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Grace In Wonderland

By Gary Wien

originally published: 10/01/2006

Wonderland must truly exist because Grace Slick went through the rabbit hole as a child and never left. The former lead singer of Jefferson Airplane (and later Jefferson Starship and then just Starship), Slick traded in her microphone for a paintbrush in 1989 and hasn't looked back. Her paintings largely consist of images of her contemporaries from the 60s like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jerry Garcia. But Wonderland images play a major role as well.

Grace Slick will follow her artwork to the Wentworth Galley at Riverside Square Mall in Hackensack on Friday, October 20 from 6 9 p.m. and to Wentworth Gallery at The Mall at Short Hills in Short Hills, Saturday, October 21 from 4 - 7 p.m. What she'll find in the gallery is anybody's guess.

"I never know what's going to be in the gallery because what's in the gallery is chosen by the gallery owner and my agent together," explained Grace Slick. "The gallery owner knows what they can or can't sell and my agent knows what he thinks he can throw in there. So I never know what's going to be in a gallery until I walk in."

Her gallery appearances are a great way for her fans to meet her in person and ask her the questions they've been dying to ask for years whether about her artwork, her music or even her personal life. Grace says she'll take questions on anything.

"I don't care," she said. "I don't have any secrets because I don't have a very good memory. When you tell lies or have secrets you have to remember what they are and you've got to keep track of all that and that's really boring to me. I tell the truth because it's easier."

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The question I had always wanted to ask Grace was about Alice in Wonderland. I was always fascinated with her obsession about the novel. It seemed like it was more of a way of life than a story for her. Apparently, that's partly right.

Like most children, Grace's parents read her bedtime stories like "Alice In Wonderland", "Snow White", "Cinderella", "Sleeping Beauty", and "Wizard Of Oz". Her obsession with Alice in Wonderland started as a child after first hearing the tale.

"I liked Alice because she's not saved by anybody," she explained. "She's on her own. Plus it came to be more or less true. I was brought up in the '50s, which was very rigid, and Alice was brought up in Victorian England, which was very rigid. And then you go into the sixties, which is just nuts, and she goes into Wonderland, which is nuts. Now, she takes at least five different drugs when she's down there. And they don't even dance around it. It's literal. One gets you high; one gets you small. She takes a bite out of a mushroom that the caterpillar is sitting on and the caterpillar is smoking a hookah! Drink me... I mean, come on!"

"I think it's because Great Britain at that time was imperialistic. They'd go out and just own territories. Opium doesn't grow in England but when they conquered these other territories they found a lot of drugs. And naturally the writers and the artists are going to be the ones saying yeah, I'll have some of that."

"American writers of that time like Frank Baum who wrote "Wizard of Oz" wrote characters falling down into a field of poppies and when they awake they see the Emerald City. Now please... those are opium poppies! And Peter Pan - you sprinkle a little white dust on you and you can fly? Might that be cocaine? I mean, these children's stories are just filled with taking a chemical and then you have this wonderful adventure. So the song 'White Rabbit' is really written at the parents. It's like if you didn't want us to take these chemicals, were you thinking about what you were reading to us?"

Grace Slick's artwork reminds me a lot of her songs. The paintings tell stories in a very poetic kind of way. It's very interesting to see how she paints the people she's identified with from the 60s because her ideas come directly from her life rather than being influenced by anyone else. Thus, a painting of Janis Joplin might look entirely different from the photographs of Janis that you've seen through the years. These are the images that Grace remembers of her friends captured as only she could.

"I'm drawing what I see," said Slick. "I can't draw what someone else saw. I think the brain has certain areas in each person that are more highly developed or not developed at all or whatever. You would not want me to do your accounting. Just don't go there! I don't understand electricity. You don't want me to fix your television set. But there are guys like my ex-husband who can just walk up to stuff that's electric, turn it on to see what's wrong, and then goes ahead and fixes it. I don't get it, but he doesn't draw. So, we're all born with different things that we're born to do. I do one thing at a time. One man at a time, one child, one car - I'm not a good multi-tasker. It makes me nuts!"

Grace has done well to adapt to the art world from the world of rock and roll. Her artwork is sold around the world and has been selling well. The Wonderland series and her White Rabbit paintings are particularly popular. Instead of hitting the road night after night to play a rock show, she travels the country a bit more leisurely on her art gallery tours. She admits that even she's a bit surprised by how well her artwork has been received.

"I'm amazed," said Slick. "I think it's possibly the same as rock and roll in that how I draw is pretty much how I wrote songs and sang - which is blunt, colorful and not hard to understand. This is not jazz. This is easy painting to understand. Some of my favorite artists are the animators. Nobody can name an animator and they don't get famous but they do some beautiful stuff."

One thing that separates Slick from most artists is that not only does not have a particular style but she dreads the idea of having one particular style. You'll never hear somewhere mention a painting of hers from her "blue" period. There are no periods and no phases. Each day, each painting is something new.

"I do different styles," she explains. "Most artists want to develop a style - that's my idea of hell! I want to do different styles because I don't think everything has to be done the same way; some of it asks more or less to be done in a certain way because of the nature of what it is I'm drawing.

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"I sort of don't care what people think and pretty much never have. I did when I was in high school, but once I got to be around 23 or 24 I just suddenly realized that if you let everybody's interpretation of your life affect you you're screwed! So, I just sort of ignore it. Everybody is going to like something about you or not and that's their choice. And sometimes it's their problem and not mine."

Slick stopped performing live in 1989 but did get back on stage with Jefferson Starship during a benefit shortly after 9/11. She entered the stage wearing a burka that said "fuck war" on it and then ripped it off as she began singing. As someone who wrote some of rock and rolls greatest protest songs, I asked Grace how she felt musicians of today were dealing with the war.

"Well, not that many of them are. I think part of it has to do with wanting to stay away from controversy. But some are, like the Dixie Chicks for example. They made the remark in England that they were embarrassed to come from the same state as George Bush and then apologized for hurting anybody... but now she's done it again! On the web, apparently there's a thing saying "he's a dumb fuck" which is so Neil Young! I appreciate that because in this country we do have freedom of speech and if we don't speak we'll lose it."

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.




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