When I decided to get back to my roots last summer and add a tie dye shirt to my wardrobe, I knew I didn’t want some old hippie’s vintage armpit stains off eBay or any new rainbow swirl bullshit. I wanted something unique and handmade and so I went straight to my favorite tie dye artist: Courtenay Pollock.
Although tie-dying has been around even before the psychedelic 60’s, my memories and connection to this style are rooted in my high school days back in the early 90’s and the Grateful Dead. Every kid I knew had at least one “lot shirt” featuring any combination of trademark infringements including Dead song lyrics, unlicensed Calvin and Hobbs characters, band logos and tie dye. For those who don’t know, I’m talking about shirts designed and produced by Deadheads and sold out of car trunks while on tour.
More recently I’ve seen these shirts popping up on fashion and even hip-hop blogs from Mr. Mort to The Flatbush Zombies. Like the old bumper sticker says, Weir Everywhere, and that certainly seems to be the case as I continue to spot Stealies and Dancing Bears all over the internet. I’ll let Courtenay take over here in his own words as we discuss his artwork, connection to the Grateful Dead and a wide range of cosmic and serendipitous experiences.
Nick Santora: You recently did the artwork for the Grateful Dead’s Sunshine Daydream box set…
Courtenay Pollock: Yes. People love it. I’ve gotten lots of feedback on that. I haven’t actually see it yet. I was supposed to get a box set from Rhino but I guess it didn’t get sent out for whatever reason. My name and address on the list must have gotten misplaced. They did send me the vinyl which is a big piece of the Sunshine Daydream mandala used for the box set.
Were you at that concert? (August 27, 1972 – Veneta, Oregon)
Back in ’72? No. I was actually working on another project and I didn’t think I could take the weekend to go up there which was just stupid. I wanted to go. I should have gone. I had every opportunity to go. I said ‘no, I’ve got too much work to do.’ Hahaha. In those days not much was in a hurry unless I had a deadline for a backdrop or stage piece and then I would just jam it until I was done.
How did you see your art adding to the Grateful Dead concert experience? What’s the connection between your work and the music?
My work is classically psychedelic in that it is full of abstract imagery that your own mind’s eye conjures images of familiar things. You could look at something and see an angel or a dove or a bat. Things that people conjure when they look at the imagery are what I would call a psychedelic effect. With the color and design itself, the way things move apart from the dimensionality within the design is moving and so it is a classic psychedelic art form.
With the fans seeing the work on stage; especially when they are getting high on the music or getting high on other things, they are most probably not hallucinating as much as enjoying the visionary experience of psychedelia. They work really well together. It’s almost like they were made for each other. Well, they were made for each other!
When I was given the commission to do the whole set for the Grateful Dead’s speaker fronts in 1969, I designed the stacks so they fit together, 4 stacks would make one mandala. Each band member had a stack and I would make a different color design for each. The speaker fronts were bright, colorful, and symmetric with lots of images. I designed the whole stage to have continuity and a lot of color without it being too fragmented.
In the early days, when there was a speaker front, [Jerry] Garcia would just play and gaze into the speaker front. He would be gazing into the cosmos. I know the band members appreciated the work right on stage because they got to see it. In later times the work was behind the band on stage, so they didn’t get to see it or play off it. The early days were the best days for the band because they actually got to enjoy the colors and the psychedelic artwork themselves and it probably gave them enhanced moments during the music. It certainly worked well with the music.
How did you start tie dying?
My first ever commission in the late 60’s, I had been tie dying probably just a matter of weeks when I had a chance to apply this idea I had composed in my head. It was a fait accompli. It was the best tie dye I had ever seen at the time and of course it was different; very symmetrical and ordered and everybody loved it.
Within two weeks, maybe three, I had a commission from a local boutique for a meditation room they were putting together. Of course I agreed to do the project which also included a complete floor covering, seating covering and walls, the end wall being a mandala. It was a tie dyed room. The mandala, I didn’t know what it was or what it meant so I looked it up and it said ‘graphic interpretation of the cosmos according to the philosophy of the artist’ or something like that. So I thought, ‘oh yeah I can do this.’
When I finally got everything organized to do that mandala, I had the whole vision set in my mind and just applied it. It was a long all day project but at the end of the day, late into the evening, there was a crowd of friends over with guitars and singing and as I rinsed it out part by part under the water in the sink, people were singing the hallelujah chorus. It was like a choir of angels, and all these amazing images were unveiling. This was the first ever tie dyed mandala [he had ever done] and when it was finally rinsed I still hadn’t opened the whole thing completely. It was still folded in half so I’m only seeing parts.
I had set up rear lights and forward lights in the place I was going to hang it and I pinned one corner up and walked away with the other corner to pin it up and I heard this gasp and ‘Oh wow,’ but I still didn’t want to look at it until I could get across to the other side of the room. When I turned around and looked, ‘Oh my God,’ it was just this awesome pulsating, extraordinary thing and I knew that I had something really special right there at that moment.
What is a mandala used for?
It’s a meditation device. It’s calming, soothing, pleasing, uplifting. It does a lot of things for a lot of people at different times. In the days around the Grateful Dead it was the thing to do; to put a mandala up over the birthing bed. The babies were born under a mandala. If there was a person in the hospital they would put one up for them in the hospital room. Most people, the band members, the crew, the office workers, the people on the inside so-to-speak had a mandala in their home.
Why are there so many cosmic coincidences surrounding the Grateful Dead?
Their music is very cosmic. They tap into a free source of energy when they go into their free form playing. The jams, the jazz, they’re really just playing in the moment. Each moment, moment by moment in our place on this planet as we move through the cosmos is an energy field that’s constantly adapting and changing and I think they really have cosmic music.
In my life I have always worked on the principles that the universe is a living presence in which I am a living entity and part of, I’m one with, and the universe will provide as long as you have faith in the universe. I understand that these oracles, in which there are many, are also tapping into that source when you have intent.
So I would throw the I-Ching, the Chinese oracle or the book of changes; the 64 hexagrams, whenever I had a big decision to make. I would throw the I-Ching and look up the hexagram and take some wisdom from it and see how it applied to the question I asked. In the case of going from our commune in Vermont and getting on a Greyhound bus out to San Francisco, making a phone call and hours later renting a house just down the road from the Grateful Dead, and then the next morning going down and knocking on their door as the very first people I’m visiting and not knowing who they are. I just looked up the driveway and said, ‘yeah freaks live there,’ so I went up and said, ‘do you wanna see some of my tie dyes?’ “Sure yeah come in. You can do our speaker fronts.” That was that.
I put my cosmic life to my relationship with the universe and especially in those days when I would throw the I-Ching and take my wisdom from it. It depends on how you interpret it, but when it says go west young man, you go west. In this case it said Fortune In The West. That was the opening line of this stanza and so I just went west.
In the case of when I went to Persia and had an extraordinary time there, a really cosmic time, when from there we went and joined the Europe ’72 tour with the Grateful Dead… But I met up with some extraordinary people that were connected to the Shah Of Iran at the time, and this was right before the revolution. I got to experience the old Persian culture in these old grand mansions with these old Persian families. In that instance I threw the I-Ching and it said Gateway To The East, so I went ‘ahhh Persia the Land of mandalas’ and hopped a plane to Persia. The I-Ching has been a very cosmic tool for me even though I haven’t been using it through the last number of decades. I did use it for ten years or so faithfully since I came to the United States and then I just lived my life with faith that I’m in touch with the universe and I make my own decisions.
I’ve had an extraordinarily cosmic life and of course being around the band I saw that they had so many connections happen because a lot of people were gravitating along that beam, that cosmic wave, open to anything and everything and that is where I think the Grateful Dead’s good fortune happens and magic happens.
What other San Francisco bands did you work with?
Back in the early days I did speaker fronts for Sons Of Champlain and The New Riders Of the Purple Sage. They both opened for the Grateful Dead when they played local gigs, and there were a lot. They were part of the extended family so they got speaker fronts too. A lot of them of course got my mandalas and everybody wanted shirts. It was hard to keep up with the demand for shirts. They are a lot of work and not a lot of money, but I love doing them for people. I’m actually working on a run of shirts now because I’m sadly remised with getting them on the site. I got a bit behind through the summer with doing the backdrop for the Greek Theater shows.
How long did the Greek Theatre project take?
I worked on the idea and the design for a month or two over the summer. Then I did it in the last six weeks before the gig. I had to allow some weeks grace to get it fireproofed and sewn and delivered.
Do you choose the colors for a project ahead of time or in the moment?
It’s rather in the moment, but in the case of the last backdrop I wanted it really colorful, more so than any of the others. I needed to do something that was different and better than anything that had been done in that same venue.
For a while there I was contemplating doing a combination of two of the designs as a commemorative issue backdrop and I thought, why? It’s been done, let’s go with something completely different. I knew that I wanted to do it multi-colored and very bright and when I decided on what I was going to do, I did two test panels and that was what I wanted. I did variations on those panels for the entire thing. Every panel is unique and individual but they all work together as a continuous design.
So really there was a theme. There were two styles of panels involved with that so those folds were essentially repeated. There were fourteen of one design and fourteen of the other and they all would fit together to make the overall design. The colors, even though I had a similar look for each one, because of the folds and certain areas for the color placement, were the same for continuity. There were different color applications so each one was distinctly different. Under the lights they seemed seamless because of where they joined.
I had to use a hockey rink floor at the recreation center to have a big enough space to lay them out and see how they matched up. It took me an afternoon. I laid down clear plastic to keep the pieces clean and then laid them out in the design and then paired the panels up, which ones went best with which ones, and then moved the pairs around until I got the best continuity for the overall design. Then I labeled them for the sewers so there was no mistake which way they were supposed to go. Then they were fireproofed and sewn. I was pleased with the way they finally worked together.
The backdrops are a wonderful opportunity for me to showcase my work. I always remember when I’m doing them they are meant to be seen from a distance, meant to have impact and also have the imagery so people can still trip out on them. It’s for the fans. A thank you to the fans who for the most part support me and my work over the years.