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Wes Wilson
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Aurora, Mo.
The creator of rock concert posters during the late 1960s notable for distorted hand lettering, vibrant colors and strong images, Wes Wilson is regarded as the inventor of the psychedelic poster. Drawing inspiration from posters designed by European artists such as Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), Gustave Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and the lettering designed by Viennese Secessionist Alfred Roller (1864-1935), Wilson inspired many other artists of the era who created posters in the psychedelic style. Born in Sacramento in 1937, Robert Wesley Wilson learned to draw as a child, but had no formal art training. After high school he studied forestry and horticulture at Sierra College in Auburn, Calif. and served in the U.S. Army in Korea. He attended San Francisco State University, majoring in philosophy, but dropped out in 1963, the year he met his future wife Eva Nelson. A friend introduced Wilson to Robert Carr, a printer then working in the print shop of an insurance company, who hired Wilson as an assistant. They soon left to found Contact Printing, where Wilson did layout and design as well as running the printing press. Wilson’s first poster design was for a self-published protest poster, “Are We Next,” featuring the colors of the American Flag with a swastika (Grushkin 2.363), which he took to a 1965 anti-war protest in Berkeley. Contact Printing did the printing work for the benefits Bill Graham (1931-1991) organized for the San Francisco Mime Troupe in late 1965 and early 1966 and the January 1966 Trips Festival organized by Graham, with a poster designed by Wilson. When Graham and Chet Helms (1942-2005) of the Family Dog cooperated in the Tribal Stomp concert at the Fillmore Auditorium the following month, Wilson designed the poster using an image of Native Americans provided by Helms (FD-1) and featuring distorted hand-drawing lettering. He printed the poster himself, as he did with the next three posters for concerts Helms promoted at the Fillmore with Graham. Helms then moved to the Avalon Ballroom; Wilson designed the posters for nine of Helms’s next eleven shows, while also designing posters for Graham. From July, 1966 he worked for Graham exclusively. Wilson explained that Helms dictated the theme of his posters while Graham gave Wilson complete artistic freedom. Sometime in early 1966 Wilson came across the catalog for the November 1965 “Jugenstil and Expressionism” exhibition at the University of California, Berkeley, which included a 1908 poster by Roller with distorted typography similar to Wilson’s. Inspired, Wilson further twisted his lettering, so much so that Graham complained that the posters were unreadable. Wilson’s poster with highly-distorted dark red lettering imitating flames over a green background for Graham’s July 1966 concerts featuring Association and Quicksilver Messenger Service is regarded as the first psychedelic poster (BG-18). Wilson designed 56 posters for Graham for concerts at the Fillmore and Fillmore West and more for other Graham events until he quit in May 1967 in a dispute over royalties from the lucrative poster sales. In July, 1967 Wilson’s work was featured in the “Joint Show” exhibition at the Moore Gallery in San Francisco along with the posters of Stanley Mouse (b. 1940), Alton Kelley (1940-2008), Victor Moscoso (b. 1936) and Rick Griffin (1944-1991); they became known as “The Big Five” of rock poster art. Wilson designed ten more posters for Helms during 1967-68 and two more for Graham in 1968, and then turned to other art. He and his family moved to Mill Valley, Calif. in 1967. After receiving a $5,000 award from the National Endowment for the Arts the following year, Wilson and his wife purchased a house in Lagunitas, Calif., which they operated as a commune for a time. Wilson’s art turned to watercolors and enameling glass; his watercolors were featured in a one-man exhibition in San Francisco in 1973. In 1976 Wilson and his wife decided to leave the Bay Area and settled in the Missouri Ozarks, where they bought a farm near Springfield, Mo. He found work with the Springfield utility company and operated his farm. A decade later, Wilson benefited from a resurgence of interest in poster art. He and the other members of the Big Five were featured in an exhibition of rock posters in San Francisco in 1986. He designed the cover for Paul Grushkin’s 1989 book “The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk.” The Springfield Art Museum mounted an exhibition of his posters in 1990. From 1991 to 1995 he published magazine on rock art, “Off the Wall.” He organized three Rock Art Expos in San Francisco in 1992, 1993 and 1994. He frequently attended the annual Rock Poster Society show in San Francisco, where he signed and sold posters. For many years Wilson operated his farm and created posters, including commercial art and posters for Moonalice, a San Francisco Band. He died on January 24, 2020 at his home in Aurora, Mo. (TNB 2/2016, rev. 2/2020) Selected bibliography: Grushkin, Paul. The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987. Lemke, Gayle and Jacaeber Kastor. The Art of the Fillmore: The Poster Series 1966-1971. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999. Tomlinson, Sally and Walter Medeiros. High Societies: Psychedelic Rock Posters of Haight-Ashbury. Exhibition catalog, with an introduction by D. Scott Atkinson and a contribution by Paul Prince. San Diego: San Diego Museum of Art, 2001.