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The Making of the Jerry Garcia Birthday Backdrop

With July in full swing, we, as loyal fans of the late, great Jerry Garcia, start to plan what we are going to do on the anniversary of his birth and death. Jerry touched so many lives, not only through music that seemed to come directly from heaven itself, but also through his drawing and painting.

Through most of his life Jerry loved to doodle. In between practicing scales, he would sit in his chair and would draw and draw and draw. He wouldn’t necessarily drawing anything specific; it was almost as if he was creating one long continuous picture. Much like the music that he composed and played all those years.

As he grew as an artist, he explored many different mediums. He painted, used digital graphic design software, and even airbrushed. He created a wide body of work, from doodles to sketches to watercolors, chalk pencil along with digital works. Jerry, along with several of his close friends, decided to put together a collection of his art and publish it. They helped him produce a number of prints, which were then signed and numbered.

This year is the 19th anniversary of Garcia’s birth since his passing in 1995. This time of year, the community comes together as a family to celebrate Jerry and his work. It is a time of reverent reflection on and gratitude for the seeds of love that were planted in our hearts by his music.

jerry dayOver the years, Jerry Day has grown from a few small gatherings of die hard fans to a worldwide weekend of festivities. Ten years ago, The Jerry Garcia amphitheater was christened in McLaren Park in the Excelsior District in San Francisco where Jerry grew up. Many of his closest friends show up to jam together and pay tribute. Those of us who cannot be in SF, celebrate at one of the other many events all over the country.

In 2013 The Jerry Garcia birthday symphony was born, brought into existence by the efforts of Jerry’s daughter Theresa (aka “Trixie”). On behalf of the Garcia family, she approached Warren Haynes with an idea to do a symphonic interpretation of her father’s music. Warren put together a top notch band that would tour the country with a symphony orchestra, and would play multiple dates during the week of Jerry’s birthday.
Last year’s production was a huge success, and there was an overwhelming response to do it again. The symphony scheduled another run of shows, starting with the Greek Theatre.

This is where I come in.

ben headMy name is Benjammin and I make tie dye. I have been making large scale tie dye backdrops for the last 15 years. I started doing this when I was asked to create some festival tie dyes for an event in San Diego called Dead on the Bay.

My tie dyes tour with some of the best known acts in today’s music scene. Proud owners of my work include: 7 walkers, Dark Star Orchestra, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and The JGB with Melvin Seals. My hand dyed backdrops are used at festivals across the country, from Horning’s Hideout in Oregon to the Locken festival in Virginia. There are a dozen in between, and this year my art will be at parties like Salmon Stock, Reggae on the River, Camp Easy Wind, Bear’s Picnic, The Peach Music Festival, Phases of the Moon, and The Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas.

storeStarting in the Grateful Dead parking lot many years ago, I tie dyed tirelessly, until I had the opportunity and good fortune to open San Francisco’s premier destination for psychedelic hippie fashion, Jammin On Haight. The location couldn’t have been better. Formerly ‘Positively Haight Street’, the shop is situated right in the heart of it all, on the corner of Haight and Masonic.
Wanting to do our part to revitalize the Haight street neighborhood, we did a massive over haul of the corner. We gave the inside a new paint job by Mckenzie Boyle, and visionary artist and mural painter Xavi Pennenton created a facade that is the envy of all the other local shops. We installed a new hard wood floor and a 42x20 framed tie dyed framed backdrop on the ceiling to complement our world class handblown glass chandelier. The store mostly sells original tie dyes, dyed by the JamminOn crew at our studio in Marin county. We offer a massive collection of all things tie dyed. However, the store shelves are also lined with jewelry and crafts from various artists from the Grateful Dead parking lot scene, amazing family artists who have only gotten better and better as time went by. We are the only store on Haight street to carry the handblown glass of Bob Snodgrass, the grandfather of color changing glass. To top it all off, we are also Haight Street' exclusive purveyor of the art of legendary artists such as Jerry Garcia, Stanley Mouse, Ken Kesey, and Wavy Gravy.

Once the store was on firm ground, we took the next step, and moved into the world of Dye Sublimation printing. For the last 30 years printers have been trying to make passable printed tie dye. Up until very recently this has not been possible. Just last year, we found printers that were up to our standard of quality. Now we would be able to reproduce our favorite tie dyes while still maintaining brilliant colors and smooth gradients.

We leased a 7000 square foot warehouse in Novato, Ca. and purchased two 60 inch wide Dye Sublimation digital printers with roll to roll capabilities. This means we can print 5ft wide by as far as anyone would want to go. We can create rolls of fabric for making clothing or backdrops with any image we put into the computer.

tie dye for sevaThe first backdrops we printed on the new machines went to the 2014 Jazz Fest in New Orleans. We made banners for Dumpstaphunk and The Easy Star All Stars. They were both smaller stage pieces, measuring 5 feet by 15 feet. Our second backdrop was for Wavy Gravy’s annual Seva Foundation fundraiser show with The Chris Robinson Brotherhood at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, Ca. This backdrop was 20 feet by 12 feet. I have been hanging hand made tie dyes for the Seva shows for the last several years, and now I want to create one that would incorporate their Buddha Eyes Logo. We did just this, and created a piece that had a kaleidoscopic tie dyed background with a bright white Seva Logo printed in the middle. We wanted a some blank space amidst the color to be used as a projection or lighting surface. It was amazing to see it, what a success.

ben trixi 1I have known Trixie Garcia just a few short years, and enjoy getting to know her better as time goes by. I invited her to the grand opening of the printshop. At the opening we showed off the new printers and their capabilities. Everyone was fascinated. Trixie and I spoke that night about the many different applications this could be applied to. The first one that popped into my mind was doing a collaboration for the upcoming Jerry Garcia birthday symphony. At the end of the night all of the artists including my self were teeming with excitement and dreams of what was to come.

A few months later I had the opportunity to dress the Dirty Dozen Brass band at a Widespread Panic show . After the show in the dressing room I met Marc Allen, The Dozen’s manager, who just so happens to be the Producer of the Symphony Celebration. I shared the idea, and we both agreed that we had to make something happen.
Returning to the bay we got right to work, coming up with some concepts using the art of Jerry Garcia. We decided to go with two of Jerry’s paintings, Wetlands 1 and Wetlands 2 . We worked together and figured it would look pretty amazing to combine the two paintings into one large piece. Once the concepts were approved, Trixie came over to the factory to help us with the final design and printing. We scheduled friday for design, saturday for printing, and sunday for sewing.

ben trixi 2On friday I sat down with Trixie and JamminOn’s lead designer Sean Behm, and we got to work. Marc Allen talked to the venues on the tour and suggested that we make the backdrop 40 feet by 20 feet. It had been 20 years since these painting had been photographed, so all of the images lacked the resolution that would allow us to scale them to anywhere near this size. Sean tried a few different options and we settled on a technique called vectorizing, where the program converts the image to blocks of color similar to what you would see in a paint by number. from close up it almost looks like camouflage. Trixie and I named it ”Jerry flage” When the piece is view from afar it becomes a very detailed work of art with hundreds of color variations. After properly sizing it, we blended the pieces together. This was achieved by taking pieces from one and copying it and inserting it into the other. Blending and pasting, we were able to create “A paint by number morning sky” over the Wetlands. This is what we decided we would call the piece.

jerryflge40 feet of backdrop 20 feet tall require eight 20ft long pieces printed on the dye sublimation printers. This is a printing process that prints on large format printers to transfer paper. The first step is to print some samples and make sure all the colors are right. After the colors are approved, the software is set up to print on one continuous roll in 20ft sections. Each panel is outlined with a black border and registration marks, so when it is time to line the up for sewing we can get a perfect match. Printing 160 feet of continuous fabric takes about ten hours. We put in a good days work, and it was time to go home for the night.

pressThe printer did its job, and Saturday morning we were ready to run the paper through the heat press with the fabric. This is the Dye Sublimation Process. The paper is layered with the fabric and they are run through a press that puts them through enormous heat and pressure. The heat turns the ink into a gas that transfers to the fabric and binds it to the fabric creating a chemical bond. The ink becomes truly inseparable from the fabric. At the same time the heat activates the fire repellant that is infused into the fabric making it flame resistant for the stage.

All hands on deck, including Trixie, we set the machine up to run the fabric through. The press runs much faster than the printer, and it only takes about two hours to do the same amount of fabric. However, It takes several people to keep everything laid out and and lined up. About half a dozen of us worked together to keep things moving, but it went off without a hitch. Very pleased with our work, we said our goodbyes to Trixie and retired for the night.

Sunday was for sewing , I enlisted my friend and coworker Zachary Wright to sew this monumental piece of art together. First, we laid out each piece and stacked them by pairs, pinning two at a time together. We sewed them into four pairs, and then sewed those into halves, etc. Finally, Zach folded a 2 inch border around the whole piece, pinned it, finishing all of the edges, and added grommets for hanging.

As I write this, it is the night before the big show. The only thing left to do is to take it to the venue for its unveiling at The Greek Theatre. Bringing the Art and Music of Jerry Garcia to the hallowed ground of the Greek on this very special day. With love in my heart, I’ll send ”A paint By Number Morning Sky “ out on the road to tour with Warren and the gang. It’s the least I can do for a man and a family that has given me so much. Happy Birthday, Jerry.


ben at greek

  • April 29, 2016
  • Sunny Powers
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