Skull and Roses/Grateful Dead, Oxford Circle, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco

1966

Object

Artist

Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, United States

Country

  • United States

Object Info

This object may or may not be on view currently.

Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, United States

1966

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

Medium

  • paper

About

About the Artist

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.”

Skeleton Image
Skeleton Image

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 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.)

Lettering
Lettering

Mouse’s skill at lettering comes from his experience designing hot rod graphics. He spent time painting pinstripes, flames, and letters onto old cars.

Ribbons
Ribbons

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.

"Mouse"
"Mouse"

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.

Teaching Resources

Quick Classroom Ideas

  • Mouse and Kelley found a black and white of this skeleton and roses image while digging through library books. Mouse and Kelley added color and graphic lettering, and the image became the emblem for the Grateful Dead. Have students search through books or other sources to find an illustration or design that interests them. Encourage them to be creative while choosing sources—textbooks, illustrated novels, newspapers, comic books, children’s books, etc. Have students use what they find as the basis for a new illustration.
  • 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.” Search online for a few images of other posters by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley (try searching for “mouse studios posters” in a Google image search). Have students compare and contrast the posters you find with the poster on the Creativity Resource website. Lead a class discussion: In what ways are all of the posters different? Is it important to “keep [one’s] style open” rather than establishing a distinct personal style? What are the benefits to establishing a distinct style? What are the drawbacks?
  • 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.

Create Sheets

Create Sheets inspire students to explore their creativity by transforming works of art from the DAM.

  • For a color version of the Skull and Roses/Grateful Dead, Oxford Circle, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco Create Sheet, click here.
  • For a black and white version of the Skull and Roses/Grateful Dead, Oxford Circle, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco Create Sheet, click here.

This audio recording of "I Know You Rider" contains visuals of Grateful Dead photographs and album art.

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.