In order to understand that letters often communicate more than the words they spell, students will explore how to make letters inspired by different shapes. They will begin with a warm-up activity and then examine lettering in advertisements in Wes Wilson's poster Association, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco. A teacher-led discussion will help students decipher the literal and more abstract meanings of Wilson’s work.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 45 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- identify the words in Association, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco;
- explain ideas or feelings inspired by the shapes of the letters in and the choice of colors for Wes Wilson’s poster;
- feel comfortable enough to create their own unique letters and message to the best of their ability; and
- work in small groups to complete a task.
- Show or distribute color copies of the poster. Lead a large group discussion on the artistry of the letters. What does the image communicate? Before they have a lot of time to read it, ask what it might be advertising. What do they notice about how Wes Wilson did the lettering? What feelings or thoughts does his lettering invoke?
- Share that Wilson hand-drew all of the lettering and worked as though he were removing space to create letters (as though he were cutting out a block for print making). Wilson says: “I like to do my work freehand—no ruler and stuff. Just make it fit naturally. If I needed to make a letter a little wider, well, I would.”
- Decipher what the letters say and what they are advertising. Discuss the impact of the “hot” colors.
- Have students look around the room and select at least two different objects. Ask them to sketch the word “art” using the objects to help inspire shapes for the letters (e.g., a light bulb could inspire more rounded shapes). If you can, play music from the bands listed on the poster while they work on their letters. When they are finished, have them share their words with a partner.
- Talk about the importance of lettering and how letters are used to communicate words but also can be used for artistic purposes.
- Tell the students that they will be working individually to cut out letters from contact paper (for older elementary students; the younger students can use crayons to hand-draw letters). They should think about their classmates and select one word that would speak to their audience (or that they think their audience would like). Adjust as needed for age. Allow them time to design and cut out the letters and arrange them in their word.
- Share their finished products in groups or with the entire class.
- Assorted magazines
- An assortment of brightly colored contact paper
- One Xacto knife or scissors for every three students (as developmentally appropriate)
- 11x14 or 11x17 sheets of paper (two for every three students)
- Crayons (for younger students)
- Music from the bands listed on the poster and a CD or tape player. The bands are as follows:
- The Association
- Along Comes Mary
- Messenger Service
- About the Art section on Association, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco
- 1 color copy of the poster for every 4 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?
Wes Wilson was born in Sacramento, California in 1937. He got his start while working for a print shop in San Francisco, where he designed posters and handbills for early dance concerts. During the 1960s, he became the first artist to consistently create posters for the two main concert promoters on the San Francisco music scene-Bill Graham, who produced concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium and Chet Helms, who ran the Avalon Ballroom. One of the first projects to bring Wilson recognition was a handbill for the legendary Trips Festival, a three-day event that took place in San Francisco and set the stage for later dance concerts.
Wilson initially produced as many as six posters a month for the Fillmore and the Avalon. In 1966, when the pressure of designing multiple posters each week became overwhelming, he began working solely for Bill Graham. While Chet Helms loved to contribute to the poster-making process, Graham allowed Wilson the artistic freedom he desired. "Chet almost always had the theme already picked out, but with Bill, you could do your own thing, mainly because he was too busy to deal with you. He liked that I could do posters without him having to tell me anything." Despite the freedom that came with working for Graham, Wilson began to feel exploited and stopped producing posters for the Fillmore in 1967. Although Graham was building an increasingly profitable poster-selling enterprise, Wilson was paid only $100 per poster, without royalties. Wilson continued to produce posters for other venues, including the Avalon Ballroom. Today he creates artworks from his farm in the Missouri Ozarks.
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. The movement, colors, and images all reflect the kinds of things that would appeal to a concertgoer's many senses. Posters were plastered on telephone poles and in store windows, and were often stolen by people who took them home to hang on their walls or refrigerators. "It was very disconcerting to poster a whole street and then walk back a few minutes later and discover that 90 percent had been removed. But I soon learned that a stolen poster carried home and pasted on a refrigerator reached the audience I wanted," said Helms.
Wilson was a part of the counter-culture that he was trying to reach out to, and was inspired by his personal experiences. "I imagine the posters were like some kind of imprint like a section of my mind at that time. And some of them were pretty weird, pretty strange," said Wilson. His designs set the style, capturing the full sensory experience of the dancehall environment and the visual distortions brought on by psychedelic drugs.
Psychedelic posterslike this one were often filled with text that was difficult to read. “Well, it’s nice, but I can’t read it,” Bill Graham said about one of Wes Wilson’s poster designs. The artist replied, “Yeah, and that’s why people are gonna’ stop and look at it.” Wilson proved right. People often spent time looking at the posters and would actually sway back and forth as they tried “to follow the curvature of the words, the lettering,” noted Graham.
Wilson drew his letters by hand to create three-dimensional, undulating shapes. This lettering style became characteristic of his early work. “I like to do my work freehand—no ruler and stuff. Just make it fit naturally. If I needed to make a letter a little wider, well, I would.”
Wilson used “loud” or very bright colors to reflect the dancehall atmosphere. By placing the bright red and green next to each other, he created forms that seem to vibrate.
Wilson formed each letter so that it fit into the overall shape of the flames. The flowing lines evoke the energy and movement of the dancing crowd and the light shows that one would see at a concert.