Wes Wilson rooted in the 60's
A generation's artist rooted in the '60s
Maker of iconic posters still creates — and farms — on a spread near Aurora.
By Sony Hocklander News-Leader
You may not know the name Wes Wilson, but you've likely seen his art in books and magazines, on walls or even T-shirts. Especially if you happen to be of a certain generation.
The unpretentious artist from Aurora not only lived in San Francisco during the 1960s counter-culture scene, he helped define it. Call him the Poster Child.
Stroll back to the Summer of Love through an exhibit of Wilson's posters — announcing San Francisco dance concerts by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sopwith Camel, the Grass Roots and more — at a reception Thursday with the artist at the Keyes Gallery. The exhibit, which also features Wilson's recent work, continues through May 27.
"I think it's going to really surprise people that he lives here in southwest Missouri, and what kind of mark he made in history," says Keyes curator Billy Spicer.
He's been written about in books including "The Art of Rock," released in 1985, for which he created an original cover, and the recently published "Art of Engagement" by Peter Selz.
In 1968, he received a National Endowment for the Arts award for his artistic contribution. Since then his posters — noted by many for their "dazzling contrast" and near-illegibility to those without "psychedelic eyes" — have been exhibited at the Louvre, the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and more.
Living quietly now on 135 acres, Wilson looks forward to seeing his work at the Keyes.
"It feels really good," he says. "Sort of like coming out again."
Wilson, born in 1937, was raised by a single mother in rural northern California. After high school and a stint in the military, he attended San Francisco State College, studying philosophy and religion. He left before graduating to support three daughters and his first wife.
Wilson lived in the Wently, a low-rent apartment in San Francisco which housed numerous artists. There he met his wife Eva — at the time a dancer, now a psychologist — and Bob Carr, with whom he formed a printing business.
Though he had little artistic training, Wilson could draw and he developed graphic art skills with Carr as they created flyers for performing groups.
In 1965, Wilson designed, self-printed and sold the noted Vietnam War protest poster "Are We Next?" in which a swastika is imprinted with an American flag design. (An original will hang at the Keyes.) It was a way to express his distaste for America's involvement, Wilson says: "I just put it out there to stir people up to thinking about things."
Chet Helms, an emerging rock concert promoter, was impressed. He asked Wilson to design handbills, and what became a familiar logo, for a dance concert series known as Family Dog.
By early 1966, Helms and a competing promoter, Bill Graham, had begun producing weekly dances. Wilson designed posters for both: Graham's at the Fillmore Auditorium and Helms' at the Avalon Ballroom. Though Wilson was friendly with Helms until he died last summer, he felt stifled at the time because the promoter thought his art was "too far out."
Within a few months he worked exclusively for Graham, now deceased, until they parted in 1967 over a contract dispute.
San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district in the mid-1960s was a place of socializing, discussion, war protests and shunning conservative lifestyles.
It was a time of enlightenment, says Wilson: "In the '60s, we used to think of Utopia as something that was really going to happen."
He and Eva — whose father, incidentally, was one of the 10 blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters — hung out with poets and other artists.
"We talked about art, and what art should be and what it is," recalls Eva. "It was a very creative period. There were musicians, dancing. It was an exciting time. Like the Renaissance."
They also met figures of the times, including Janis Joplin, who lived in one of their apartment buildings, and Jerry Garcia at some of the same parties.
And Andy Warhol.
The contemporary artist was in San Francisco to produce the Exploding Plastic Inevitable rock concert with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground in 1967. Wilson did the poster (also displayed at the Keyes) and met Warhol when both were interviewed on the radio.
After the show, Wilson invited him to drop by some time — never dreaming the New Yorker would show up that very night. Wilson was in pajamas when the doorbell rang.
"In comes this crowd: Andy, Lou Reed, Nico — a pop girl — and Ultra Violet, another girl.
"So we had an evening of it," recalls Wilson. "We broke out some smoke, got food out of the ice box."
Dance concerts — which cost a fraction of current prices — defined the era.
"In those days, for $2, you could see some amazing stuff," says Wilson. "Those were the good 'ol days, all right."
The concerts were energetic, notes Berkley art historian Walter Medeiros, who has studied the period and written about its artists for numerous exhibits.
"The music was loud, there was a new form of dancing, a free form of dancing," he says. "It was very engaging with intense music, and light shows flashing liquid colors on a screen."
Wilson, and the artists who followed, attempted to capture that intensity in graphic form. The posters became so popular, people were tearing them down as quickly as they went up. Soon, they were being reprinted for sale. Poster shops sprang up locally and nationwide.
"I'm certain it was the rock poster, this new style ... that caused the new poster craze," says Medeiros.
Among the artists, Wilson really was not a hippie, Medeiros notes, though he went to dances and used moderate drugs.
"I was far enough out to be an artist," reflects Wilson, "but not far enough out to go over the edge."
Wilson's earliest posters were rather crude, says Medeiros. But he perfected his art with each new piece, often created in mere days. His first major poster of note — announcing the Association and other bands — features shimmering red flame-like lettering on a green background.
"That was really hot. That culminated everything he was developing at the time," says Medeiros.
The artist is particularly noted for the lettering style he launched, says Medeiros: "It became the symbolic style."
His lettering was meant to catch the eye, Wilson muses. At the same time, "it was something people had to stop to figure out."
That's not to say he invented the lettering, or that he was the only artist doing it. But Wilson was the first — inspired, he says, by the block lettering of Vienna Secessionist Alfred Roller. He liked how it filled the space and resculpted the style to make it his own.
Eric King, also of Berkley, was part of San Francisco's counter-culture movement. He was among the first to start collecting posters, he says. King recently published "The Collector's Guide to Psychedelic Rock Concert Posters, Postcards and Handbills, 1965 to 1973."
The emergence of the psychedelic rock poster "is generally regarded as the most outstanding bit of graphic art in the 20th century," says King. "These posters were at the heart of a major social upheaval."
Four other artists make up the "big five" of psychedelic poster fame: Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. Wilson's posters are among the most collectible.
For instance, an early first run poster by Wilson, for the Tribal Stomp event, sold for $16,500 at auction last year, King says.
Wilson's posters were revolutionary also, King says, for the earthy, sensual women he drew.
"Wes drew women that were vibrantly powerful. They are very sexy, but they are sexy in a different way. He obviously had a revolutionary attitude toward women before feminists emerged," he says. "So Wes is not only revolutionary graphically, but he's revolutionary socially and politically."
Wilson continues to draw and paint the female figure.
"I think of women as the embodiment of beauty," Wilson says.
Never comfortable with the commercial side of the industry, Wilson shunned "opportunists" long ago and has profited little from his work.
"I was idealistic. I tended to trust people, but not everybody was trustworthy," he says.
By the 1970s he was ready to leave it behind — along with the escalating cost of California living. Mostly, he wanted to live on a farm. That he landed in the Ozarks was a matter of chance.
In 1976, he and Eva packed 10-year-old Colin and 7-year-old Theanna into a Mazda pickup and headed for the Midwest. After several weeks of wandering — with the birth of Jason along the way — they found the rolling, partially wooded acreage at the end of a country road near Aurora.
It used to be a dairy farm, explains Wilson, leading the way from his house to a barn where, unexpectedly, a tall canvas bearing one of his nudes keeps company with old farm tools.
His studio on the barn's upper level is a living scrapbook where posters and '60s memorabilia mingle with paint tubes and newer works.
A framed copy of a poster he "threw together" in one weekend leans against a wall. "Here Come the Beatles" announces the Aug. 29, 1966, Candlestick Park concert that would become the Beatles' last live performance together.
Tables in the open space outside his studio hold more posters, including a few he designed for Springfield events in the 1980s — about the time he worked as a graphic artist for City Utilities while raising beef cattle on the farm.
In 1985, Wilson did the cover for "The Art of Rock," in which he and his posters are heavily featured. An exhibit of his work at the Springfield Art Museum in January 1990 spurred new interest in his art, so Wilson started a newsletter called Off the Wall.
That led him to also co-produce three successful rock art expositions in California during the '90s. The banner from one hangs across his barn.
Today, Wilson is more than content to work around his farm (he's preparing for more cattle), walk his dogs, paint in his studio or write on his blog (wes-wilson.com).
"I am so happy we moved out here when we did," says Wilson. "It really comes down to a sense of peace."
Photo 1 by Wes Wilson
Photo 2 by Bob McEowen