The documentary “Art Gods” captures an art that becomes more and more lost as record stores vanish.
Screening Sunday afternoon at the Crest Theatre, “Gods” tells the oral history of the art department at the Berkeley Tower Records store in the 1980s. Armed with foam-core board, spray paint and the freedom to try new ideas, artists at that Telegraph Avenue store went big and three-dimensional with displays promoting album releases. The Berkeley store’s aesthetic influenced artwork throughout the chain.
“Tower poured a lot of money into merchandising,” said “Art Gods” director Strephon Taylor, 46, one-time artist at Tower Berkeley and later Bay Area regional art director for Tower. This was unusual for record stores of its day, he said.
In 1982, when Tower Berkeley artist Steve Pollutro began X-Acto knifing foam board into elaborate displays touting new musical releases, “the only one doing that kind of thing was Macy’s at Christmas time,” Taylor said.
Composed primarily of talking-head interviews and archival images, “Gods” honors the artists’ individual Van Halen and Prince displays but also pays tribute to a record-store culture that no longer exists. Sacramento-based Tower Records folded in 2006, and other national record chains also faded as consumers chose online downloads over physical CDs and albums.
During the era “Art Gods” covers, music fans were still spending hours in record stores, poring over album covers looking for hidden meanings and chatting up clerks. At Tower Berkeley, such artful loitering could lead to a job.
Pollutro, the store’s 23-year-old art maven, was setting new display standards with foam board. Before him, Tower used flat posters or album covers on walls. At first he used foam board sparingly, for 3-D accents on flats, but then began incorporating the material more often.
The regional manager took notice, and Pollutro started doing artwork for stores in San Francisco and New York. Put in charge of hiring a staff for his department, Pollutro had trouble finding artists familiar with foam board. He ended up hiring some of the kids who would come into Tower Berkeley asking to take home posters that had been used in displays.
“These guys who wanted posters, they would see the kind of displays that were starting to develop, and they would want to be part of that,” said Pollutro, 54, who now lives in Las Vegas.
When the Tower chain would open a new store, Pollutro would train that store’s artist in his techniques.
“Steve Pollutro definitely started it, and it took off like nobody’s business,” Tower founder Russ Solomon said. “As the stores opened, we made sure there was an art department in every store. It was so amazing. These guys and gals were so creative. … We bought more damn foam board and spray paint than you can imagine.”
Solomon, who started his record empire out of his dad’s drugstore next to the Tower Theatre and still lives in Sacramento, has not seen “Art Gods.” But he recalls Pollutro’s work at the Berkeley store vividly.
“There would be stuff hanging (everywhere),” Solomon said with a laugh. “The whole thing was very colorful.”
Just as colorful are stories told by former Berkeley store artists in “God” about the heady ’80s days of free concert tickets and record-release parties with open bars.
Older artists would pass on lifestyle tips to their juniors. In “Gods,” a former Tower artist recalls being educated by a fellow artist, during a field trip to the nearby UC Berkeley campus, about precisely where to sit to be able to see through women’s skirts on a sunny day.
Through the party haze and paint fumes, the Tower Berkeley artists honed their crafts. Taylor owns the T-shirt design house November Fire, and has made other docs about Bay Area institutions – Sutro Baths, the Cliff House and “Creature Features” host Bob Wilkins – through his November Fire Recordings label.
Pollutro, a production designer and art director, builds sets for special and corporate events. He still uses foam board, among other materials.
Never formally educated in art, he learned by doing at Tower Berkeley.
“I was given an opportunity, and I found a niche for myself that fit really well,” Pollutro said.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.