Skull and Roses/Grateful Dead, Oxford Circle, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco
Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, United States
20 in. x 14 1/4 in.
Denver Art Museum: Partial gift of David and Sheryl Tippit; partial purchase with Architecture, Design, and Graphics Department Acquisition Funds; and Volunteer Endowment Funds in honor of R. Craig Miller; 2007.4368
© 2012 Rhino Entertainment
This poster was made through the collaborative efforts of two artists—Stanley “Mouse” Miller and Alton Kelley. Mouse was raised in Detroit and got his start designing graphics for hot rods and motorcycles. He left Detroit in 1965, at the age of 25, and headed to California. He arrived in San Francisco on the evening of the Trips Festival, a three-day multimedia event that set the stage for later dance concerts. It was the handbill for this event that led to Mouse’s interest in poster art: “I was really turned on by that lettering and I found out later that Wes Wilson had done it. That’s what really inspired me to start doing posters.”
After arriving in California, Mouse met Alton Kelley and the two came together to form Mouse Studios. Kelley had begun his artistic career drawing posters and handbills for dance parties put on by the Family Dog commune, a group of hippies living in San Francisco. While Mouse was responsible for lettering and drawing, Kelley usually chose the image they would use and laid out the design. At their studio, Mouse and Kelley often hosted poster-making “jams” where groups of artists gathered together and worked on posters. “It was never about competition with the other artists so much as it was about incentive,” said Kelley. “When Mouse and I saw a poster we thought was really far out, we’d say, ‘Now we’ve gotta do one that good.’”
Psychedelic posters were originally created as advertisements for dance concerts that took place in San Francisco from 1965 to 1971. The term “psychedelic” comes from the Greek psyche (mind) and deloun (make visible or reveal), and refers to the mind-altering effects of LSD, a hallucinogenic drug that was frequently used at these events. Designs for concert posters were a visual reflection of the experiences one might have at a dance concert. Loud music, swaying crowds, and colorful light shows all contributed to a multi-sensory event.
Two main dance halls supported the development of the psychedelic poster—the Fillmore Auditorium, owned by concert producer Bill Graham, and the Avalon Ballroom, run by Chet Helms under the name Family Dog Productions. Over the course of five years, the two men commissioned around 500 posters. Mouse and Kelley started out designing a new poster every week for the Avalon, and by the end of their first year they had also created 26 posters for the Fillmore. “There was no time to think about what we were doing. It was a furious time, but I think most great art is created in a furious moment,” said Mouse.
The two artists often worked with contemporary images and themes that they found in advertisements and on product labels, like the wrapper from the popular Abba Zabba candy bar. They also searched for images in art books and other illustrated texts from the past. The skeleton and roses on this iconic poster came from a 19th century illustration in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a book of 11th century Persian poems the artists discovered in the public library. Mouse and Kelley liked all of their posters to be different: “I always tried to keep my style open,” said Mouse. “That way I could do whatever I wanted and not be pigeonholed.”
Mouse and Kelley found a black and white version of this skeleton and roses image while digging through library books. “We were fishing in the past, bringing up old stuff that should be seen again.” The artists added color and graphic lettering, and the image eventually became the emblem for the Grateful Dead. “Kelley had the unique ability to translate the music being played into these amazing images that capture the spirit of who we were and what the music was all about,” said Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead.
Family Dog Logo
Family Dog Productions was founded by Chet Helms and was used to promote concerts at the Avalon Ballroom. For their logo, Helms instructed poster-artist Wes Wilson to use an image of a Native American fur trader from the American Heritage Book of Indians. The hippies associated many ideas they admired, such as closeness to nature and communal living, with American Indian cultures. (Fun tip: try to decipher the word “THE” behind the logo.)
Mouse’s skill at lettering comes from his experience designing hot rod graphics. He spent time painting pinstripes, flames, and letters onto old cars.
Notice the way that the artists created movement by drawing a ribbon twisting around a pole. They layered on black ink to create folds in the fabric so that the ribbon appears to be three-dimensional.
Stanley Miller was given the nickname “Mouse” in high school after filling numerous sketchbook pages with drawings of cartoon mice. Look for Mouse’s characteristic signature at the bottom of the poster.
I Know You Rider (Live 1966)
This live recording of "I Know You Rider" by the Grateful Dead is from September 16, 1966 at the Avalon Ballroom-the same concert featured on the poster. The song is accompanied by photos of the band, their records, and posters.
Audio Tracks from the Grateful Dead
The Denver Art Museum’s website accompanying the exhibition, "The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area, 1965–71," on view from March 21—July 19, 2009. You can access images of other posters as well as information about the artists and culture of the psychedelic scene.
Stanley Mouse's website has biographic information as well as images of his work.
A website with resources related to the 2007 PBS documentary, Summer of Love, inkling video clips and a teachers guide.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s online exhibition of American posters from the 1930s to the 1990s, which explores the strategies of commerce, propaganda, and patriotism. “The Process” contains an interactive exploration of how a poster is printed using offset lithography.
An online exhibition from the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Library. The website includes information about poets, musicians and artists and images of their work.
TheVirtual Museum of the City of San Francisco’s list of rock concerts from the time period and some links to band resources.
The historic image that Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley transformed into the iconic Grateful Dead poster.
Anthony, Gene. Magic of the Sixties. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2004.
A collection of photographs by Gene Anthony, a well-known San Francisco photographer in the 1960s. The book also includes interesting essays on Haight-Ashbury.
Cabarga, Leslie. Logo, Font & Lettering Bible. Ohio: North Light Books, 2004.
A hands-on guide to the entire process of making logos, fonts and icons and references numerous poster artists.
Cronkite, Walter, Tom Hayden, et al. The Sixties Chronicle. Lincolnwood: Legacy, 2004.
A good source for general information about the 1960s, including a timeline and short text about poster art, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and the influential Beat Poets.
Graham, Bill and Robert Greenfield. Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2004.
A loose autobiography of rock music promoter Bill Graham which covers his entire career through interviews with key people such as Jerry Garcia and Chet Helms.
Grunenberg, Christoph. Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era. London: Tate Publishing, 2005.
A guide to the art of the psychedelic era, including a wide range of images of posters, record covers, photography, and film, alongside a wealth of contextual material and a number of informative essays by leading academics, cultural theorists, and critics.
Grushkin, Paul. The Art of Rock Posters from Presley to Punk. New York: Abbeville Press, 1999.
A visual history of Rock and Roll, centering on the posters that were created to advertize musicians and concerts. The book also contains photographs of the poster artists, and the venues that displayed their work.
Lemke, Gayleand Jacaeber Kastor. The Art of the Fillmore, 1966-1971. California: Acid Test Productions, 1997.
An in-depth look at rock posters created for Bill Graham posters created exclusively for the San Francisco and New York Fillmore dance concerts.
Medeiros, Walter, Sally Tomlinson, D. Scott Atkinson. High Societies: Psychedelic Rock Posters from the Haight-Ashbury. San Diego: San Diego Museum of Art, 2001.
An overview of the Haight-Ashbury music scene, especially the Avalon and the Fillmore, including short biographies on different artists.
Mouse, Stanley. The Art of Stanley Mouse. Berkeley: SLG Books, 1993.
A personal recollection from Mouse about his career and other artists, illustrations of poster and non-poster work (some sketches), and a biographical essay by Walter Medeiros.
Perry, Charles. The Haight-Ashbury: A History. New York: Wenner, 2005.
A definitive book on the history of the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury culture.
Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.
The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.