Alton Kelley

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Alton Kelley
American poster artist
(Houlton, Maine, 1940 - 2008, Petaluma, California)

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Alton Kelley was one of the founding members of the '60s San Francisco rock scene and creator (with his artistic partner, Stanley Mouse [b. 1940]) of hundreds of classic psychedelic rock posters, such as the famed "skull and roses" poster (FD-26) for a Grateful Dead show at the Avalon Ballroom. Kelley also designed album covers for the Grateful Dead and other bands, often collaborating with Mouse. He was born in 1940 in Houlton, Maine. Kelley’s family moved to Connecticut when he was six, living in Bridgeport and Stratford. He developed an interest in art, which he expressed by decorating motorcycles and hot rods. His artistic education at schools at New York City’s Art Students League and the Philadelphia Museum College of Art was brief. Kelley worked for about two and one-half years in the Sikorsky helicopter factory in Connecticut. Then he hitch-hiked to the West Coast, where he worked in motorcycle and automotive shops for about two years. He moved to San Francisco in 1965 and lived in a communal house at 2111 Pine Street. With Luria Castell (d. 2014), another resident of the commune, Kelley spent the summer of 1965 in Virginia City, Nevada, helping to build and then working at the Red Dog Saloon, which featured a San Francisco band called The Charlatans. Back in San Francisco in the fall, Castell, Kelley and two other members of the commune, operating under the name “The Family Dog,” produced three dance concerts at San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall, advertised by handbills created by Kelley. The Family Dog organized two more concerts in early 1966. All five concerts featured The Charlatans; the Jefferson Airplane appeared in two. Chet Helms (1942-2005) then began producing concerts as The Family Dog, first in partnership with Bill Graham (1931-1991) at the Fillmore Auditorium and then from April 1966 at the Avalon Ballroom. Kelley acted as the de facto art director for Helms. When poster artist Wes Wilson (b. 1937) quit working for Helms to work exclusively for Graham, Kelley recommended that the job of designing the poster for the next concert be given to his friend Mouse, a fellow hot-rod enthusiast, whom Kelley had met the previous year. The poster (FD-13) was the first of many Mouse would create. Mouse and Kelley collaborated on the poster for the following concert featuring the band Big Brother and the Holding Company with its new singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970), a now-famous poster showing the logo of the Zig-Zag cigarette rolling papers (FD-14). They worked together as Mouse Studios for 15 years and collaborated sporadically thereafter. Initially a weak draftsman, Kelley was skilled at design and collage and later became an excellent draftsman. The two worked together at a drafting table, with left-handed Kelley on one side and right-handed Mouse on the other. Their posters were inspired by a variety of images, from photographs of American Indians and Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs to an image from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” which inspired their 1966 “Skull and Roses” Grateful Dead poster (FD-26). Kelley worked on 36 posters for Helms and 6 more for Graham during the psychedelic era. Kelley and Mouse worked for other concert and event promoters as well and in early 1967 were hired to create the cover for the Grateful Dead’s first album. Later that year their work was featured in the “Joint Show” exhibition at San Francisco’s Moore Gallery, along with works by Rick Griffin (1944-1991), Victor Moscoso (b. 1936) and Wes Wilson (b. 1937); each artist designed a poster for the show. Kelley and Mouse collaborated on two other ventures: the Haight Street head shop Pacific Ocean Trading Company (“POT Co.”) and Monster Company, which made silk-screen T-shirts. They continued to collaborate in the 1970s, designing album covers for The Grateful Dead and winning a Grammy in 1979 for their album cover for the Steve Miller Band. In 1979 their joint biography “Mouse & Kelley” was published. During the balance of his life Kelley created paintings of hot rods, which he reproduced on T-shirts, while continuing to create posters and album covers. His work in the 1990s included posters for the Grateful Dead. The last collaboration with Mouse was the program cover for the induction ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in early 2008. Kelley died later that year in his Petaluma home from complications from osteoporosis. (TNB 12/2015) Selected bibliography: Grushkin, Paul. The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987. Lemke, Gayle and Jacaeber Kastor. The Art of the Fillmore: The Poster Series 1966-1971. Pp. 99-101. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999. Medeiros, Walter P. From Frisco with Love: An Introduction to the Dance Concert Poster Art. San Francisco Rock Poster Art. Pp. 7-9. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1976. (Pulled from De Young Musuem, HER 11/2/17)

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