- United States
Wes Wilson, United States
20 1/8 in. x 14 1/4 in.
Partial gift of David and Sheryl Tippit; partial purchase with Marion G. Hendrie Fund; Florence & Ralph Burgess Trust; and other Denver Art Museum funds, 2009.515
© 1966 Wes Wilson
About the Artist
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.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Wes Wilson used graphic design to reflect the experience of a musical event. Bring in a few different types of music to play for your students (jazz, classical, rock, techno, etc.). Have students write about an experience they might have at a live concert for each of the different types of music. Would they be standing or sitting? Would they be inside or out? What would it smell like? Would there be a lot of lights? Would people be dancing? Have students choose one type of music and create a poster that reflects some of the things they wrote about. Once the posters are completed, have one student hold up his or her poster while the other students try to guess what type of music is being advertised.
- Wes Wilson chose to use bright contrasting colors that make the flames pop off the page and draw the attention of people passing by. Have your students trace the lettering on the poster to create a line drawing. Then, have them experiment with colors that are different than those that Wes Wilson used. You can take this opportunity to talk about contrasting and complementary colors and how colors interact with one another. How do the new colors change their perception of the event?
- Have students go on a hunt to find advertisements that may have been influenced by the psychedelic movement. They can search through newspapers, magazines, the internet, etc. Look for things like artistic lettering and vibrant colors.
- Have students search for advertisements for concerts or events from the late 1960s (try searching “concert advertisements 1960s” in Google images). Compare and contrast the advertisements they find with the psychedelic posters on this site. Look at things like lettering, images, colors, page layout, etc. Have students talk about what style they are drawn to the most and why.