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The legendary Grace Slick brings her magical past back to life on canvas

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SAN DIEGO — Grace Slick has spent the majority of her 70 years rocking in the free world.

The woman with the iconic voice of Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Starship fame will be rocking at center stage again in San Diego this week – but not with a microphone in her hand this time.

Slick is exhibiting her art work – yes, art work – at Alexander Salazar Fine Art Gallery downtown all this week, culminating in a public reception with the artist from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, July 10.

When and how did this legend make the transition from rock star to visual rock artist? San Diego Gay & Lesbian News got the chance to chat with her recently about that very thing.

Her name has long been associated with peace, love, flower power, psychedelic rock, the Vietnam war, drugs and dozens of hit records that span over 30 years worth of work, not all of which she appreciates, even if we do, but more on that later. She now recreates a lot of those magical times on canvas.

Slick’s record-making days began as the singer-songwriter of a popular San Francisco Bay area based band called The Great Society (named after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s social programs). She had been working as a model and knowing that she could sing, she saw the band play and decided it was a much better gig than modeling.

She and her new band-mates often supported the other Bay Area bands, one of which was Jefferson Airplane, a band that had already recorded its first album and was beginning to get some mainstream attention. Before long, Airplane’s female singer left, making room for Slick, who joined the band in October 1966.

Stardom awaits

In addition to her fine contralto vocals, she brought along two songs that would thrust the band – and Slick – into international superstardom – “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” The songs were incorporated into her first record release with the band, Surrealistic Pillow. It would prove Slick to be one of the top female vocalists in rock history.

Jefferson Airplane went on to play at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, a double-bill European tour with the Doors in 1968, Woodstock in 1969 and four months later, the chaotic Altamont Speedway Free Festival, an event that signaled an end to the peace and love “Woodstock nation.”

There is a wealth of information available on the Internet about the band’s colorful and often tumultuous history.

Slick contributed to seven of the band’s eight albums before Jefferson Airplane disbanded in 1974. Slick and most of her previous band-mates emerged as Jefferson Starship, indicating a change of the times. Although Slick was in and out of Jefferson Starship, she contributed to six more albums and yet another two with Starship.

Changing times bring on soul searching

By this time the transition had gone from its hippie counter-culture psychedelic rock to mainstream pop to full-on radio and video oriented rock. It had become the MTV generation, after all.

It was at this point that Slick realized she no longer liked what she was doing.

“I didn’t like singing songs like ‘Nothing Is Gonna Stop Us Now.’ I know several things that will stop you. I didn’t believe that song. I don’t like to sing things I don’t believe. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good song.” It did, however, sell a lot of records.

“I have about a four-note range, I can sing high but it is always loud, which I always had to remember when I was writing songs. I was built for rock ‘n’ roll because I was really loud.”

Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

What Grace Slick thinks of today’s female stars

She keeps her ear to the music scene today and follows what keeps her interest.

On Celine Dion: “She has a spectacular instrument.”

On Lady Gaga: “Right in your face, a real good singer and piano player. I like what Madonna did, changing her image all the time and pushing the envelope, she did some interesting videos, but Lady Gaga is a much better singer.”

On Britany Spears: “I don’t even understand her. What is that? Why did people go for that? God bless her and the people who buy her records but I don’t understand it. Then people don’t understand me, either.”

On “American Idol”: “I don’t understand why Adam Lambert didn’t win. He is a stunning entertainer.”

The visual artist emerges

In 1998, after doing some Jefferson Airplane reunion tours, Slick hung up her microphone for good and picked up a paintbrush. She initially began painting for herself because it made her feel good.

Then her publisher asked her to paint some pictures for her autobiography “Somebody To Love?” and she began to explore her talents through portraits of her contemporaries and experienced great success. Since then Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, members of the Who, Jim Morrison – all whom she toured with or worked with – have adorned her canvasses.

She now paints every day in her Malibu home or while she is on the road. She recently broke her arm so she is on a hiatus, but eager and excited to show her work and attends all shows she can get to without having to go on a plane.

Talking to her, you can immediately sense she has become a true student of her craft, offering detailed comparisons of various media and explaining the positives and negatives of each.

Her preference is for bold, “blast your eye out color,” which she finds in pastels, but has settled on acrylics for most of her originals because it travels better and is less messy. Acrylics are also water-soluble and more importantly, dry quicker than oils – something she said is important at her age.

“You don’t want to be waiting around for the paint to dry at 70 years old.”

Slick is extremely price-conscious when it comes to her work, especially in this challenged economy and is happy to be able to offer lithographic reproductions of her originals.

When she found what a dealer had priced one of her originals, she said, “How can you say it is worth that much? It took me 15 minutes.”

“No it didn’t,” he told her, “it took you your whole life.” That shut her down quick.

“In other words,” she explained, “what you’ve learned your whole life goes into this stuff.”

Why rabbits are so special to Grace Slick

Aside from the many portraits of her fellow musicians, there is another whole style that Slick embraces that centers around an animated “Alice In Wonderland” theme. Since her biggest hit was “White Rabbit,” this makes sense but begs further understanding as to why it is still so prominent in her work all these years later.

In that blockbuster song, Slick used “Alice in Wonderland” imagery as a metaphor for the parental hypocrisies of condemning the ’60s drug culture when their own drug of choice was alcohol.

She says the image of the white rabbit has been a constant theme and ongoing story throughout her life: She was born in the Year of the Rabbit; as a small child, she lived next door to a man who raised about 40 rabbits as a hobby (she later found out for their fur); when her house in Mill Valley burned down 20 years ago, one of the only things that survived was a ceramic white rabbit; and as in the story, she feels she has lived the story of Alice – coming of age through the rigid ’50s (a “big snore” she says) and then moving into the ’60s – was like falling into the rabbit hole.

“The rabbit hole represented [Alice’s] curiosity – she had balls (or the female’s equivalent of them) and followed the rabbit down the hole, which is following her curiosity. Life is too short – whatever you want to do – as long as you aren’t going to go kill somebody – go do it; you don’t want to look back and have regrets.”

Continuing with the ongoing story, the rabbit and Alice show up in many of her paintings today.

Asked what she thinks of today’s new political meaning of “Tea Party,” she states, “same as the old one,
there are lots of crazy views once you go down the rabbit hole.”

Slick’s portraits reveal her subjects as she saw and knew them. She says people prefer to project big dramatic back-stories on Janis Joplin and others of that time, as negative and miserable.

“I didn’t see that person, so I couldn’t paint that person. [Janis] was happy, not miserable. I [also] didn’t see that misery in Morrison. He took more drugs than anyone I know. He used himself as a human lab rat – to see how far he could push the human mind.”

Her portrait of Sting is much more stoic. “He considers things a lot. I think he runs things around in his head – he’s not flighty but contemplative.”

One of her more popular pieces is of Woodstock.

“Everyone on that stage was there, but I painted people in that crowd who weren’t even born yet.”

An exhibition of 50 of Grace’s paintings is currently available through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Any one who purchases one of her pieces during these exhibition hours will get a special VIP admission to a private reception called “Tea with Grace,” from 5 to 6 p.m. Saturday. This reception is strictly limited to people who buy her art and includes a personal meeting with Grace, a photo with her and a personal signing on the back of your piece.

After this private reception will be a public reception from 6 to 9 p.m. which Grace will also attend.

If you go

Hundreds of people are expected to attend the public reception on Saturday for a chance to catch a glimpse of Grace.

Plan on arriving early to get in line. The gallery also recommends coming in during the earlier exhibition daytime hours if you wish to have the time to truly enjoy her work. There is no cost to attend the exhibition.

If you plan to attend Saturday night’s public reception, please send an RSVP to [email protected]

The Alexander Salazar Fine Art Gallery is located at 640 Broadway (on the northwest corner of Seventh Street), San Diego 92101. Pay parking lots can be found on several corners along Broadway.

Alexander Salazar is a well-known and respected member of the LGBT community. He recently opened this gallery in a 2000-square-foot space downtown to house the work of emerging artists but also renowned painters and sculptors from around the world. Any day of the week you will find the work of several artists along with a current featured artist. For more information call (619) 513-8996.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor for SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, ext 710 or via e-mail at [email protected].

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