Portsmouth artist Peter MacPhee has been designing noteworthy posters for nearly 30 years, building a name for himself in the music world and beyond. He’s better known as Swamp Yankee – a nickname for a New England redneck that he happens to like just fine – and his art has been a bright spot of color during quarantine…even in black and white. Pete, who has kids of his own, knows what it’s like to go stir-crazy while families are locked down. To help his fellow Rhode Islanders, or really anyone with access to the internet and a printer, Pete has been releasing black-and-white versions of his original poster designs for free for people to download and color.
We asked Pete a bit about his quarantine coloring project. Most of the posters Pete has released since Covid-19 reached the area in March have been prints that he created for specific concerts. Some have never been used for anything; Pete just likes the artwork. He often designs posters that he likes, saving them to see if they might fit in for a later event. For example, when Paul Simon and Sting had been touring together, Pete was one of the artists asked to create a design for them. As a nod to Simon and Sting’s world music, yet deviating from the African influence that can sometimes be overused in the world music genre, Pete had created a Native American design. Although his poster ultimately wasn’t chosen for Simon and Sting, Pete was glad to have it on file when asked on short notice to create a poster for a two-band show in Somerville.
We asked Pete about the process of designing the coloring pages from posters, learning that when you print a poster you have to color separate it. “Basically, each color has to be printed individually,” Pete explained. “I usually start with the lightest color to the darkest and try to trap colors so in the end they line up. A lot of my dark colors tend to stand up on their own without the color, so they make nice coloring pages.” He had to rework the posters for coloring, taking out information such as band names and concert dates and adding in additional back design, but even if it takes him hours to rework a design in order to make it colorable during coronavirus, Pete said, “People seem to be having fun with it so it’s worth it.”
We wondered how Pete considers his audiences for the downloadable posters. Pete conceded that his designs are more geared toward adults in general, but he does try to be family-friendly for the quarantine coloring project. His family means a lot to Pete and they inspire his work; their approval means a lot to him. “I am pretty open with my kids about a lot of stuff, so I’m probably not the greatest judge of what’s appropriate,” Pete confessed about his poster designs in general. Although he doesn’t show his kids anything weird, wild or pornographic, Pete remains open when his kids have questions, being aware that they’re reaching an age where the questions will sometimes be uncomfortable. “I try to answer them the best and honest way that I can,” Pete revealed. “I just think if you don’t explain stuff to them, they’ll go somewhere else and God knows what they will find out. I hope I am also laying down a road of open communication with my kids so they’ll feel comfortable talking to me about drugs, sex and everything else they will come across on life’s path. In the end, I am a parent and we usually f–k our kids up; the goal is not to f–k them up too much.”
We asked Pete about his favorite poster that he designed. “Probably the Marlon Brando poster I did for an event at Asbury Lanes in New Jersey,” he said. “It was a tribute to Indian Larry, a famous bike builder. I just like how the whole thing comes together and I also like doing portraits with a lot of imagery around it that’s about the subject matter.”
Is there a poster or project Pete wants to do but hasn’t yet? “I’ve been lucky,” Pete responded about designing art bands and events he enjoys. “I just did some work for the Dropkick Murphys and for a Bruce Springsteen show for this week in Boston. An online show should be interesting. My mother was a huge Springsteen fan and I did a Dropkick Murphys album cover a few years back that he played on. There’s a photo of Springsteen playing at the Saint Patrick’s Day show in Boston with the Murphys and all my work is in the background. I think my mom would have gotten a kick out of that. I did do some work for Bob Seger a long time ago and my mom was very proud of me. Maybe the answer to this question is I would like to do work for bands or events that my family would be excited about. I like to see them get into what I am doing. Like when I did some work for Blondie and I took my wife to the show; seeing her excited to go was very fulfilling to me. I like to see my family happy. It sounds stupid and corny, but it’s true.”
Where’s the coolest place Pete has seen his art? It was hard to beat this YouTube video of a giant Swamp Yankee poster behind a rockin’ Bruce Springsteen, but there were a couple of contenders, like when both the Dropkick Murphys and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones played Fenway Park (“It’s pretty cool to see your artwork blown up 25 feet high in an iconic place like Fenway Park!”) or when the Bosstones played on “Jimmie Kimmel Live!,” bringing Pete’s artwork to television. Just the other day, Pete said, Chris Daltry of The ‘Mericans spotted one of Pete’s posters in a Rolling Stone magazine photo of a band from Portland, Maine; you never know where his art is hanging. The weirdest place was spotting one of Pete’s t-shirt designs on a guy who was arrested on “To Catch a Predator.”
It’s clear that Pete loves his job, but we were curious about the hardest piece Pete had to make. Aside from creative blocks that Pete said working artists need to get over quickly, he revealed that the toughest assignments were personal. Several years ago, someone whose sister recently passed away asked Pete to create a piece from her photo. “That was hard,” Pete confessed, “Because you know there is so much emotion behind it and you don’t want to let the person down. He told me about his sister and all the stuff she did, what she enjoyed. She was a big fan of pop art. So I ended up doing her portrait in the style of Roy Lichtenstein. He loved it and said he knows his sister would have love it, too. So that felt really good; a hard task gives you a strong since of fulfillment.”
When more businesses and venues and public spaces are open post-quarantine and people feel safe leaving their homes, what is Pete most looking forward to doing? Like most of us, he misses his friends; Pete has been going to his friends Mel and Brian’s home every Sunday for the past 13 years to watch bad horror movies and drink together, and he has missed that routine and the “simple things.” Thinking fondly of different friends, Pete said, “We had a birthday parade last weekend for my friend Marissa, you know, one of those drive-by ones. That was hard; you just wanted to get out of the car and hang and shoot the s–t. So I guess hanging and shooting the s–t is the first thing I want to do.”
Pete normally sells his art at festivals and events, but with so many postponed or cancelled this summer, you can check out his website at http://swampyankee.weebly.com. He’s also releasing posters on his Facebook page here. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, email him at email@example.com. “I have so many posters,” Pete shrugged about his prolific career. “It’s hard to fit them all in the online store, and I think it would be a little overwhelming.”