Alton Kelley grew up in New England, and his mother encouraged his artistic talents. But Kelley had a passion for powerful machines. As a young man he worked as a helicopter mechanic and raced hot rods. His creative streak still came through as he painted pinstripes on motorcycle gas tanks.
Eventually Kelley would follow the siren call of California. In 1964 he arrived in San Francisco and made a living by promoting concerts with the posters and flyers he created. Within a year he would meet another gifted artist named Stanley Mouse, and they began a legendary collaboration.
Kelley and Mouse worked as a team, in their words “riffing off each other’s giggle.” They joyfully appropriated from historic sources, in one instance re-working an obscure nineteenth-century etching to create their iconic Grateful Dead “skeleton and roses” design. They combined vibrant Sixties color with French poster-making joi de vivre enthusiasm, and their own adapted technique, to generate compelling pieces often issued on a weekly basis. Thus, they changed advertising art forever, as their posters were key examples of what became one of the most important art movements of the latter part of the twentieth century.
In the decades since, Mouse and Kelley’s classics have established even greater popularity, rivaling the interest long shown by collectors of French turn-of-the-century Belle Epoque art made famous by Toulouse-Lautrec and others.
Through his mind-expanding creativity Kelley gave rock music new colors, shapes, and themes expressing the optimism and enthusiasm of young people around the globe. His graphics defined youth culture as much as the music itself—in effect his art was a breakthrough collaboration with musicians and bands such as the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. As Joel Selvin, rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, put it, “Kelley and Mouse drew the first face on rock music.”
In his later years, Kelley joyfully returned to illustrating hot rods and custom cars, as fine art paintings, and for t-shirts and other merchandise.
Kelley passed away peacefully at home June 1, 2008 of complications from a long illness.