Pitch perfect: Woodstock needed a poster and Arnold Skolnick delivered a cultural icon

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  • Arnold Skolnick spoke with the Gazette on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, at his Easthampton home, about creating the iconic poster for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969.

  • Arnold Skolnick talks about leaving the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on the second day, Saturday, with rain imminent. He said he had to bump about ten cars that had hemmed him in but that it was no problem with his Volvo. Skolnick spoke with the Gazette at his home in Easthampton on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arnold Skolnick talks about creating the iconic poster for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969. Skolnick spoke with the Gazette at his home in Easthampton on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. At right is a work in progress, white chalk on black paper. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arnold Skolnick talks about creating the poster for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969. On his desk is a recent New York Times article about the festival featuring his iconic poster. Skolnick spoke with the Gazette at his home in Easthampton on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arnold Skolnick talks about attending the first day of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August,1969, and his view of the audience from the stage where he had a VIP pass. Holding out the fingernail of his pinkie finger he says, "The people in the back were about this big." Skolnick spoke with the Gazette at his home in Easthampton on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arnold Skolnick stands in his Easthampton home with his first painting, “Birth, Life and Death of a Daylily,” seen behind him. Skolnick also designed books, including Ralph Nader’s “What To Do With Your Bad Car.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arnold Skolnick talks at his home in Easthampton about creating the iconic poster for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arnold Skolnick talks about the many books he has designed. Photographed at his Easthampton studio apartment on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • One of Arnold Skolnick's works in progress, ink on paper, using a japanese brush pen, at his Easthampton home. Photographed on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arnold Skolnick was 32 and living in Greenwich Village when he used colored paper and a razor blade to create the iconic design for the iconic Woodstock poster. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Arnold Skolnick met with the Gazette in his Easthampton studio apartment on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, to talk about creating the iconic poster for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2019 9:34:37 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Fifty years ago, freelance artist and designer Arnold Skolnick got a request: Make a poster for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair.

For Skolnick, the request was “just another job,” though neither he nor the event organizers had any idea how enormous the event would get — in terms of both the sheer number of people who arrived in 1969 for the Aug. 15-17 event on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, and its cultural significance.

With more than 400,000 people in attendance, the festival had exploded. The site was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places and Skolnick’s poster became famous.

Many people still recognize the simple design of a bird perched on a guitar with the tagline: “3 DAYS OF PEACE & MUSIC.” Originals can sell online for thousands of dollars, and one is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Skolnick, an 82-year-old Easthampton resident, is an award-winning designer and artist. He remembers getting a call from Woodstock organizers one Thursday afternoon in 1969.

“They needed a new poster. They didn’t like the poster,” he said in an interview this week.

Skolnick said the event’s organizers objected to the previous poster design by a different artist that featured a naked woman and a psychedelic design, “even though half the people were nude for three days,” he said.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I could do it,’” he continued. “I delivered the poster Monday morning.”

Once he had an idea, the poster took him about an hour. Skolnick used a razor blade to cut the shapes out to create the Matisse-like work. He purposefully went with a simple design for readability — driving by a poster, he said, it should be simple enough to easily read.

“It is nonsense, all the psychedelic posters,” he said. “You can’t read them.”

Still, he said, “You know, there’s a mistake.”

He was referring to the bird in the poster. “I forgot to tell the printer that the beak should be black, and so it’s a red beak. In 50 years, nobody’s noticed.”

Skolnick was paid for the poster and since then, the design has been reproduced on T-shirts, posters, mugs and guitars. He’s seen no cash flowing from it, however.

“There are no royalties. Anybody in the rock ‘n’ roll business knows you can’t get royalties from anybody. You’re lucky to get paid,” he said with a chuckle.

At the time he designed the poster, Skolnick was living in New York City’s Greenwich Village. He also had a vacation house in Chesterfield, where he eventually moved full time.

“We gave up on New York City,” he said. “It’s all for the 1 percent.”

More recently, he moved into a studio apartment in Eastworks, a converted mill building on Pleasant Street in the city’s mill district.

Looking back at Woodstock, Skolnick remembers driving to the festival on Friday and being greeted by chaos.

“Pure chaos,” he said. “Cars were parked everywhere, for miles. People kept coming, people couldn’t get there on time. They came hours later.”

During the acts, he watched from backstage. At the time, he wasn’t a major music fan. “I don’t even like the music,” he said laughing, though he does remember liking Richie Havens.

“He was terrific,” Skolnick said.

On Saturday, “I decided to start getting out of there. Rain was coming — nobody had umbrellas or anything.” It did rain later, turning the festival into a mud pit.

“It took me about an hour and a half to get my car out of the parking lot. I had to push cars around and bang cars,” he said.

He found that the road out wasn’t much better.

“The freeway was blocked,” he recalled. “People were camped on the median for miles and miles.”

An artist’s life

Over the last 50 years, Skolnick has been creating art and designing books, and he’s been drawing since he was 5.

“You can’t become an artist,” he said. “Either you are, or you’re not … it’s a gift.”

Many of his paintings hang on the walls of his studio apartment, notably an oil painting of a day lily that covers much of a wall. Natural light floods through the large industrial-sized windows — good for a painter, Skolnick said. Plants line a windowsill. Several canvases contained his works in progress, including a chalk figure drawing and an ink drawing depicting regrowth in a tree stump.

He also has designed many books about art. From his bookshelf, he pulled out half a dozen books he designed, including “Paintings of California” and “The Art of Maine in Winter.”

Once, he went to meet with his book publisher who was running late and suggested Skolnick peruse some ideas for the jacket of Ralph Nader’s book, “What to Do With Your Bad Car.”

Skolnick thought they were subpar.

“I looked, and I said, ‘Just put a lemon on wheels!’ And nobody moved. They said, ‘Get Ralph Nader on the phone!’” When the book was published in 1971, his design was on the cover.

“I got a lemon, I got a Tonka toy truck,” he recalled. “I put it on my kitchen table and I shot it and I used that.”

The execution was simple.

“It’s the idea. All that other stuff is extraneous,” he said.

When asked about doing an interview about Woodstock around its 50th anniversary, Skolnick said a lot of news media outlets have been contacting him and doing stories about his role in the historic event. Next to his computer at home is a copy of a recent New York Times article on Woodstock headlined, “It Was Mostly Stardust In the Cash Registers, Too,” with the image of his poster central on the page. He also recently gave a lecture on the subject at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

Either everyone is calling you, he said, or everyone forgets about you. To him, the Woodstock poster is one of many projects he’s done in his long career.

“I did a lot of things, this … it just hit. That festival, they’ll never have one like it again.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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