Rock icon Grace Slick paints her way to a new life
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By Scott Lucas

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life. I think it's safe to say his pronouncement would particularly apply to rock stars. Grace Slick begs to differ.

As high priestess of the psychedelic '60s magical merry-go-round, Slick lived the tawdry Tinkerbelle lifestyle guided by the instructive signposts of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. At 67 years old, Slick appears to be running full-throttle -- working, playing, eating right (sometimes), smoking and joking. She's happily avoided the cruel destiny of those aging rocksters on the Depends Tour milking the memory machine down Mercenary Lane. More importantly, she's not joined her old friends Jimi and Janis on the Rock and Roll Eternity Tour.

So what do you do when you jump off the stage and land on your feet?

Slick is a visual artist now -- a painter. This is her Act II. ("Act II" is also the name of her art exhibition, which swings into Charlotte's South Park Mall Friday, Nov. 17.) She quit the stage in 1989, after beginning to feel silly doing at 49 what she was great at when she was 29. She says, "If I were still singing 'White Rabbit' now, I would be like one of those old women with red lipstick and blonde wigs you see on Hollywood Boulevard."

 
Her musical expressions are behind her, but her rock 'n' roll mark remains with us, forever embedded, and continually resurfacing, in our popular culture. Her musical fame, which blossomed with her stint with Jefferson Airplane in 1967, still breathes among us in "White Rabbit," a watershed song regularly culled up in movies, commercials, plays, TV shows and digital downloads. Grace Slick left a mesmerizing, iconic song, and a media-perpetuated legacy, that will live beyond her, beyond me, beyond my boomer buddies and their children's children.

One pill makes you larger

She says she's no Picasso, and I think Picasso would agree. Slick admires illustrators and cartoonists and animators. She doesn't consider herself in the mold of other artists she greatly admires -- she mentioned Degas, Monet and Manet. She applauds the animators of The Lion King and Fantasia, advertising illustrators and fantasy cartoonists. She sees these men and women as talents worthy of praise, who work their magic under the shroud of anonymity.

In her own art, Slick explores three visual paths: portraits, Alice in Wonderland illustrations and line drawings -- both brush and pencil.

Her portraits are mostly of famous rockers; men and women she knew, or still knows, including Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend, Jim Morrison and

  Grace Slick

Sting. Like her voice of yesterday, Slick's hand is self-taught. Like her tongue of yesterday and today, the portraits are direct, unflinching, and bear a close resemblance to the truth according to Grace. Each portrait carries a sentimental or caustic spin. Those qualities can be either revealing or maudlin, in an "Oh my" good way, or an "Oh man" bummer way.

The Wonderland Series illustrates the Alice story, circa 1865 and 1969 -- age of Lewis Carroll and Age of Aquarius. These pieces take turns being childishly charming and hallucinatory.

The line drawing and painting -- "Waiting," "Blue Nude" and "Slick" -- carry the visual whispers of a lyric and spontaneous hand. Slick is her most successful in these simple works. These one-offs are less fussed over and less contrived; they're her best pieces, and likely, her least sought after.

None of her paintings carry the pulsating resonance or the vulnerable, but defiant allure of the 28-year-old voice in "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit." And I don't think they're trying to.

One pill makes you small

The artist appears to reproduce the rabbits faster than the little beasts procreate in the wild.

"My agent calls me and tells me I need more rabbits, and I tell him I got rabbits. Rabbits I can do." The White Rabbit is a cottage industry. Through her visual ventures, Slick fuels the rabbit machine. And her public eats them up. Who is buying all these White Rabbits and why?

Slick's 1966 song "White Rabbit" is tie dyed into the fabric of our popular culture. The song has been covered by Homer Simpson, written into a suicide pact in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and was used as stoner mood music in Oliver Stone's movie Platoon. "White Rabbit" delivered lyric marching orders to Tony Soprano as he wrestled with the prospect of upping his Prozac dose. The song is a continuing touchstone for our times, and is too perfect a fit for our entertainment dream weavers to ignore. Slick tripped over Ravel's Bolero on her way to visit Alice in Wonderland and discovered an immortal three minutes she could hold forever; one hell of a rabbit hole, and one very clever girl.

In 1967, "White Rabbit" was the suburban teen's emancipation proclamation, a get-out-of-jail pass for any wannabe flower child willing to turn on, tune in and drop out. The song was a pithy doctrine, a mantra, and a march for m-m-my generation; a fight song for the willful and a cautionary tale for the wise.

Slick had her own Wonderland life and she acknowledges her continued fascination with the story has something to do with how Alice's life parallels her own.

"I was brought up in rigid environment, so was Alice. My father was a Republican investment banker in San Francisco in the '50s, Alice grew up in Victorian England. Alice goes on an adventure, she is open to new experiences, she takes drugs. I found the '60s, I explored what was available. Also, Alice was on her own, and nobody saved her. She didn't need saving, neither did I. That appeals to me."

Works available at the Wentworth Gallery illustrate her continued interest in Alice, the characters she meets along the way, and her adventures.

  Trust by Grace Slick

"Timekeeper ..." is part of Slick's larger Wonderland Suite. In the giclee' print reproduced from an original acrylic painting, the dapper and fuzzy white rabbit squats, front and center, inside his rectangular black void. His ears and eyes are alert, his gargantuan hindquarters and fluffy feet are parked firmly on the inarticulate void. He wears a long-sleeved, high-riding vest coat and a dotted tie, and holds a watch fob connected to his vest pocket by a chain. His gaze is both dumbfounded and alert, as if he is considering an idiotic question or a confounding puzzle. Perhaps he vexed over his watch running backward. Grace's explanation is enigmatic: "The White Rabbit represents curiosity -- always in a hurry and just out of reach. He is a moving mystery. His backward watch annoys him into constant running. The race for knowledge and experience leads Alice to recognition of the absurd. The rabbit/curiosity leads -- we follow."

Her explanation annoys me. I don't want to follow, but still ... I'm curious. The rabbit is pricked on by the perception of lost time, by the specter of too little time to sate his curious appetite. The bunny's quixotic and sober expression is the look of a hare realizing the absurd imposition of a measurement on time, his time, and his watch's power to impose an arbitrary measurement. He's rendered dumbstruck, mute and motionless by his realization. His curiosity will never be sated! There's not enough time. More time lost!

If Grace Slick had chosen a more reasonable profession, if her coming of age had landed in a decade guided by logic and proportion instead of chaos and distortion, she may have been a successful children's book illustrator. She's got the chops for that. And she imbues the requisite child innocence with enough adult content to keep grown up eyes open.

In her illustrations to Alice's adventures, Slick occasionally likes to draft new characters into the illustrations. "White Rabbit in Wonderland" includes some of her favorite characters from her own epoch. In her own words: "Timothy Leary the Mad Hatter. Ram Dass the Caterpillar. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee with The Racoon as my Cheshire Cat, the Lab Rat as my Dormouse."

Alice kneels on a huge mushroom, balances herself on a tree, and gazes down a cobble stone path to a bunny leaping down the lane. The stone path leads to a blue bay fronting the setting sun on a red horizon. Cheshire Raccoon rests on a limb above Alice, Timothy Leary smiles and waves at us, and Ram Dass sits lotus position on a mushroom smoking a Hookah. The crimson orange sky, red polka dotted mushroom and the verdant green hills stop about three microdots short of a hallucinatory intensity.

Lewis Carroll might sniff at Slick's inclusion of Ram Dass, Pope of the Aquarius Age, and Dr. Timothy Leary, headmaster to turned-on lunatic academy, but the update makes the work hers. And for those of us with psychedelic merit badges, she makes it ours.

The illustration is ebullient and giddy enough to release Richard Nixon's inner child, if only "Tricky Dick" had sipped that tea ...

Some kind of mushroom

Enough about the artwork already. I wanted to hear about the Presidential tea party. I ask Ms. Slick the question foremost on my mind: "What about the White House tea party and the trip Dick Nixon never took. Did that really happen?"

"Oh yes -- it happened," she answers. "Ten years after leaving Finch College in NYC, a finishing school for privileged kids who couldn't get into Vassar, I got an invite from Trisha Nixon to attend a tea party at the White House. So few kids went to Finch, she must have invited like every class. She invited me as Grace Wing, my maiden name, not knowing I was singing for Airplane. I brought 600 micrograms of LSD and invited Abbie Hoffman as my date."

I ask her if she had lost her mind. She could have spent many years in jail.

"I wouldn't have been caught, I planned to talk with the man, gesture with my hands -- and plop, slip it in. But it never happened. A security guard recognized Abbie and escorted us both out." She sighs.

An opportunity lost. A door of perception closed for Dick Nixon. Jail time avoided.

She's my hero for merely considering it.

And what about the child named god?

She never named her child god. Her daughter China was forever dubbed "god" by the media circus following an offhand remark by Grace after her daughter's birth. An overly upbeat nurse had irritated Slick throughout the ordeal. Following China's arrival, the nurse came into the recovery room with the official birth certificate. She explained this certificate was given to all the new mothers in the hospital. She wanted to get the entry right: "What are you going to name the baby?"

Grace had enough of "Nurse Sunnyside." She noticed the nurse was wearing a crucifix.

"god. Her name is god, with a little 'g.' We spell it with a small 'g' to keep her humble. She didn't believe it. I told her again."

The nurse walked out to call the San Francisco Chronicle. Birth of a child. Birth of a myth.

Go ask Alice

A piece of Slick's life is chronicled in her portraits of fellow travelers to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The portraits are all good likenesses, and all tributes to friends or colleagues, some fallen and others still afloat.

  Mad Hatter by Grace Slick

"Janis Wood Nymph" is a likeness that looks nothing like the Janice Joplin I adored and pitied from my safe distance at the receiving end of the media megaphone. Slick insists, "The drugged out lunatic portrayed by most of her biographers is not the person I knew. (Janice was) radiant and consuming."

I would say radical and consumed, but Slick's read of Janis is likely to be more accurate than mine; she was friends with the woman. I was merely one more fan spinning a scratchy LP in a dorm room. Her Janice is smiling, warm, sober, and downright resplendent, with feathers sprouting from her lush, luxurious mane like plumes from an exotic bird. This Janis is neither busted flat in Ban-rouge, nor does she appear to be getting it while she can. She looks like she's always had it, and always will.

A second portrait of Janice, titled "Nine 11," more accurately captures the plaintive and perverse spirit in the haunted and wailing woman I remember. Janice is clad in all black, down on hands and knees, belting out her song while riding a magic carpet woven from an American flag. Dressed in black and wrapped in the red, white and blue -- the image is disjunctive, jarring, and comically absurd. Now there's the woman who sang "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a color TV ..."

"Sacrifice to Morpheus" is a large, full frontal portrait of Jim Morrison. Slick has captured his classic good looks, his piercing eyes, and his faint, dark smile. Jim never looked so good. A circular light throbs behind Morrison's head, a light with rings pulsing to the edges of the canvas. It looks like a halo, and confers an aura of dark divinity around the face.

In the late '60s, author Joan Didion scheduled an interview with Jim Morrison at a sound studio in Los Angeles. When the singer appeared two hours late, he sat down on the couch with neither greeting nor apology, and proceeded to attempt to burn his leather pants with matches he lit one by one. He never said a word. Didion said it felt like no one was getting out of the room alive. Slick and Didion knew two different Jims.

Slick's Janice is scrubbed too clean for my tastes, and she paints a tamed Morrison. I like my fiction better.

During our conversations I lit on a few topics I thought might aggravate her because they were either too personal or I reckoned she had heard those damn questions too many times. But, there appears nothing too personal for her to talk about, and she either has never heard those tired questions, she's forgotten she's been asked the tired questions, or age has graced her with patience enough to tolerate another rehash.

Grace Slick is not an absolutist anything. She is a vegan but, "I'm not strict vegan because I am a hedonist pig. If I see a big chocolate cake that is made with eggs, I have it." That tolerant sentiment was threaded through our conversation last week, and it aptly parallels her attitude toward both her artwork and her life. She's opinionated, but not judgmental -- even when it comes to her artwork, her former life and others' lives. The woman is an open book, from psychedelic queen, to her mother and daughter reunion in rehab. She's candid about all the bumps, scrapes, high times, lovely lyrics, snarling asides and magic moments in between. It's the blessing and curse of living impulsively, seemingly fearlessly, and without a filter between the frontal lobes and the tongue.

Slick got back on stage with Jefferson Starship for a benefit after 9/11. She was wearing a tunic which she shed to expose one of her typical, to the point, expressions: FUCK WAR. I asked her about her unsubtle political comment: "I wore that cause it's i mportant, and that's how I felt. The whole Dixie Chicks thing, you know, no one's got the balls to do that anymore. This is a free country. We should take advantage of that, use that freedom. I mean what would Jesus say to George Bush -- 'You're doing this shit in my name?'"

 

Until now, I've viewed Grace Slick only from two ends of the telescope -- from the 1967 caustic ingénue to the 2006 illustrator. From those perspectives, what you see appears to be what you get. Her artwork mirrors her personality: it is impulsive, straightforward, intentionally whimsical, childlike, and unapologetic. Not too much of a stretch from what I know about how she led her life.

One painting -- her best painting -- is an unflattering self portrait from 20 years ago. This work is an odd, and refreshing, inclusion in her made-for-marketing glossy catalogue. The portrait is confessional and strident, and honestly disturbing. Her attendant text follows form: "At age 56, I was in between ideas, who I was-what to do-and why. Somewhat lost, somewhat drunk, I drew a colorful, but inert being." With this portrait, Slick stands with Alice Neel, portraiturist of great and harsh talent. This was a difficult painting to make ... probably equally hard to pose for.

To see the Charlotte installation of Slick's, and meet the rock/art icon in person, visit the Wentworth Gallery in Southpark Mall on Friday, Nov. 17 and Saturday, Nov. 18 from 6 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit

 
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