Profile: Pedro Bell (1950-2019)

Pedro Bell was an American artist and illustrator, best known for his elaborate album cover designs and other artwork for numerous Funkadelic and George Clinton solo albums. Bell also wrote many of the liner notes of the records under the name Sir Lleb (his surname spelled backward). The liner notes contributed to P-Funk’s literary mythology a sampling of his contributions include “Thumpasaurus,” “Funkapus,” “Queen Freakalene,” “Bop Gun,” and “Zone of Zero Funkativity.” Bell’s work was preceded and partially inspired by Sun Ra and was a precursor to the modern graphic novel and the Afro-punk movement.

Early life

Born on June 11, 1950, Bell was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. His family was very religious. Bell had older brothers.

Often sick as a child, Bell would read books and comics, especially Ace Comics. Bell said that he gained his artistic talent from his father, whom he described as a frustrated artist; and his mother, who wrote and played the piano.

Bell attended Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where he said he was exposed to the Black Power movement and met activist, Mark Clark. Bell donated artwork to the Black Panther Party and participated in a protest, which led to his expulsion from school.

Bell also attended Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he took art classes and studied with Don Baum.

Career

Funkadelic

Between late 1969 and early 1970, Bell heard Funkadelic on the underground Chicago radio station WXFM for the first time. He began writing illustrated letters to the band and contacted their manager, Rod Scribner, in order to send him drawings and college-newspaper writing samples. Bell additionally created and mailed what he called “psychedelic envelopes”, but since Funkadelic bandleader George Clinton was under investigation at the time by the RCMP for his involvement with the Process Church of the Final Judgment, the envelopes also were investigated.

Bell was hired to produce artwork for the band, beginning with local show posters, promotional items, and press kits. He moved on to album artwork, where he built a mythology that included slang, nicknames, and otherworld concepts that eventually became part of the artwork and liner notes of the Funkadelic records. Bell often came up with nicknames, which he called “tags”, for people. The album cover artwork was credited under Bell’s name, but the liner notes credited his work to Sir Lleb. Bell worked to reflect the band’s atmosphere of its music and stage performances in his work, for which he used markers and felt-tipped pens because the fumes of the paint he used were too toxic, and he often traced the markers with acrylic due to issues with color separation from the printing process. The finished works were often 300 times the size of the actual record covers for higher printing quality.  Although he went to college, Bell considered himself to be self-taught. Bell said he created the original pieces on three-foot square panels, and often would only have the record title, and would not have heard the music before creating the album artwork.

According to his biography via George Clinton’s official website, Bell’s “stream-of-contagion text rewrote the whole game. He single-handedly defined the P-Funk collective as sci-fi superheroes fighting the ills of the heart, society, and the cosmos…As much as Clinton’s lyrics, Pedro Bell’s crazoid words created the mythos of the band and bonded the audience together.”  However, Bell was often paid very little for his work, and if it was not through the record label, payment was either delayed or he had to ask for it upfront. He, therefore, held regular jobs, including working in a bank and then a post office, but retained his association with the P-Funk family by often wearing day-glowing and psychedelic-inspired outfits. Bell additionally collaborated with Clinton on album cover artwork for Clinton’s 1980s solo releases, but their relationship became further strained after Clinton began to collaborate with Prince.

Personal life

In August 1996, Bell was declared legally blind. He struggled with health and poverty issues for much of his later life. In January 2010, the Black Rock Coalition held a fundraiser called “Miracle for a Maggot: Fundraiser for P-Funk Graphic Artist Pedro Bell” to help Bell.

On August 27, 2019, Bell died in Evergreen Park, Illinois at the age of 69. He had a son.

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