Posters & posterity

For a guy who describes himself as "chronically unemployed and unemployable," Gary Grimshaw keeps quite busy. The Detroit artist and former White Panther Party member has traveled in radical political circles since his early years, and is best known for cranking out posters for illustrious rock acts: Canned Heat, the MC5, the Who, Jimi Hendrix and many more. The Detroit Free Press perhaps put it best, saying of Grimshaw, "If he hadn't been the poster artist for the counterculture, he could have been its poster child." But, despite all the accolades he's received for his early work, the seasoned illustrator, now 61, has never stopped quietly plying his trade. And Eastern Market's Butcher's Inn is hosting a show of his work this month.

Even in high school in the early 1960s, Grimshaw found himself drawn into Detroit's growing scene of beatniks and coffeehouses. When the government started drafting young people for service in Vietnam, the budding hippie chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy rather than be drafted into another force. He studied telephone repair for a year, then spent a year on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea in the mid-'60s.

Coincidentally, when his flattop docked in San Francisco for an overhaul, Grimshaw noticed posters for rock shows featuring bands he recognized. He hung out at the Avalon and the Fillmore, sidling up behind the light show technicians and watching them carefully.

After his discharge in 1966, he parlayed this knowledge into a gig at Detroit's Grande Ballroom, where he was in charge of a string of strobe lights, slide projectors and overhead projectors, dripping and spraying alcohol, oil, pigment and water into trays, producing otherworldly light effects.

That was also the year he first met John Sinclair fresh out of a six-month stretch at Detroit House of Corrections. At a party held to celebrate his release, the MC5 plugged in at 11 p.m. and scared the living daylights of Sinclair, who had never seen them perform before, and worried that the music was so loud that the cops would come and drag him back to jail.

But the MC5's racket was nothing new to Grimshaw: Growing up in Lincoln Park, he was a high school chum of Rob Tyner, and even delivered papers to Wayne Kramer's family. But his artistic aspirations and technical background (he learned print- and plate-making from his uncle, a printer) prepared him for the work he's best remembered for: the posters that defined the Grande's publicity.

The posters Grimshaw created were psychedelic and heady, heavily embroidered with bright colors and flowing text. Not only would drug-addled concertgoers get lost in the imagery, Grimshaw would lose himself in the process, burning through jobs the night before a deadline. "At night," Grimshaw says, "I get in a trance when I'm working on a piece of art. I lost all sense of time. I look up and five hours have gone by and it feels like five minutes."

His fringe friends were eager to exploit his talents. He joined John Sinclair's radical White Panther Party as a founding member of the central committee, holding the exalted title of "minister of art." This put him, an idealistic young person resisting the Vietnam War, smack in the midst of radical Detroit's dynamic radical community. And it wasn't long before he, like others in the group, were on the run from the government they protested against.

For Grimshaw, trouble came in the form of an arrest warrant issued in Grand Traverse County on what Grimshaw characterizes as flimsy charges. But when servers arrived at the MC5 house in Ann Arbor to deliver the warrant, Grimshaw was staying elsewhere, allowing him to quickly hit the road.

In 1968 and 1969, as opposition to the war was at its peak, Grimshaw was on the lam, fleeing to Boston and San Francisco, all while making art for the White Panther Party. In 1970, after marshaling his legal and financial resources, Grimshaw surrendered to police, posted bond and beat the charge.

Free to return to his art without harassment, Grimshaw did some of his most memorable, iconic work in this period, especially the "Free John Sinclair" rally posters that demanded the state release Sinclair, who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of two joints.

As the war wound down, however, things began to change for fringe radicals. The draft, which had a galvanizing effect on that generation's political involvement, was winding down. In 1973, Grimshaw left the group, which had renamed itself as the Rainbow People's Party.

Soon after came a period of professional growth, which included many more poster jobs and a 12-year stint (1976-1984) as associate art director for Creem. And, as time went on, the public began to show increasing appreciation for the art he had made in the '60s and '70s. Suddenly, people were looking back at these posters as fine art. By 1980, even the Detroit Institute of Arts displayed his work in a retrospective of Cass Corridor art. Within a decade, serious surveys of the period were being published, including 1987's The Art of Rock: From Presley to Punk.

By the end of the 1980s, Gary and his wife Laura Grimshaw moved to San Francisco, and finally on to Oakland in 1998, which Grimshaw describes as "like Detroit with palm trees." He continued working from the West Coast until 2004, when Laura and he moved back to Detroit. Their home in Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood is home to his all-digital basement studio, where he sits surrounded by enough rock 'n' roll memorabilia to make a collector break a sweat. And yet, Grimshaw's interests have broadened with age. When he says that he listens to more R&B than rock 'n' roll, he actually sounds surprised.

"Sometimes I wish people would pay more attention to the stuff I did after the Grande," Grimshaw says, "but that's OK. I'm only now starting to catalog it."

And it's a lot of stuff to catalog. Grimshaw estimates he's done around 250 posters, and made 500 pieces of art. But, as a revolutionary communalist who got into art for the music and the politics, not the money, it took him a while to hit his commercial stride.

"It took until about the mid-'70s for me to get any kind of common sense about marketing my work. I was always scraping by. These days, I'm not getting ripped off anymore. But I'm not angry or bitter."

In fact, he's still hard at work, with recent projects including a book cover for Detroit scribe M.L. Liebler and cover art for the recently broken-up A Thousand Times Yes.

Of the young rock band, the soft-spoken artist can't resist a smile, remarking, "It's atypical for rock bands to be that polite."

In fact, for a seasoned baby boomer from the age of the generation gap, he seems pleasantly surprised that a younger crowd appreciates his work.

"I'm happy that younger people like where I'm coming from. When I was young, you were expected to hate anything that wasn't rock 'n' roll."


Gary Grimshaw: Music Posters 1966-2006 opens with an artist's reception (6 p.m.) and a performance by John Sinclair (9 p.m.) on Thursday, Aug. 23, at Butcher's Inn, 1489 Winder St., Detroit; 313-566-0966.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected] or call

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
Scroll to read more Arts articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.