Students will learn the creative processes behind Kelly and Mouse's poster Skull and Roses/Grateful Dead, Oxford Circle, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco: inspiration from others in the present, creativity “jams,” and artwork found by “fishing in the past.” They will first complete a collective work of art to experience a collective creative process. Students will then use Kelley and Mouse’s strategies to work in groups to create their own posters.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonOne 55 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Upon completion of the lesson, students will be better able to:
- describe what Kelley and Mouse meant by “jam” sessions and “fishing in the past”;
- discuss the importance of teamwork, communication, and creative problem solving;
- work in small groups to complete a task; and
- feel comfortable enough to draw a sketch to the best of their ability.
- Warm-up: (Preparation – make one long (at least six feet) strip of butcher paper for every 10-12 students in the class. Set up strips on desks with different colored markers placed all around.)
- Divide students into group of 10-12 students.
- Have each group spread out around one of the strips of paper.
- Tell them that they are going to create a group work of art.
- Have them start coloring in one section.
- Play some Grateful Dead music while they work.
- After a couple of minutes, have students rotate one position to the right while leaving their marker where they were.
- Continue around until everyone has worked on all the different sections of the sheet.
- Talk about the process. Did they work with what another student had drawn? Did they go in a new direction they wouldn’t have otherwise gone in? Would it be different if they had talked and planned out the drawing? What was it like working with different colors? Was it hard to move on when they weren’t finished with something?
- Show students the poster. How many were able to identify what it was advertising before you even talked about it? Have they seen images like this one before?
- Ask students to analyze different elements of the poster, either in groups or as a teacher-led class discussion. Focus on how the poster feels different when you look at small details versus the overall image.
- Divide students into creative teams of four. Distribute copies of old advertising images and/or tell them to bring in images from the past (each group will choose only one) and create an advertising poster of their own.
- Go over keys to effective brainstorming (select an effective leader for the group; no idea is stupid; all ideas are written down; leader encourages everyone to share ideas; and leader helps group make choices once all ideas have been put forth).
- Just as Mouse was more skilled at drawing, so too various students may have different artistic skills upon which the group can draw as they create their piece. Allow time to finish and then share with the entire class.
- One six-foot long sheet of butcher paper for every 10-12 students
- Assorted color markers (at least one for each student)
- Grateful Dead music
- Printed copies (or the ability to print copies from books or online sources) of old advertising images and/or art (You can find some examples at here but be sure to preview and print out images as there is some potentially sensitive material)
- 11x14 or 11x17 paper (at least 4 sheets per group)
- Colored pencils
- 1 color copy of the poster for every 3 students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Invent and Discover to Create
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
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.’”
What Inspired It?
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 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.