During the mid to late 80’s I was in school full time for graphic arts, along with a permanent side track for Grateful Dead tour whenever possible. I was also one of those people who occasionally sold things in the parking lot at those Dead concerts. Sometimes I sold food, but more often than not I sold art-related things, shirts and posters mostly.
Back in the spring of 1988 I had started working on an idea for a t-shirt based off of a line in the song “The Eleven” by the Grateful Dead. The words as they are sung are, “Six proud walkers on the jingle bell rainbow”. I absolutely love the imagery of those words. Robert Hunter was by far the biggest influence to my writing. He had a unique ability to invoke powerful imagery, yet somehow leave the images formless so that they must be completed by the imaginer. Upon his death I posted this small, simple haiku that reads so plainly as to escape detection for the art it is meant to be. It was my personal ode to my mentor, and a master wordsmith. Simple, honest words, polished like a golden bowl – the finest ever seen.
Back to the shirt… So, I conceived of a piece of art. It would be bordered on all sides by ivy. And then, coming from the back and arcing toward the front would be the rainbow, but like a bridge being traversed by the walkers themselves. Each walker would be carrying a hand bell, shouting their message to the rooftops. All but one walker, he alone carried the jingle bells. It was an homage to an old friend who himself had to leave this world just to be able to once again walk the jingle bell rainbow.
Now, about the walkers themselves… Since it was the 80’s I drew a lot of eyeballs, little eyeballs with arms and legs. Yep, that was my thing. Most of the eyeballs in this piece looked pretty much the same, except for two of them. One of those two stood out in the crowd, he leans on a cane and has donned an Uncle Sam hat. There he stands, one foot on his soapbox, preaching his word to all who will listen. Every parking lot had a few of these folks, spreading their philosophy like Vegemite. The remaining eyeball was my friend Ken, his pate wrapped snuggly in a bandana, hawking some t-shirt in the parking lot (in my mind, it was the very shirts I was drawing).
Having letters that spelled out “Six proud walkers on the jingle bell rainbow” were also a part of my concept. Done in 60’s concert poster style, the letters snake and intertwine, leading the eye to new places.
When I came up with the design, I didn’t have the ability to do multicolor screen prints, but I could create single color screens. So, using what I had I decided to make the art to be a black and white line-art base that I would screen print onto the shirts first, adding additional color on top later. You can’t have rainbows in black and white!
Eventually, what I ended up doing was to using my airbrush to individually spray each individual color into the piece. Each leaf in the ivy had to be sprayed in green. Each color of the rainbow had to be sprayed along the arc of my rainbow road, each in perspective, hopefully coming from smaller point and getting larger as I went. And while I was spraying all that color onto my rainbow, I wasn’t supposed to be spraying it all over those cute little eyeball dudes walking along my rainbow road. In order to get around that problem, I tried to fashion cutouts that I could place over each eyeball to protect them from getting painted as I sprayed away. It sort of worked with mixed results, but it was a huge pain.
I think I only ever made one or these two shirts that I was happy with. So, after giving up on that method of coloring the art, a tie dye artist friend named Chris created some rainbow dyed versions, which certainly was in keeping with the spirit of the rainbow. But, in the end I sold a lot of black and white versions of the shirt. And after I had drawn it and made the screen, the original art was put in a portfolio and forgotten about, never to see the light of day again for another 32 years. In fact, until recently when my friend Andy sent me an old picture of him wearing one of these shirts (below is a blurry, partial shot of Andy wearing the black and white version), I hadn’t seen the art in decades.
Well, I was recently on one of those covid lockdown tangents/projects when I came across the original artwork for the “six proud walkers” piece in that old portfolio. I decided to scan it in so I would at least have a digital copy finally.
And then I got to thinking… You know, aside from one or two shirts that probably disintegrated decades ago, I never had a finished copy of this piece to keep. So dammit, with the help of technology I am currently airbrushing the color on to my black and white art as it was originally conceived to be done (see below, again). But I am also trying to do it in a way where I can be shared with others, and that maybe it will give a few other people a smile, I hope.