On a fall morning in 1969, Courtenay Pollock was strolling down a bucolic country road in northern California when a slightly offbeat farmhouse caught his eye.
Before he knew it, his feet were leading him up the driveway.
“It looked like freaks lived there,” Pollock recalled with a laugh from his home on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada. “And so I went up to introduce myself.”
He banged on the front door and a cute girl with a nose ring answered, immediately inviting him in. “Roll yourself a joint, I’ll get some coffee going,” she offered.
The Englishman obliged. He’d just wrapped up an idyllic summer living in a small commune on a 500-acre farm in Vermont, choosing to trade the looming bitter cold for a more temperate winter on the West Coast — and he never could have imagined that, in less than 24 hours after walking through that door, his life would change forever.
Because he had just wandered into the Grateful Dead house.
As it turned out, his hostess was Frankie Hart, then-girlfriend of Bob Weir, the 22-year-old lead guitarist for the burgeoning band. And she urged Pollock, who had recently discovered his deft hand for tie-dye, to show her his new creations by hanging them up on the walls.
“She came in with coffee and she said, ‘Oh these are fabulous! Oh my God, the guys are going to be off the road any moment, and there they are,’” Pollock reminisced. “These trucks rolled in and they just stormed into the house, and they stopped and looked around, and went, ‘Far out, man. You can do our speaker prints.’”
The rest would become rock history.
Pollock quickly established himself as not only the man responsible for every Grateful Dead speaker cover, large-scale backdrop and emblematic T-shirt for the now-legendary psychedelic rock band, but he also elevated the art form, pushing the boundaries of the medium to a highly complex visual language — on view through nearly two-dozen mandalas and tapestries presented by Greenport-based gallery VSOP Projects starting Friday at Borghese Vineyards in Cutchogue.
His unique take on what had previously been regarded as a craft started in 1968, while running a head shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. After a great deal of experimentation with intense colors and kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory imagery — for which he is now internationally renowned — a Syracuse boutique commissioned a tie-dye mandala for its meditation room a year later.
“I had to look it up in the dictionary to see what it was,” he said, referring to the Sanskrit word that means “circle.” “I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that, sure.’ And then it became my flagship style.”
Preparing to make his first-ever mandala, Pollock had his dyes warming on the stove when, unexpectedly, several of his friends dropped by bearing gifts: the legendary version of LSD known as “Orange Sunshine.” They each took a tab, and at that moment, his first-ever psychedelic experience began, too.
“I was so focused on what I was doing, I didn’t really notice it so much,” he said. “There were a bunch of people in the house and they were all, like, tweaking out. They were up in the attic, they were out in the gardens, they were everywhere but hanging out in the dining room or the kitchen. But I didn’t take any notice. I was just totally focused on what I was doing.”
By the time he had the king-sized sheet folded, intricately tied, dyed, wrapped in tin foil and baked in the oven, about eight hours had passed. He set up a stage area, complete with strobe lights and spotlights and even Christmas lights, before it was time to untie the mandala. A crowd formed around the sink as he rinsed and wrung it, and carried it out to the display area for the great unveiling.
“When I finally opened it up, I didn’t look at it until I had pinned all the corners out,” he said. “I walked all the way to the back of the room and turned and looked at it, and it was like, ‘Oh wow, oh my goodness.’
“It’s like it was alive,” he continued. “I knew that right then, that this was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got a thing here. I got a thing that’s probably going to be my life pursuit,’ which, of course, it is.”
To this day, countless spin-off tribute bands have used Pollock’s legendary tie-dyed stage backdrops, and his work has been included in exhibitions at the Museum of Art and Design, the New York Historical Society, Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, and Bonhams New York.
“It doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but I get so much feedback that it obviously is a big deal. It entranced thousands of people,” Pollock said. “But I don’t know, it’s pretty wonderful, really. What it does is, it puts me on notice that I have a responsibility to continue and keep this up and be better and better for all these people who are such fans.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express and the Southampton Press