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Cal Schenkel (born January 27, 1947) is an artist specialising in album cover design. He was the main visual collaborator for Frank Zappa and was responsible for the art and graphic design of many of Zappa's best-known album covers. Schenkel's work is iconic and distinctive in style, a forerunner of punk art and the new wave era. Schenkel is an active artist who lives and works in Pennsylvania.
Background and education
Schenkel was born in January 1947 in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania and grew up in Oreland, Pennsylvania. He attended the Philadelphia College of Art but left after one semester and set out to build a career in the world of art. As an unemployed artist he was introduced to Frank Zappa in 1967 by Sandy Hurvitz.
During the late 1960s album cover design became a significant part of the emerging music and art culture in Europe and the North America, primarily as an expression of artistic vision and intent. Gatefold covers, and inserts, often with lyric sheets, made the album cover a desirable cultural artifact in its own right. One of the first artists to realise the significance of album cover design in the perception of image and artistry was Frank Zappa.
- "When I first met him [Zappa] in New York, the art studio was in his apartment — but that was only for a brief period. I didn't actually live there [as widely reported], but I would commute to work at his place. When we moved to LA . . . he had rented the log cabin, I had a wing of it. It was my living quarters and art studio, which I rented separately from them."
For over a decade, Schenkel, working in either an annex of the Zappa household or in his own studio, attempted to give visual form to Zappa's music while developing his own, distinctive style.
- "I love naive and folk art, art that has an unfinished look. I don’t like the polished for the most part. Now what that means or where it comes from I'm not sure. But I was probably influenced graphically by artists I saw in school. And of course there's the comic book look — like Krazy Kat. A part of it was just lack of skill. Trying to take advantage of my own naivety. I'd really only had a semester of art school, so I hadn't evolved my style when I was doing all of this. It just comes natural, too."
The first large project he worked on with Zappa was the cover for We're Only in It for the Money, a parody of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album. Schenkel built the plaster figures, helped set up the staging for the photo (at Zappa's direction), and put together the collage of people in the background.
He also provided artwork, graphics, and/or design for Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Chunga's Revenge, Fillmore East - June 1971, 200 Motels, Just Another Band from L.A., Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe ('), Roxy & Elsewhere, One Size Fits All, Bongo Fury, Zoot Allures, Tinseltown Rebellion, the Does Humor Belong in Music?, The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, Playground Psychotics, Ahead of Their Time, Cheap Thrills, Mystery Disc, Son of Cheep Thrills, Threesome No. 1 slipcase art, and Threesome No. 2 slipcase art. The artwork for Burnt Weeny Sandwich was originally done for an Eric Dolphy album.
When Zappa signed with Herb Cohen, Schenkel began work for releases on their Straight label, such as the Lenny Bruce Berkeley Concert in 1969 and a number of other artists represented by Cohen. These included Tom Waits, Tim Buckley and Captain Beefheart. For Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica album Schenkel went to a local fish market to buy the carp's head that he wanted to use on the album cover. He hollowed out the head leaving just the face, like a carnival mask. Van Vliet instinctively picked it up and held it to his face and sat for over two hours while Schenkel took photographs. Inside the mask the smell was choking and intense but the Captain was good-natured about the whole process. At one point Beefheart picked up the saxophone and started to play something "raw" through the mouth of the stinking fish. Schenkel has "footage" of "the carp playing sax".
By the mid-1970s Zappa's output had slowed while he was in dispute with Cohen and Warner Brothers and so Schenkel returned to his home town of Willow Grove hoping to jump-start an art career separate from Zappa and, more importantly, from the record industry. There he began his own "mail order" art business.
Though foremost an artist, Schenkel provided vocal for Lumpy Gravy. Additionally, Schenkel was production designer for the film 200 Motels and can be seen in the Zappa movies Uncle Meat and Video From Hell. The inspiration and title for the track "For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)" (from The Grand Wazoo) was from an actual incident as related by Schenkel to Zappa. When Zappa came to register his son Dweezil's birth name, the hospital refused such an unusual name and used the first acceptable names that came to mind: Ian Donald Calvin (after Schenkel) Euclid Zappa.
Schenkel's artwork, influenced at first by the comic strip Krazy Cat and by Mad magazine, had by then developed its own "primitive" "ragged" surrealist style. In 1976 together with Don Van Vliet, Schenkel held an exhibition of his artwork in Greenfields Gallery, at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, where the young Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, was a student.