YOUNTVILLE — Grace Slick became a household name by singing of white rabbits. Nearly half a century later, images of the snowy mammals have remained closely tied to her name – nowadays on canvas instead of vinyl.
Since the late 1990s, the Bay Area native and lead singer of Jefferson Airplane has taken the images from her first career and recast them into the subject matter of her second act as a painter. Hers has become a life at once miles away from the rock ‘n’ roll fame and glamour she once embodied – yet colored and informed by the same creative spirit that brought to the radio airwaves such standards as “Somebody to Love,” “Volunteers” and “White Rabbit.”
Since May, a selection of her works has been on view at Cliff Lede Vineyards, a Yountville-area winery that has made Slick the subject of its exhibit at its Backstage Reserve Tasting Lounge. The exhibition is scheduled to remain through July 31, with pieces available for purchase.
Among Slick’s works to reach galleries and collectors have been likenesses of rock titans such as Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. But also running through her repertoire is a deep vein of the same fanciful, surreal visions that fueled her signature song – images of Alice in Wonderland and of the White Rabbit who leads the girl into the funhouse-mirror universe of Lewis Carroll’s novel.
Under Slick’s paintbrushes, pencils and pens, the rabbit has appeared in numerous guises – in the waistcoat and wristwatch by which Alice first notices him, smoking from a hookah at the Queen of Hearts’ table, even donning a purple jacket in tribute to the late Prince.
For Slick, such paintings are an unbroken chain back to a childhood that included readings of fanciful stories – but tales she said carried far more meaning than met her parents’ eyes.
“Our parents read us ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Peter Pan,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,” and in all those stories there are drugs, literal drugs involved,” the 76-year-old Slick said last week in a telephone interview from her Malibu home. “So when your parents sat down with their glass of Scotch and asked you ‘Why are you taking those drugs?’ you’re thinking, ‘Well, you used to read to me about how all those kids had exciting adventures’ – ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ where Dorothy falls asleep in a field of opium poppies – ‘Peter Pan’ with the magic dust that lets you fly – ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,’ with the magic pills that make you high or small.
“They’re reading this and they don’t realize what they’re reading, (the message that) if you ingest something or other chances are you will have an interesting life.”
The influences from Carroll’s story universe, however, also ran far beyond the pharmacological – the source of the memorable “White Rabbit” introduction “One pill makes you larger / And one pill makes you small” – to the sense of wonder, curiosity and independence Slick describes as the tale’s most lasting gift to her.
“Alice stuck with me because she didn’t have a Prince Charming,” she said. “She does it all by herself and I kind of like that. The White Rabbit for me suggests following your own path; her curiosity is always running ahead of her, but she follows it even when it gets rough.”
Years before her arrival on the musical scene, Slick, who was born in suburban Chicago in 1939 and moved with her family to Palo Alto in her teens, majored in art while studying at the University of Miami in the late 1950s. But it was not until after leaving the music business at the end of the 1980s that she would commit herself to the new medium – originally, she recalled, after a traumatic end to a romantic relationship left her alone and with the time to explore something new.
“I started drawing animals, put them around the house, and then a book agent came by while I was writing my autobiography (“Somebody to Love?” published in 1998) and said, ‘You oughta draw some rock people, so we can put them in the book. I said, ‘Oh no, that’s too corny’ – but then I did it and found I liked it, because they are interesting people. All those people are interesting, iconic and quirky people. And then it took off from there.”
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A glance at her works reveals a mix of styles and materials from painting to painting, and sometimes even within the same artwork. Day-Glo-colored reminiscences of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, minimalist and silhouette-like nudes and likenesses of Alice drinking tea seemingly taken from a Victorian-era picture book all have emerged from Slick’s workspace, a converted family room that fills multiple duties as studio, lounge and TV room.
“It depends what’s in my head; acrylic lends itself to certain ideas, and pastel lends itself to other ideas,” the singer-turned-artist said about her eclecticism. “The image pretty much tells me what the medium is going to be. It makes my agents crazy, because they want every piece to be recognizable, but I don’t do that – I will change my style according to what I have in mind.”
Among the 30 or so pieces on display at Cliff Lede, canvases in ripely hued acrylic paint alternate with works done on scratchboards, a photo-positive-like material onto which Slick etches the black surface to reveal the white underneath – a favorite medium of hers for rabbits, pandas and other animals with finely detailed fur.
“The whole process of creating a song was a group effort; painting is singular, but the impulse is the same,” she said. “I have to create something; I don’t care what it is. If you tell me I can’t paint anymore I’ll say, ‘OK, then I’ll be a set designer.' But I’ve always got to do some form of creating; otherwise I get goofy.”
Despite the scenes in some of her works depicting the explosive creativity of the late-1960s musical scene, the canvas is the only place the former Jefferson Airplane singer chooses to relive her first career. Even as onetime peers like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan have kept on performing, touring and recording into their 70s, Slick – who in a 2007 interview declared “it pains me to see old people leaping around trying to act like they’re 25” – remains content to mine the past rather than relive it.
“The first oyster someone served me, I said, ‘That looks like snot on a shell – I’m not touching that!’ But there are lots of people who love oysters,” she said last week. “If everyone else likes oysters, that’s fine by me. If everyone else wants to be an 80-year-old rock star, that’s fine by me. Me, I don’t dance. I’m a klutz. I didn’t do it on stage, and I don’t even do it in the house because I’ll probably fall down.”
A month after Slick’s Yountville showing opened, another exhibition of her work debuted in Del Mar as part of an Alice in Wonderland theme for this year’s San Diego County Fair. The response to that show, which ended July Fourth, reveals an appeal stretching well beyond those old enough to remember Jefferson Airplane and its era, according to Slick’s agent, Scott Hann.
“What’s most fascinating to me is seeing that the young kids love it, that they love the artwork and they have no idea who she is,” said Hann, president of the Area Arts gallery in Santa Rosa, which hosts Slick pieces that are not on tour. “Their grandparents have to ask them, ‘Have you heard that song ‘White Rabbit?’’ But then they take pictures and put them on Facebook and say, ‘Wow, this is great.’”
Some of Slick’s pieces need no 1960s nostalgia to find their mark, such as one painting still being created in Malibu – a piece symbolizing last month’s massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, with bloody splotches across the rainbow hues of the gay-rights movement.
“It’s very hard and rare for someone to quit something that they’re famous for, then do something else and get famous at that, too,” he said. “While a lot of her peers are still out there touring and making music, they are singing the same songs they did 40 or 50 years ago. Grace with her artwork is contributing to the world today; she is involved in the world we live in now.”
The canvas may not hold the same glamour as the stage once did, but art has become for Slick her chosen way to release her creative energies.
“It unlocks the hopes we have for ourselves to improve things, to see the whole picture, to open up your opinions,” she said. “It helps as far as becoming, because you never stop becoming until you drop dead.”