The Day of the Dead : From Hotel Suites to Wet Suits, Jerry Garcia's Art Is Becoming an Empire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the painter Paul Gauguin played the mandolin, and the pugilist actor Sylvester Stallone wields a brush, why shouldn't the ruler of the Grateful Deadheads, Jerry Garcia, have a second coming as a visual artist?

Some high-profile creative souls know no bounds when it comes to crossover--they've found that commercial isn't such a dirty word if it means translating celebrity je ne sais quoi into product punch. And while Paul Newman may be dressing salads and Frank Sinatra is soon to have his ties, nobody does it better than Garcia, who presides over one of the highest-grossing live acts in rock 'n' roll history.

Indeed, as the '60s meet the '90s, and a generation of Deadheads are plying lofty professions as doctors and lawyers, Dead-power isn't stopping at the box office. It's turning into a real financial force as designers and manufacturers translate Garcia's artwork into everything from hotel rooms to wet suits. In their wildest dreams, they envision a J. Garcia design empire a la Ralph Lauren, with the guitarist's licensed touch on clothing, home furnishings and accessories.

"We've been inundated with people literally around the world who have interest in bringing other products to the table," says Irwin Sternberg, president of Stonehenge Ltd., which launched the J. Garcia tie collection four years ago.

Sternberg says the global response was sparked by flashy neckwear sales; fans have snapped up more than a million of the colorful ties spun off Garcia's artwork.

The latest J. Garcia product to be highly hyped is the Jerry Garcia Suite, which opened recently at the cozy Beverly Prescott, a hotel that prizes its new celebrified digs as much as its 90210 ZIP Code. Other Garcia products in the works include a men's sport shirt line, a women's wear line, hair accessories, cummerbunds, silk scarves and wool rugs made in Nepal.

By early spring, the scuba-minded Deadhead will be able to outfit himself in J. Garcia Waterwear from Henderson Aquatics. Prices range from $35 for a rash guard to $260 for a wet suit with multicolor insets.

And by the way, when it comes to the J. Garcia aesthetic, tie-dye is dead, not Dead.

"You take a Jerry Garcia who doesn't even wear a tie, if he has a book out with his artwork, (he's) a designer of some sort," Sternberg says. "The best designers today have many, many different people designing their work. If the merchandise is beautiful and affordable and the name is recognizable, what's the difference between a designer and a Jerry Garcia?" Peace and love, baby.

J. Garcia, star to the designers, has come a long way from Jerry Garcia, minstrel to the anti-materialistic '60s. And he's not alone--yesterday's hippies have grown up, and they have cash to burn.

"When '60s people realized they had to go to work to keep the rent paid, that created such an identity crisis that we're only beginning to recover from it now," says James Mahoney, a Washington, D.C., artist and critic who wrote an introduction for "J. Garcia: Paintings, Drawings and Sketches" (Celestial Arts, 1992). "The Jerry Garcia phenomenon is a matter of experimentation, and people are certainly making money off it. But there were quicker, uglier ways to make money, if sheer exploitation were the motivation."

At the Beverly Prescott, $300 will buy you a night in Room 807-- $50 a pop more than comparable rooms. The junior suite is rife with prismatic fabrics drawn from Garcia's artwork, 14 pieces of which also line the walls. The well-off Deadhead can ponder the Master on a duvet inspired by "Green Landscape," play Dead CDs on the sound system and lounge about in a J. Garcia terry bathrobe.

During the suite's debut months in January and February, eight travelers slept here, among them San Francisco real estate lawyer and guitarist Stephen Ledoux.

"It's cool. It's Jerry," says Ledoux, 36. "If you have the choice to put yourself in a hotel dead space with no creativity and in a room where someone is trying to express themselves, to me there's no choice."

The Beverly Prescott spent $18,000 on its J. Garcia Suite after a similar room was launched last September at the Hotel Triton, a sister Kimpton Group inn in San Francisco, which is Garcia territory. Garcia signed the wall of the Triton suite, but otherwise puts some distance between his person and his product.

"He'd rather do his music and do his art and keep his mouth shut," says Dead spokesman Dennis McNally. McNally says Garcia's involvement with the suite is minimal, and he says little about his art.

"Garcia was asked, 'What's the inspiration for your work?' He said, 'It's like sweat. It's not a conscious act,' " McNally says.

Garcia's work is figurative and often colorful, an unpredictable universe of landscapes and banyan trees, cardinals and gunmen, and fish that spring from his love of scuba-diving.

And while Mahoney says the 52-year-old guitarist is a genius as a musician, his artwork, which he calls "visual improvisations," is also significant. "His genius--it's a peculiar word--it's on one side compulsion, and the other side grace," he says. "The major level of compulsion and grace lies in his guitar playing. However, the visual things are amazing."

Garcia's interest in visual art goes back to his high school years, when he studied painting at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute. While he always pursued his artwork, he became more deeply involved with it in 1986, when a diabetic condition confined him for six months.

While Garcia was convalescing, his friend Nora Sage suggested he start selling his work, McNally says. Garcia's lithographs and prints now generally range in price from $250 to $600.

"So he was doing his paintings," McNally says, "and this woman (Sage) who was selling the originals and the lithos from them is a very bright and resourceful woman, and she looked at these things and said, 'I see ties.' And he shrugged and said, 'You gotta be kidding me,' and went back to it.

"She got together with the Stonehenge tie company. Jerry does a sketch and in the corner is a frog, and they endlessly duplicate the frog and it becomes a bolt of color, and they make ties out of it. She was one time in a textile mill and she saw this enormous bolt of frogs, and as soon as she saw that she saw drapes and a room and eventually that led through a friend of a friend to the Triton Hotel. Garcia has had little to do with that."

Sage, who markets Garcia's wares through a Bend, Ore.-based company called The Art Peddler, declined to be interviewed. But Stonehenge's Sternberg said he saw big neckwear potential in Garcia's first art show in New York, at the Ambassador Gallery.

"When I was there, I wasn't even going thinking about neckwear," Sternberg says. "The lines literally circled the block and media from all over the world came. I thought this was a great handle for a fashion look."

When the $30 to $50 ties were launched at Bloomingdale's, the press came back to see what else J. Garcia Inc. had wrought. And thus, a rock-and-wear phenomenon was born.

Says Sternberg: "The calls from around the world temporarily broke down the telephone system at Bloomingdale's, and an emergency hot line had to be set up to take orders. . . . The exciting thing is, people wear the neckties and feel they're getting away with something."

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