In honor of his birthday on August 1, get mesmerized by Jerry Garcia’s art. It’s as psychedelic and openhearted as his music with the Grateful Dead.
Jerry Garcia’s art was mostly of the musical variety. He was a founding member of the Grateful Dead, his longest-running project from 1965 to 1995. He was also an accomplished banjo player in the bluegrass group Old & In the Way and a longtime friend of mandolinist David Grisman, with whom he recorded several albums later in his life, not to mention his many side projects, including playing pedal steel guitar on “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Less famously, Garcia was also a visual artist who produced more than 1,000 pieces, mostly after his brush with death in the form of a diabetic coma in 1987. In her foreword to the book Jerry on Jerry: The Unpublished Jerry Garcia Interviews, his daughter Trixie recalls: “In the difficult years following the coma, my dad was thrown into recovery mode. He had to relearn the guitar and when he or his fingers needed a break, he would draw. His skill in drawing from time spent as an art student helped him regain coordination and precision. Art became a new high for him.”
Trixie describes Garcia’s post-coma period: “An unending stream of art supplies of increasing complexity funneled into the house, mostly in the form of markers, pocket sketchbooks, and the occasional airbrush set. He would experiment with each new wave of supplies, and he was a talented visual artist — exploring materials, textures, techniques, and characters.”
Garcia fell in love with art in the third grade with some help from his teacher Miss Simon, who, in Jerry’s words, was “young and pretty and she always wore flowery peasant dresses. She must have been a bohemian at the time.” According to Garcia: “She was the one who encouraged me to do the creative stuff. She liked my drawings, and she really encouraged me along those lines.” Around that time, Garcia also discovered EC Comics, which inspired a lifelong appreciation for horror.
In the summer of 1957, a 15-year-old Jerry Garcia received his first electric guitar, a Danelectro, and that same summer he smoked his first joint, two events that would shape his life’s trajectory. It was also the summer in which he began attending classes at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), falling in with the Beat Generation and establishing his identity as an artist. But music soon eclipsed the visual arts. In Garcia’s words: “When I finally got into the guitar and all that stuff, all my art trip just…it went away. Everything went away.”
According to Roberta Weir in her foreword to the book J. Garcia: Paintings, Drawings, and Sketches, Jerry Garcia once said: “A line on paper is like a note in the air. It’s out there. And once it’s out there, there’s no taking it back.” Weir reflects: “I believe this comment conveys the essence of Jerry’s drawings and paintings. His images are not so much faithful renderings as they are animated strokes that dance across paper collecting into unselfconscious improvisations.”
Roberta Weir, an artist herself who runs the Garcia Weir Gallery, is the foremost authority on Jerry Garcia’s art. According to Weir: “Jerry’s mind was a virtual kaleidoscope where forms and ideas overlapped with impunity. He was supremely serendipitous, he made no apologies for his technique, and he had an unerring instinct for the symbolic power of simple images. He kept his pens and sketchbooks with him at all times, scribbling and sketching constantly.”
Garcia told Roberta Weir: “Art was probably my most civilized aspiration. But music seduced me.” From that point on, Weir recalls, “art became a private activity — and one at which he was gifted, productive, and largely unknown.” Garcia also told Weir: “I don’t want to work at this. I’m just doing it totally for my own amusement and pleasure. I don’t need any more fame.”
Jerry Garcia’s paintings and sketches reflect his unique and colorful vision of the world, as well as his warmth and sense of humor. So throw on your favorite Dead bootleg, make yourself easy, and take a long, strange trip with me through the world of Jerry Garcia’s art.
1. CALIFORNIA MISSION
Suggested musical pairing: “Mission in the Rain” by the Jerry Garcia Band (1976).
Jerry Garcia was a child of San Francisco. Born in the Excelsior District on August 1, 1942, he came of age among the beatniks in the City by the Bay. Garcia recalled, “For me, San Francisco was a magic place.” Though the Grateful Dead officially formed in Menlo Park, first as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and then as the Warlocks, the band has long been associated with San Francisco and the psychedelic scene in the 1960s.
2. FLAMENCO DANCER
Suggested musical pairing: “Spanish Jam” by the Grateful Dead (1974).
Jerry Garcia’s ancestors on his father’s side were from Spain, but Garcia claimed he never had a strong sense of his Spanish ethnicity. He explained his relationship to his Spanish family, who led a life very different from his own: “Now, for me, the hit that I got from my Spanish relatives — my Spanish relatives were always very, very straight. To give you an inclination, [they] were the kind of people that when my mother died, they wouldn’t let my mother be buried next to my father because she’d remarried after he died. That’s an indication of how straight they are.”
3. RACE RECORD DREAM
Jerry Garcia was heavily influenced by Black musicians. When discussing different versions of the song “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (the original by Big Joe Turner and a cover by Bill Haley and His Comets), Garcia said, “I started to be conscious, ‘Oh, I see, there’s the black version of stuff that’s good and then there’s the lame white version of stuff sometimes.’” He went on to say that rhythm and blues “was much more interesting. And I mean, that’s all I listened to when I — into that teenage space. For me, that was heaven, you know?”
4. SHAMAN ARTIST
Suggested musical pairing: “Dark Star” by the Grateful Dead (1969).
In 1965 Jerry Garcia tried LSD for the first time. In his words: “I had a perfectly wonderful time, and it was that soft psychedelia, you know, the first thing, the first stuff. It was very soft and sweet and great fun. It wasn’t particularly miraculous. It was just that thing of solving all earthly problems.” The Grateful Dead would go on to perform for several of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests.
Suggested musical pairing: The theme song from the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone, which the Grateful Dead recorded in 1985.
Jerry Garcia enjoyed the horror genre, from his days as a “sickly kid” reading EC comic books in bed to his later love of Stephen King (Garcia did an audiobook performance of “My Pretty Pony” from King’s short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes). This affinity for horror would manifest itself in his band name, Grateful Dead, as well as their original name, the Warlocks.
6. NOT FOR KIDS ONLY
Suggested musical pairing: “Jenny Jenkins” by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman (1993).
In 1993 Jerry Garcia and longtime collaborator David Grisman released an album of traditional children’s songs called Not for Kids Only, and they used Jerry Garcia’s art as the album cover. Jerry never lost his childlike wonder. As his daughter Trixie recalls, “Beyond his love of music, Jerry’s world was loaded with cosmic jokes, cartoon characters, campy horror flicks, weird coincidences and anything that seemed magical to him.”
FARE THEE WELL
You can see more of Jerry Garcia’s art in the books Jerry on Jerry: The Unpublished Jerry Garcia Interviews and J. Garcia: Paintings, Drawings, and Sketches. You can also view several pieces online at the Garcia Weir Gallery and in this Rolling Stone article. Keep on truckin’!