In recent weeks, we’ve looked at two exhibitions mounted in San Francisco—at the de Young Museum and California Historical Society—to mark the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Now, a new show in Salem, Oregon, offers those of us who love rock posters a reason to head north. Titled “Behind the Beyond: Psychedelic Posters and Fashion in San Francisco, 1966-71,” the exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art features more than 100 posters and photographs, as well as 20 examples of period clothing, from the collection of Salem resident Gary Westford.
If that name sounds familiar to those who have seen “The Summer of Love Experience” at the de Young, it’s probably because 25 posters and a Robert Fried billboard that Westford has donated to the de Young are included in that show. Indeed, though he’s lived most of his life in Oregon, Westford’s California roots run deep. He was born in Oakland, grew up in San Lorenzo, went to high school in Hayward, and attended San Francisco State in 1968, thanks to—of all things—a wrestling scholarship.
“We had a good team,” Westford told me the other day when we spoke over the phone. Prior to his years at SF State, Westford spent much of his time trying to earn that scholarship. “I was an athlete,” he says. “In January of 1967, I was training for the California State Junior College Wrestling Championships. That was my focus.”
Even so, in 1967, posters had already caught his eye. “The first psychedelic poster I ever saw was Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley’s “Wilderness Conference” poster for the Sierra Club. It completely blew me away. I was drawn to the color, the incredible lettering, the image of a Native American on horseback with his hands raised in supplication to nature, and that weird combination of the Sierra Club hosting an event at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel. That poster opened doors for me, and to this day it’s one of my all-time favorites.”
By the fall of 1968, Westford had enrolled at SF State and moved to the Lower Haight, near the corner of Haight and Pierce. That made it easy for him to see countless concerts. “I was late to the scene,” he says. “The first concert I attended was Cream at Winterland. I remember thinking ‘There are only three guys on that stage, and they are just tearing it down!’ Everyone has to attend a first concert, so it might as well be Cream.”
Even though 1968 was an undeniably good year for music in San Francisco, it was a rough time to be at SF State. “In the fall of 1968, the campus was basically occupied by police, including members of tactical squad. I witnessed riots pretty much on a daily basis—teargas, helicopters in the sky. At the time, there was a huge open commons in the center of campus, and there would be these waves of officers who would sweep through. If you were in their way, you paid the price.”
Not exactly “peace, love, flowers, and dope,” but like most people who lived through those tumultuous times, Westford learned from his experiences, focusing as much as possible on the good but remaining mindful of the bad. In some respects, rock posters were an anchor. “I had begun to collect them when I was living in the Lower Haight. By the time I left San Francisco in 1971, I had about 35. Most of them were thumbtacked on my bedroom wall. But even as a 21 or 22 year old, I knew those posters were special—that they were emblematic of a time and place, and amazing in terms of their graphics, color, and design. I clearly remember thinking, ‘Someday I will do something with these posters.’”
Westford picked up some of his posters at shows, but many others were purchased. “The Haight was obviously in decline by the time I got there, so lots of head shops were closing. One day, I walked into a poster shop and bought two posters—an original foil copy of Monterey Pop and a second print of FD-26, Skeleton and Roses. Both cost me three bucks, so I was happy about that.” Both are in the exhibition in Salem, thumbtack holes and all.
Posters also shaped Westford’s choices at SF State, and beyond. “I got a B.A. in Humanities, with an emphasis in creative writing,” he says. “But in my senior year, I decided I wanted to become an artist, in part because of rock posters. So, after leaving SF State, I worked for the Teamsters on the Oakland docks, loading semis with dry ice. I did that for two years, went to night school at Laney College, and then went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, where I got a master’s degree in art, specifically in painting.”
Westford was finally an artist, but now what? “I moved to Oregon to begin a teaching career but couldn’t find any jobs. Finally, I found a position at the Oregon State Penitentiary, teaching in an arts education program that was administered through the local community college in Salem. I worked there for 13 years.” Before he retired, Westford also worked for a dozen years as an instructor in art and art history at Linn-Benton Community College in nearby Albany, Oregon.
As an artist, Westford’s work has what he describes as “a sociopolitical narrative, which is definitely a reference back to my experiences growing up in the San Francisco counterculture.” In fact, Westford’s years in San Francisco are deeply important to him. “The 56 posters that I gave to the de Young are my gift back to the city,” he says, “and to the artists and musicians of that time. That’s where those posters and the billboard belong.”
Not surprisingly, the Robert Fried billboard is a key part of Westford’s gift. “I had always been a fan of Fried,” Westford tells me, “and was actually going to be introduced to him at an exhibition featuring some of his work. But on the night of the opening, at around 8 o’clock, word began to filter through the crowd that he had had a brain aneurysm and died. I think he was 35 years old.”
Years later, Westford read about the Family Dog billboard in The Art of Rock. “I was on the lookout from that point on,” he says, “I finally located one in 2009 at SF Rock Posters. After that, one of my goals became to exhibit it somewhere in honor of Robert Fried. Now that has occurred.”
Twice, actually, because Westford eventually purchased two of Fried’s Family Dog billboards—one is on view at the de Young and the other can be seen at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Which is not to say that the presentation is the same. “When the billboards were offered for sale in 1970 by the Print Mint, they cost $100 for all 12 4-by-6-foot sheets. And in the Print Mint catalog, they are described as being ‘Black Light.’ So in Salem, we have six state-of-the-art black light bulbs directed at the billboard. It practically flies off the wall!”
“Behind the Beyond: Psychedelic Posters and Fashion in San Francisco, 1966-71” runs at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art on the campus of Willamette University through August 27, 2017. On Thursday June 8, Scott Montgomery of the University of Denver will give a lecture on the origins and development of the psychedelic poster—from “The Seed” poster of 1965 to the psychedelic posters made before and during the Summer of Love.