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Poster Artist For '60s Bands In San Francisco Found Peace And Love In Rural Missouri

Courtesy Wes Wilson

Wes Wilson anticipates a renaissance is coming, and this shift in societal values will be led in part by members of the arts community. You could say that’s how the longtime poster artist known for his psychedelic promotions, which use fluid forms made from letters and flowing letters to create shapes, got his start.

It was 50 years ago this year his controversial image of an American Flag with a swastika started appearing in protests throughout the streets of Oakland, California. The piece, titled “Are We Next?,” was inspired by anger.

“It had to do with the war in Vietnam. Studying philosophy, thinking about the ideal worlds and the politics of our country and all this – the ideals – kind of created that (design) image for me,” Wilson said.

Credit Courtesy Wes Wilson
Wes Wilson's iconic 'Are We Next?'

Robert Wesley Wilson was born in 1937 in Sacramento, California. A talented artist since youth, Wilson studied history, English literature and philosophy in school. So along with his inherent creative skill set, Wilson has always been armed with historical and political perspectives that are just as much a part of his daily life as his art.

The latter trait dominated our conversation on a recent fall morning when I visited Wilson at his home in Barry County, Missouri, on what now serves as a hay farm. This 160-acre property is where he and his wife Eva settled in 1976, part of which served as an escape for Wilson from a commercial art advertising scene he felt had become corrupt in its business practices.

“Got ripped off by all kinds of things that were just totally awful. And if you don’t have money to fight legal battles forget it.”

So, after creating rock poster art for the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, along with various other works, Wilson resettled in rural southwest Missouri.

Perhaps living here wasn’t he and his wife’s initial plan when they set out east nearly 40 years ago, but they would eventually find a local property that fit all the required criteria.

“It had to be at the end of a road. I didn’t want roads going by. At least half had to be woods. It had to be tillable. It had to have live water. And it had to be able to grow cattle.”

Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
Wes Wilson's loft barn, built in 1961, serves as a second studio space and an entertainment venue.

Wilson’s intention was to do art when he moved. But it didn’t come right away. And after a year he found work with Springfield City Utilities. Art would eventually become a money maker for Wilson again. Now, he gets consistent requests for work, and is currently employed by the band Moonalice.

“So I’ve been doing some lately. Here’s one I did for Auburn, CA…”

“You inked it, and then water colored it, and then I just did this out here – the outer part is all computery,” explains his daughter, Shirryl Bailess, who has been instrumental in supplying digital assistance for Wilson’s work.

“If it wasn’t for Shirryl I don’t know what I’d be doing now," Wilson says. "I’d probably just be taking care of the chickens and the garden and stuff.”

“Well, dad does the original artwork and then nowadays it needs to be digitized to get it ready for the people who need it,” Bailess adds.

Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
Wilson and daughter Shirryl Bailess who helps digitize some of her father's works.

And when not doing art, tending to his property is part of what he does. “Last year we had about 150 round bails, and the year before we had about 200 round bails,” says Wilson, as we make our way around his property.

It’s a vast landscape to maintain, but Wilson says it brings peaceful living. Also on his property is a large loft barn, built in 1961, which Wilson says was one of the last of its kind built in this area. He keeps a studio here, and the venue has played host to several events including a wedding. On the top floor sits a work bench and prints from past projects.

There’s quite a colorful past to Wes Wilson. Yet this rural oasis he calls home offers simplicity from that of a complex world and many of the governmental policies he questions. Back inside the house, Wilson tells me he’s fed up with the money that influences politicians, and the racial tensions affecting many communities. He’s pro diplomacy, against war, and says the government needs to stop funding certain operations overseas.

He supports Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And while he doesn’t agree with much of his politics, he appreciates that Republican Donald Trump speaks his mind because, as Wilson puts it, he’s got enough money to not be influenced by donors. Above all, Wilson says he wants a just civilization, and feels the art community can help.

Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
Wilson showing two works for the band Moonalice, among his many current projects.

“I think we’re really kind of at a point where the whole culture’s gonna make a big shift. And the art world – I love the art world because it’s full of individuals. There’s lots and lots of individuals in the art world… In that you have the expression art and love of people and the gathering of people and kind of the comradery of common interests and stuff that makes for a good society.”

Wilson still returns to the Bay Area each year for the annual Rock Poster Society Show, where he’ll meet other artists and collectors and sign and sell old and recent prints. The event is an extension of the San Francisco Poster Expo started by Wilson in 1992. He encourages artists these days to keep exploring new ideas and practices. Wilson notes the Japanese artist Hokusai, who Wilson said continued to learn new things after turning 90.

Today, Wes Wilson can look back and be proud of 50 years of artistry. And the work continues to this day, as does his motivation to learn about history and keep up with politics. While his passion for all is evident, his historical knowledge vast and political views strong, there’s modesty that comes with his lifelong profession.

“I kind of invented my way into it, so to speak. And it really worked out well. It’s kinda neat.”

This story was produced by KSMU, Ozarks Public Radio.

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