"I asked if I should tie my hair back for the commercial," Phillips says, explaining that until recently his cropped hair hung down his back. "They said no! We want to sell Toyotas in Japan!"

As the commercial ends, Jim leads me around the cozy room. Its walls bring together an impressive array of Phillips works. Jim's poster for the Doors, created in 1967 before the band's first East Coast tour, hangs near his famous 1982 "Woody" print, a drawing of a surfboard-covered woody that can be found on stickers all over town.

From the outside, the small wooden home covered in twisting vines looks like a secret tree house. But inside, cabinets covered in bright swirls reveal Jim's wilder days.

When Jim bought the house in 1969 for $6,200, he'd already become quite famous for his psychedelic rock posters and the funky painted cars.

"The contract stated that to secure the home loan, I, Jim Phillips, promise not to paint the exterior psychedelic," he remembers.

artwork
Jim Phillips

Phillips' work was first published in 1962, when his "Woody" drawing won a graphics contest and was printed in Surfer Quarterly. At the time, the only formal training the 18-year-old Phillips had was childhood lessons and art classes at Cabrillo College. (He later studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.)

But Phillips says that his early days at Live Oak Elementary were the key to his artistic development.

"Not enough can be said about the value of grade school for an artist. Not so much for the learning, but for being given a paper and pencil in a boring atmosphere," Phillips says. "School desks were my drawing tables in those days."

Whatever the secret of his success, the music world recognized Phillips' talents shortly after his graduation from art school. When a spontaneous trip to the East Coast landed him a job operating the lights at Crosstown Bus, a live music venue in Boston, Phillips was picked to do a show poster for popular psychedelic band Lothar and the Hand People. He was soon creating posters for big-name groups, including the Doors and the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" tour. It was at Crosstown Bus that Phillips met Dolly, his lights assistant, whom he's been married to for 30 years.

Phillips is now compiling tales from his Crosstown Bus days and other memoirs in a written work-in-progress, which he calls his Artobiography. He describes wandering across Mexico fueled by papayas--he was trying out tips from Al Wolfson's Amazing Papaya Diet at the time--carrying little more than a bag, a peeling knife and a leather-bound Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Phillips was also fond of hopping trains and cruising California when he wasn't traveling around in one of his hand-painted psychedelic cars. The "Magic Buses" had a cult following in Santa Cruz, but weren't so popular among the police. He says the cops pulled him over dozens of times for every driving indiscretion imaginable.

"I couldn't keep driving around in cars like that," Phillips laughs. "I couldn't afford all of the tickets."

Jim and Dolly Phillips also managed some impressive adventures just after exchanging vows. The FBI came looking for Jim, who'd ducked out of a draft physical many years earlier. The young couple quickly decided to move to Florida and work for a friend's surf company. While in Florida, they were arrested for possession of marijuana and tossed into prison with a pair of "Bonnie-and-Clyde" murder suspects. Each spent the night behind bars with their gender-matched murderer.

"They didn't seem so bad," Phillips says.

After Jimbo was born later that year, in December 1968, the trio headed back to Santa Cruz. Jim continued his surf graphics and rock posters for Bill Graham Presents and Family Dog. The young couple settled into its home, and Jim restricted his psychedelic creations to rock poster art. And the kitchen cabinets.

artwork
Jimbo Phillips

Phillips and Son Graphic Art

CALL IT foreshadowing, but when Jimbo was only 3 years old, Jim designed a business card that read "Phillips and Son Graphic Art." They didn't actually work together until 15 years later.

When asked if he had ever had the urge to rebel and go into high tech or marketing, easygoing Jimbo breaks into a warm smile. "Naw. I was always into art. Wasn't I, dad?" he asks. "I used to come home and show you my drawings, right?"

Jim adds, "He had little characters he liked to draw. There was Bazooka, this little Martian. It was actually pretty good."

Jimbo also grew up hooked on Saturday morning cartoons and comics, especially Japanese animation. "Wait, I still have it," Jimbo says, reaching for a small gray card propped up on his drawing table. "I'm a member in good standing of the Godzilla Fan Club."

Jimbo was also spending countless early mornings and afternoons surfing with his dad--and keeping him up to date on what kids shopping for skateboards look for in graphics.

During that time Jim had become the art director for NHS. When he first started, deck graphics were limited to the basic logo, which he designed. Not so exciting for a graphics artist, but the logo grew in popularity and still cruises the streets attached to hundreds of cars throughout the country. He was also doing his rock art and drawing for local weeklies like the Santa Cruz Express.

Mountain Dew and Hot Peppers

IT WAS through Jim's work as NHS' art director that the two came to work--and later live--side by side. The $50 million-dollar company had grown so strong that Jim opened Phillips Studios to focus the art department's creative energies.

The studio--which is now Jimbo's house--was transformed into a giant bullpen full of drawing tables and young skate artists--and a refrigerator stocked with soft drinks and hot peppers.

"We used to drink Mountain Dew all day, every day," Jimbo says. "We were completely wired."

Jimbo originally turned down his dad's offer to join the studio. But after seeing the room packed with young artists day after day, he joined the group.

Local artists like John Munnerlyn (a.k.a. Mojo), who led NHS' art department for nearly 10 years, and Justin Forbes emerged from Phillips Studios. It also became a mecca for neighborhood kids.

"We had a jar of hot peppers at the door ... and these skate kids would all come to the shop and want to come in. We'd make them eat a hot pepper before letting them in," Jim says. "There was only one kid who never made it."

artwork
Jim Phillips

When NHS built its warehouse studio in the Seabright Cannery in 1990, the company decided to centralize everyone under one roof. The corporate change may have meant the end of an era for Phillips Studios, but it provided the groundwork for Jim's latest project--a series of surf-inspired oil paintings for Rich Novak, the current owner of NHS.

"I went to see him recently, and he had about 20 to 30 of my pieces hanging in his office. I walked in and said, 'Rich, did you put up all of these just for me?'" Phillips smiles. "He said, 'No, they've always been here, Jimmy.'"

The series includes paintings of woodies and surf shops, as well as a picture of former NHS partner Jay Shuirman, who died of leukemia in the early '80s, before seeing the company achieve its enormous success.

Jim says, "Nobody has ever paid me just to paint whatever I want."

Graphic Assault

AT the drawing table next door Jimbo has his hands full with juggling his own projects. After freelancing for several years, Phillips began working for the Skaters Union in Watsonville, makers of 60/40 boards and others.

He also paints surfboards and makes music posters for underground shows. Where Jim's creations include works for Bonnie Raitt and the 1997 Summer of Love anniversary concert, Jimbo's style leans toward edgier, underground punk. He's designed the album covers for bands like No Use for a Name and Monkey Magnet's Santa Cruz Still Sucks CD.

Although they are branching off into different mediums, Jim and Jimbo are still working together.

"We do comics together. I'll draw an eyeball. Hand it to him. He does a nose and hands it back to me," Jimbo says. "Or we'll take turns doing opposite pages."

Meanwhile, they're both enjoying burgeoning cult followings. Jim's drawing of a cresting wave can be found on Manju Naminori--"surf cakes"--gooey chocolate pastries sold in a chain of bakeries across Japan. Jimbo is launching his new company and working with his band, Piece of Mind. Meanwhile, emails from artists and young skaters roll in to the family's website on a daily basis.

"Art's known for its participants to starve," Jim says. "I'm very thankful to have been able to raise my family on it."


Jim and Jimbo Phillips will be featured in the Surf's Up exhibit, which features 35 surf artists, at the Pajaro Gallery, on view April 16-June 12. The reception on Friday, April 16, at 5:30pm, features a reading by Morton Marcus and a performance by the Mel Wong Dance Co. View their art at www.jimphillips.com.

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From the April 14-21, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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