Auction  December 5, 2019  Rebecca Rego Barry

Odd Lots: A Rare Peek at Jerry Garcia’s Artwork

Courtesy Bonhams

Snake in a Juggling Show by Jerry Garcia, c. 1990. Watercolor on card, signed by Jerry Garcia to lower right corner. Estimate: $8,000-12,000. 

Any Grateful Dead fan will attest to Jerry Garcia’s power as a musician, but the legendary guitarist and singer was also an accomplished visual artist, a fact known only to a small group of devoted Deadheads. At an upcoming auction in San Francisco, several original pieces of his artwork will share the spotlight with his instruments, amplifiers, and gold records, granting a rare peek at the rock star’s artistic range.

courtesy bonhams

A drawing of an alien by Jerry Garcia, 1992. Mixed media, showing a giant alien looking down at a frightened small figure, exclaiming “Eek,” signed and dated “92” to lower right corner, framed. Estimate: $2,000-4,000.

Garcia’s widow, Deborah Koons Garcia, spoke to Art & Object about her late husband's art. “He started drawing when he was a child,” said Koons Garcia. “He had asthma and since there were no good treatments for that at that time, he spent a lot of time indoors and quiet. He filled his time drawing. He studied art as a teenager and drew off and on as an adult. In his forties he became more serious about visual art and spent quite a bit of time drawing and painting.” 

Koons Garcia, from whose collection these items come to auction, characterized her former husband’s art as “maybe cartoony, or nightmarish,” and “personal.” She added, “He drew lots of portraits of people, animals, creatures.”   

courtesy bonhams

A drawing of John Wayne by Jerry Garcia, early 1990s. Pen and ink, signed lower right corner, framed. Estimate: $2,000-4,000.

Indeed, in the six pieces of art—two watercolors, two drawings, and two prints—to be offered for sale on December 10, Garcia used brush, pen, and computer to conjure a snake, a clown, an alien, an alligator, and perhaps most surprisingly, a scruffy-looking John Wayne in a sketch that is expected to reach $2,000-4,000.  

While Rolling Stone approximated that Garcia produced more than 2,000 pieces before his death at age 53 in 1995, it is “very unusual” for his original artwork to come to auction, said Giles Moon, director of music and entertainment memorabilia at Bonhams. The prints are quite popular, he clarified, but he hasn’t seen many of the paintings or drawings. Among those now headed to auction, Snake in a Juggling Show, a watercolor c. 1990 in bold shades of yellow, orange, and red, evokes a moody vibe, but a 1992 mixed media drawing of a benevolent alien in pale shades of those same colors elicits whimsy. Both have auction estimates in the four figures.

courtesy bonhams

A watercolor of an alligator by Jerry Garcia, 1992. Watercolor on paper, signed and dated “92” to lower right corner, framed. Estimate: $4,000-6,000. 

The auction’s star lot is undoubtedly the Fender Stratocaster owned and played by Garcia that he nicknamed Alligator in reference to the cartoon gator sticker he placed on the instrument’s pickguard, which is likely to be bid up beyond $250,000. It was, according to Bonhams, his “guitar of choice from early 1971 until the fall of 1973.” Garcia’s watercolor on paper, Alligator, will go for much less, having been valued at $4,000-6,000, and yet one can’t help but connect the dots between the 1968 Grateful Dead song, “Alligator,” the guitar, which was gifted to Garcia in 1970 by fellow musician Graham Nash, and Garcia’s psychedelic rendering of the toothy reptile in 1992.

“I don’t know if the watercolor is a direct connection back to the song or the guitar,” said Moon of the Alligator painting, but “it’s not unreasonable.” Certainly it’s no dancing bear, the Dead’s more obvious spirit animal, but still.

courtesy bonhams

A Fender Stratocaster nicknamed “Alligator” owned and played by Jerry Garcia in the early 1970s. Estimate: $250,000-400,000.

Garcia was heavily influenced by the psychedelic poster artists of the San Francisco Bay Area in the sixties, including Stanley Mouse, who designed the cover art for the band’s self-titled debut album, and Rick Griffin, who designed the cover of their second album, Aoxomoxoa. (An original Griffin illustration also features in the sale.) “He had a fairly close association with those artists,” said Moon. He also loved comics and collected comic books, particularly science fiction and horror genres, more than a dozen lots of which are included in the auction.

Moon pointed to another auction item easily overlooked as an artwork but with a lot of crossover appeal for Grateful Dead collectors: a test pressing for the 1972 LP, Garcia, Jerry’s first solo album. On it plain white paper sleeve, Garcia doodled a sun, a moon, and a rainbow in black ink in what appears to be a simple moment of inspiration. “He would often have sketching materials with him when on tour and traveling,” said Moon, not unlike other musicians who turned out to be impressive visual artists, such as Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra. Like them, Garcia’s impulse was to express and to create, in whatever form worked best.

courtesy bonhams

A signed digital print of artwork by Jerry Garcia titled Clown Hamlet, c. 1991, signed on the reverse, framed, with cut-out to reverse showing the signature. Estimate: $800-1,200.

Garcia did have the chance to exhibit his work in art shows and galleries, notably at the Garcia Weir Gallery, founded in Berkeley, California, by Roberta Weir in 1987, now closed but still online. The most tangible and accessible reminder of his visual talents, particularly for those without the dough to acquire one of his prints or paintings at auction, may be his illustrated book, Harrington Street, which was published shortly after his death.

About the Author

Rebecca Rego Barry

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places and the editor of Fine Books & Collections magazine.

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