Darrin Brenner Dreamed of Making Artwork for the Dead
“Whenever you look at all the great poster artists of the ’60s, it’s all men, and it’s just a very male-dominated industry for some reasons. It seems to be changing, and there were a couple of really good poster artists back in the ’60’s that were women, like Bonnie MacLean, but you don’t hear about them,” shared Darrin Brenner, the poster artist behind the Bicycle Day poster for Skull & Roses 2023. A Southern California native, she contacted the festival and was like, “I need to do one of these posters. I live here.” And of course, she was enlisted immediately.
Darrin’s older sister got her into the music of the Grateful Dead when she was thirteen years old. In 1977, she was seventeen and finally went to see them live at Winterland. She remembered, “I already liked them, but of course once I saw them live, I was hooked. It was the first place I didn’t feel like a freak. It was like, ‘Oh, here’s where all my fellow freaks are.’ I felt like, ‘Okay, these are my people.’ Of course, the music spoke to me.”
Born into a family lineage of artists, Darrin was surrounded by creativity and encouragement. Her mother was a concert pianist and her father a writer. “I’ve been drawing as far back as I can remember. I was coloring, drawing, and creating art since forever. I knew I wanted to do graphic design. I was never really a painter. I was more of an illustrator. I had the talent, so I didn’t start out doing poster art. It started out I just would do it for fun. Sometimes people would want me to draw something for them so I would do that,” she recalled.
Album cover art was her first introduction to music art. One of her favorite album cover artworks is on Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. “It’s not my favorite Elton John album, but the cover is mind blowing to me. It’s so intricate and it’s a feast for the eyes. I tend to like stuff that’s intricate and tight. I can appreciate real simple clean art like Dark Side of the Moon, but it doesn’t blow my mind as much as stuff where I look at it and go, ‘How the hell did they do that?’” she explained.
Her big dream was to do artwork for the Dead and she came close. “One time I did a T-shirt for Halloween, 1983. They played Marin Civic, and I did a design, ended up putting on shirts, and selling it. The one time I did it and somehow my shirts got backstage, and Phil wore my shirt on stage,” she said. The band did contact her for artwork, but it was during the Dead’s darker days. She kept giving art to Rock Scully, but nothing happened. She realized it wasn’t going any further at that time but years later she discovered Grateful Dead tribute band Cubensis, and everything changed.
“People started telling me about them a couple years after Jerry died. I just thought, ‘No, that sounds weird.’ It didn’t sound appealing to me. Finally, I just succumbed, and I went and saw them at 14 Below. It was ’99 and they used to do every Sunday night in Santa Monica at 14 Below. I have 36 years clean and sober, so I was not hanging out in bars, really. I go to this bar, felt a little awkward, and I sit, and the band comes out and the people started dancing. I had this feeling of, ‘Oh my God, I’m home. This is where everybody is,’” she recalled.
Darrin started going every Sunday and knew she wanted to do artwork for the band. She began making poster art for them and gave it to their guitarist, Craig Marshall, and soon it became a regular thing. They never discussed the actual artwork; he gave her creative freedom, and she made terrific posters for their weekly shows.
“I started doing art for them and it satisfied that creativity that I’ve been carrying around inside of me for all those years. Once I started doing art for Cubensis, I met Moonalice and Roger McNamee. That was how I met the Rex Foundation and how I met David Gans and started doing the KPFA marathon art. It just opened all these doors. I feel like my dream came true, just not exactly as I pictured it happening. I’m doing Dead art, I’m doing artwork for the scene and the music I love, so it happened,” she shared.
Over the years, her art took off and she started getting more calls for posters. Almost all her art connections came directly or indirectly through Cubensis. Her relationship with Moonalice blossomed into over fifty posters since 2011. She fondly remembers their origin story, “Moonalice opened for Cubensis, and I used to vend posters at the Cubensis shows. I’d lay them all out and I’d sell them. They opened for Moonalice and I didn’t know who Moonalice was. I knew nothing about them. Roger just saw my work and I handed him one and he looked and he’s like, ‘Oh, why aren’t you working for us?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, why aren’t I working for you? I don’t know.’ Their art director, Chris Shaw, plays a real active role in the creation of posters. He contacted me, and the first poster I did for them was in 2011. For a while I was doing six a year for them.”
Inspired by Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelly, and every Dead album cover she’d ever looked at, sixties psychedelic vibe is in her wheelhouse. Her artmaking process is intuitive; she doesn’t usually make sketches first but instead sits down in front of a blank canvas, gets an idea, and starts working on it until it feels right. When collaborating with bands, sometimes she has creative freedom—as with Moonalice—and sometimes other bands are more specific. Usually that process involves throwing ideas back and forth until something lands.
Amongst her fantastic posters, she has a couple favorites. “There’s one I did for the Rex Foundation when they had Steve Kimock and Friends playing Grateful Dead music and they called it Reflections, A Tribute to Jerry Garcia. The artwork I did had Kimock’s guitar rising up behind the San Francisco skyline, and the water reflected was Jerry’s guitar. I love that. Another I love is a Moonalice 420, it’s a profile of a woman’s face with her eyes closed, she’s blowing out smoke and all the show info looks like it’s painted on her face,” Darrin shared.
With the influx of good Dead tribute bands in Southern California lately, she enjoys checking out the new bands. “Right now, I’m really into Grateful to the Core, which is a fairly new band. They’ve only been around for about four or five months, and they’re unbelievable,” she added. Darrin will be at Skull & Roses 2023, of course. She is an alumnus of the first festival and looked back to how it all first sounded, “I was thinking, two straight days of Dead music? Sounds like it could get a little redundant. But once I went there, it’s like everybody had their own take on all the songs. Each band was different in a way. It really was special because it’s jam band music and there’s so much improvisation, every band makes it their own.”
She’s excited about her Bicycle Day poster because it’s so thoroughly psychedelic. Darrin explained, “It was the first LSD trip that ever existed. It’s like, ‘Hell yeah, I can do that.’”
All photos courtesy of Derrin Brenner.