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Interview With A. Wolff: Grateful Artist

Grateful Dead

Interview With A. Wolff: Grateful Artist

Meet Ann Wolff. That’s her with Melvin Seals of the Jerry Garcia Band. Ann is a t-shirt designer from Tulsa, Oklahoma who has been in the game of selling tees since the early 1990s. She’s a Deadhead at heart who has also sold designs to the Grateful Dead merchandise catalog and has worked personally with bassist and founding Grateful Dead member Phil Lesh. Needless to say, she’s got some serious Dead cred.

What’s your background as an artist prior to your Grateful Dead days?

I have no formal training  as an artist. My mother was an artist and I learned from her, observing her throughout my childhood.I grew up on a farm in Colorado, showing quarter horses. I think my love for horses also spread to the sketch book  but it was the subject my mother indulged herself in most. My first drawing was published in the Western Horseman magazine when I was 5 years old.  I took some basic airbrush classes and  silkscreen classes later on. I was hired to do the Blues on the Hill Music Festivals and Summer Twilight Concert series t-shirts here in Tulsa. I freelanced for several different businesses here, creating original logos, including one for handmade guitars,and various designs for Tulsa musicians.

Two of the designs for the Dead,”Sandstone 2″ and “Garcia” and, Tulsa  various were collaborated on with artist David Hoeffer.  He is a great talent and friend. We share many show and non- show memories that go down in the hilarious history book of being a DeadFreak. I did the first Grateful Dead design in 1987 for the Telluride shows in August. When I saw Jose Arguilles on TV speaking about the Harmonic Convergence, which was August 16th, the second show in Telluride. Hark! The spark hit my imagination like a bolt. I already had his book” Mandala” and rushed out to get the Mayan Factor book which he was promoting on the  show. Research about The Harmonic Convergence made it all come together.

The first designs were printed at a company here in Tulsa. One of their artists later branched off to form her own company which is where I had most of the shirts printed , and even worked for a short period of time. It was great that they gave the control to me to oversee the outcome of the designs. There was a 14 arm press which was great for my designs as they usually had about a minimum of 10 colors, plus the glow in the dark. We would also use 4 color process and highlight with neon. Needless to say,these shirts were a painstaking process and expensive to print. TGI were graciously patient with me and I will always be thankful to them. Later, we began using  the Processed color technique and I changed companies to Serichrome in Dallas as they were  already doing the color separations and films, and asked  me to try them out for printing. We developed a great relationship that worked, and I was happy with the quality of the work they printed for me.

What’s the skinny on how your relationship with The Dead began?

On August 14th, 1987 my 3 daughters and I (my youngest Sierra 11 months old was on my back in a Gerry Pack) were walking the main street in Telluride and I spotted Bob Weir and Jon McIntire on mountain bikes pulling into a sporting goods shop. We walked in, and I walked up to Bobby and introduced myself and gave him a T-shirt. This was my first official meeting with one of the Grateful Dead. He was kind, thanked me and spread the shirt out flat on a glass display case counter top. Flattening the shirt smoothly with both hands, he stood there studying the design, pointing his finger around the design and said “Yep,it’s got it all” and smiled.

Jon McIntire then came up to me and said “I want one” and my response being completely unaware that he was a Grateful Dead manager said, “They are $15.00.” He pulled out $15.00, told me his size, and (I didn’t have one in the right size with me) gave it to me. He told me “Give it to Healy, (Dan Healy, Grateful Dead soundman). Then paused and said, “No, he’ll keep it, give it to Howard.”.I said I would, smiles and handshakes were exchanged and we went on our way.

The next day was the first show and I went to the soundboard area and asked for Howard, then met him and many others who wanted the shirt too! My oldest daughter Autumn and I got reprimanded by one of the people at the t-shirt stand who told us to stop selling the shirt inside the show. I said there are a lot of people doing it and he said he knew that but the problem was that everyone thought my shirt was the official shirt of the shows! He made me give him my backpack with about 15 shirts in it and told me to come back at the end of the show and pick it up. He ended up buying one from me! All my other shirts I had left with him were there, all accounted for! Years later the design was put on the Grateful Dead Art Guitar in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

How did you conceptualize artwork for The Dead?

I admire and respect the art of Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, and Rick Griffin. When I was 17 I was on my own and I had an army footlocker that held all my belongings. I painted a version of Griffin’s Aoxomoxa art on the inside of the lid so when I kept it open, it definitely added an ambiance to any place I was at. It traveled all the way to Kihei and back in 1977!!!  I also purchased Mouse and Kelley shirts and posters at Bill Grahams store in San Francisco.

But my designs were inspired mainly by Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing! I loved painting Mandala’s, and that is how my Grateful Dead designs evolved. When the tour’s would be announced and if there were shows within range,(remember I was a very young mother and my babies would go to the shows with me.) I would create a design and incorporate all the elements of nature,  spirituality, and esoteric imagery of the Grateful Dead into the design. I collected tapes too. I had friends that were hard core tapers. I use to help them by placing the D-5 underneath my snuggli carrier with my baby in it to smuggle into shows back when it wasn’t cool with the venue’s to tape and before there was a taper section. I have a great selection of audience, and crispy board tapes that I would play when creating my art too. My husband is an old dead head and my favorite guitarist (along with Garcia), he would be playing in the studio next to my art room and that was creative inspiration too.

Do you have a favorite of your designs for them?

I really don’t have a favorite as each design has it’s own different short story with many chapters to tell from every person that wore the designs!  That is what was best about the DeadHead experience. But as far as standing out in the so called “15 minutes” we are supposedly given in this life, the work I did for the Lesh’s and the Rex Foundation would have to be it. The timing,the communication,the flow of the creative process happened in such a synchronicity I felt its carving in the Divine Order process. When it was over, it felt like an eternal Christmas gift.

You mentioned doing personal work for members of the band too? Do tell!

Jill and Phil Lesh contacted me to do art, a logo for the Rex Foundation and design for the Rex benefits at Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden in 1993. I first received a letter from them asking for help (as many other artists across the country did too) with an ample deadline to complete. I

visited the Gilcrease Museum here in Tulsa with my best friend Brandi McCartney (Rainforest Action Network 1990 tour table person )and we just soaked in the colors for a few hours. This is how the “Great Spirit” design developed for the logo.  I was getting ready to mail  it off  and I receive a phone call from Phil (Lesh) asking how it was coming and would it be ready for the meeting? He then said that I should be receiving a Fed Ex package with another idea for a design. A beat didn’t skip and the doorbell rang. Yes, it was Fed Ex with the package! He asked if I could please get this design done in time for the meeting which was in 2 days as it would be used for a Madison Square and Boston Garden Rex benefit shows. I said “Yes, I will mail them both out  tomorrow.”

Well,that was the beginning of an all nighter with coffee, and the creative inspiration guitar of my soon to be 2nd husband Mark Carpenter. Phil had spelled it out clearly for me on paper what he wanted done with a design he chose out of Parabola and the creation of “Heart” began. Mark helped me pack it up and off to Fed Ex we sped. The Fed Ex people got it done for me but were looking at me with strange expressions. When we got back in the van (EEPHOUR, my 77 VW Bus!) I looked in the rear-view mirror and I had paint all over my face! I called the Leshs and told them they were on their way.

A few days went by and no word. I was waiting patiently but about to nuts with anticipation! I worked at Lifestyle Boutique and received a phone call from my daughter Autumn. She said, “Mom you just received these huge red roses in a vase.” I asked her from who and she said she didn’t know. I told her to open the gift enclosure card and it read: Thank you for your caring and support. Both designs are beautiful and were the favorites of the meeting. If we can ever do anything for you just ask…Jill and Phil.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw them, they were the biggest roses I had ever seen. I called the Lesh’s to thank them. Jill answered the phone and then told me there were stacks of art and my two designs were Garcia’s and MG’s favorites.  That is as far as it got. We kept in touch until my best friend died of an aneurism, my mother was killed in an auto accident a few months later, and then Garcia died a few months after that. 1995 was the worst year of my life. My carpet had been yanked out from underneath me so to speak. I was only 36 years old and was faced into a hardened reality of life. Time to grow up and live in the reality of Tulsa, Ok.

I was contacted by Rhino when Jan Simmons gave them a brochure. This was when they overtook the merchandising. It all seemed very promising right at the beginning but I was told they wanted something new, something that wasn’t already out there. I explained to them that my designs had not been exposed globally on the whole, the reality of my shirts is that the only ones that were mass marketed were 2 in the 1992 GDM merchandise catalog “Dead Flight” and “Sand Stone #1” which they took the Sandstone out and made it a generic Grateful Dead shirt. I was told these sold out 20,000 each and that was the end of that. All the other shirts, there were only 150 made except for maybe the first Las Vegas. I think we printed maybe 200 but I probably gave away 50 plus backstage at the first show. I printed the designs for friends and family and gave them away to the Grateful Dead and their friends and family members.

Everything changed when Garcia went to heaven.

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