Stanley Mouse: Man who designed an era

The artist who created the look and feel of the psychedelic era is still at work in a naturally illuminated studio in Sebastopol.

While living in the Haight Ashbury during the mid- to late 1960s, Stanley Mouse designed album art for the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and later for Journey and Steve Miller (the famous winged horse), but his work transcended music packaging.

When people conjure images of the 1960s, they probably think of Mouse’s work, often with his graphics partner, Alton Kelley.

There’s the legendary skull and roses poster created for a Dead concert at the Avalon ballroom and later used for an album cover, and the instantly recognizable Zig-Zag man advertising a concert for Big Brother & the Holding Company.

The bespectacled Mouse, 74, appears shy and speaks quietly with a wry wit. He wasn’t eager to be interviewed but consented with one condition: that the location of his studio isn’t revealed. He had public sales years ago when he lived and worked in Sonoma, but now sells his prints solely online.

“It’s so peaceful here,” Mouse says from his “Mouseum.” On a table is an advance copy of his new book, “California Dreams: The Art of Stanley Mouse,” a collection of art from the hot rods he painted in the ’50s to fine art portraits he has done in recent years. It’s published by Soft Skull Press, due out June 2.

In the book, rock posters and album art are featured alongside paintings of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. There are even a few hot rods in there.

“I always tried to keep those things (graphics and fine art) separate, because I thought one polluted the other,” Mouse says. But at a show he had in Marin, he realized people “responded strongly” when seeing different types of his work side by side.

Leaning against a wall in Mouse’s studio is a large print of a painting he created to celebrate the Dead’s 50th anniversary.

“It’s not sanctioned; I just did it,” Mouse says. The Dead today “get artists who will sign their copyright away, so they don’t hire me.”

The poster features a skeleton wrapped in roses lifting a glass of bubbly to the heavens. There’s a big wave behind the skeleton.

Mouse steps back and says, “Everybody seems to be cashing in on the 50th anniversary. Everybody’s got some sort of angle on it.”

The milestone has led to an upsurge in interest in the band and everything that revolves around it. Mouse says business is “off the hook right now. I have too much work; I was supposed to be retired by now.”

Though some members of the Grateful Dead didn’t like the band’s name, Mouse, as an artist, has always been thrilled by it. “I really like the name,” he says, because of its link to Egyptian mythology and because it conjures visions of skulls.

Will he go to the Dead’s farewell shows in Santa Clara next month?

“Probably not,” he says. “I have a hard enough time going to the Hopmonk (a Sebastopol music venue and brewpub). And usually when I’m at the Hopmonk, I wish I was home playing my guitar.”

The reclusive Mouse, whose given name is Stanley Miller, plays in a band called the Bad Assets, he says. “I’m the only member.”

He has lived in Sebastopol for the past 15 years, after residing in Sonoma for 20 years before that.

“The wine industry moved in, and I moved out,” Mouse says, but he hasn’t been able to escape it as many of Sebastopol’s apple orchards have become vineyards in recent years. “So I’m thinking, where can I move next?”

He calls Sebastopol “a really cool, alternative society. It’s like a little bubble of realness.”

He meets monthly with other artists at the Hopmonk, where they hire a model and sketch or paint while being serenaded by a guitarist.

Mouse’s rock-art career started in mid-’60s San Francisco when concert promoter Chet Helms hired him to create posters for shows at the Avalon Ballroom. In 1966 he joined forces with Alton Kelley. Their first poster together was the bearded Zig-Zag man, the next, Mouse says, was Skull and Roses.

Kelley died in 2008. A bench in Petaluma’s Helen Putnam park memorializes him. Mouse says he’d like to draw Kelley’s portrait on the bench, “so people can sit on his face.” Would Kelley like that?

“Oh, yeah,” Mouse says, a twinkle in his eye.

Reflecting on the ’60s, he says, “every day was like a month. There was so much jammed into one day.

“San Francisco was like a Renaissance. I think that’s why these posters came out so good, because of the intense times. The Vietnam war was raging. People said, why aren’t you in the army, but we were trying to create a society doing good stuff instead of bad.”

When he was 52, after decades of using airbrushes and painting in poorly ventilated studios, Mouse required a liver transplant. He remains grateful for his second lease on life.

“I feel I am blessed,” he says. “I got to see how far I could take my art.”

Mouse is delighted his work still has such broad appeal, but notes it wasn’t always that way.

“In the ’70s, you couldn’t even give these posters away,” he says. But now the art has “made it to museums all over the world: The Hermitage (in the Russian city of St. Petersburg) and finally the Louvre.”

His hopes for the future include a book about his collaboration with Kelley, generously illustrated with the art they created together.

“Kelley was the idea man and (after creating thousands of prints), my hand was like a trained Olympic athlete,” Mouse says. “So when we teamed up, it was like a magic recipe.”

Someday, Mouse says, he would like to step away from the business of selling his prints.

“Maybe I’ll retire and take up painting.”

To peruse or order artwork by Stanley Mouse, see

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