Alton Kelley (June 17, 1940- June 1, 2008) was an American artist best known for his psychedelic art, in particular his designs for 1960's rock concerts and albums. Along with artists Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson, Kelley was a central figure in the development of psychedelic poster art.
Mr. Kelley and his longtime collaborator, Stanley Mouse, combined turn of the century Art Nouveau-inspired lettering with outré images liberated from sources near and far to create a unique visual alchemy. One of their most enduring images features a 19th-century engraving from Edmund Sullivan's adaptation of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam", repurposed for a 1966 Grateful Dead concert at the Avalon Ballroom.
The Grateful Dead later adopted this image, and Mr. Kelley and Mr. Mouse had a long-standing relationship with the band. They also designed several of the group's album covers, from their 1967 debut to "American Beauty", "Workingman's Dead" and several others.
Mr. Kelley was born in Houlton, ME, and grew up in Connecticut, where his parents moved to work in defense plants during World War II. His mother, a former schoolteacher, encouraged him to study art, and he attended art schools in Philadelphia and New York. As a young man, his true passion was racing motorcycles and hot rods and he applied his artistic training to painting pinstripes on motorcycle gas tanks.
After working as a welder at the Sikorsky helicopter plant in Stratford, CT., he moved to San Francisco in 1964, settling into the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. In 1965, with a group of friends he helped stage concerts at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, NV, by the Charlatans, a electric folk-rock band. On returning to San Francisco, he became a founding member of the Family Dog, a loose confederation of artists, poets, musicians and other free spirits who put on the some of the earliest psychedelic dance concerts, first at the Longshoremen's Hall and later at the Avalon Ballroom.
Mr. Kelley was in charge of promoting the concerts with posters and flyers, but his drafting ability was somewhat unsophisticated. This issue was resolved in early 1966, when he teamed up with Stanley "Mouse" Miller, a hot-rod artist from Detroit and recent San Francisco transplant. The two formed Mouse Studios, with Mr. Kelley contributing layout and images and Mr. Mouse doing the distinctive lettering and drafting work. Often, they took trips to the public library in a search for images from books, magazines and photographs.
"Stanley and I had no idea what we were doing," Mr. Kelley told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. "But we went ahead and looked at American Indian stuff, Chinese stuff, Art Nouveau, Art Déco, Modern, Bauhaus, whatever."
One of their first posters, for a concert headlined by Big Brother and the Holding Company, reproduced the logo for Zig-Zag cigarette papers, used widely for rolling marijuana joints.
"We were paranoid that the police would bust us or that Zig-Zag would bust us," Mr. Mouse said.
From 1966 to 1969, Mr. Kelley worked on more than 150 posters for concerts at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore, publicizing the most famous bands and artists of the era, among them Quicksilver Messenger Service, Captain Beefheart, the Butterfield Blues Band and Moby Grape, as well as the Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), the Who and Country Joe and the Fish. With time, Mr. Kelley's drawing skills improved, and the partners virtually fused into a poster-generating unit.
Originally, the posters were put up locally on telephone poles and in store windows. Everyone who attended a concert at the Avalon received a free poster advertising the next show on the way out the door. Once the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon started receiving widespread media attention, the posters were eventually mass-marketed and distributed to college book stores and head shops and record stores all across the globe. When the poster work dried up at the close of the 1960's, Mr. Kelley and Mr. Mouse diversified. They formed Monster, a T-shirt company, in the mid-1970's and also designed the iconic Pegasus-image cover for the Steve Miller album "Book of Dreams" (earning them a Grammy Award), along with several album covers for the Bay Area arena-rock band Journey.
Kelley's work in the 1980's and 1990's included designs for artists such as: Pink Floyd, the Cult, the Dinosaurs, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, King's X, Throwing Muses, Helmet and more.
He died on June 1, 2008 in Petaluma, CA, at the age of 67, after a long illness.