Darren Nelson: The Eyeball James Of Poster Art

Artist Darren Nelson was enamored by his older brother’s artistic skills and early on noticed the Grateful Dead Aoxomoxoa cover art in his sister’s record collection. Rick Griffin’s memorable psychedelic cover art stuck with him and soon he was turned on to the artwork of Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley. He explained, “I guess you could say I was a GD poser! [laugh]. I had a jean jacket that I painted all things Grateful Dead on and loved it but knew very little about their music.” Growing up in a small town in western Massachusetts called Belchertown, he was always drawing, painting, and doing anything artistic he could.

Darren making art

In high school he made it into an advanced placement program, and though at the time he wasn’t really interested in school, his teacher pushed him and it paid off. He received a scholarship to a very fancy art school in Boston. But upon graduating, his band was starting to get gigs and music became a priority so he declined the scholarship and hit the road with his band. Nelson carried on his visual art practice though, spending a couple years in community college taking art classes. Psychedelic poster art had sunk its teeth in and with his love for rock n roll, he knew this was a path worth following.

Years later, he met his wife, Cristina, who was part of the extended Grateful Dead family. I asked who she was related to, and he replied, “Billy Crow, who was part of Hard Trucker Speakers — at least that’s what his business card said!” He remembered, “She told me great stories of her time with Jerry. He and other guys from the band would spend time at her house, Christmas parties, and other outings. She spoke so highly of him and the band that I had to dive deeper into their music.” 

Darren plays guitar, sings, and is a songwriter. He eventually did move to northern California and has enjoyed playing and digging deeper inside Bay Area music circles with his band San Geronimo, and other project bands. He even landed a residency at Terrapin Crossroads. “He [Phil Lesh] took a liking to my band and would often join us on stage! He was so good to me, and really, all the musicians who played his venue,” Darren shared.

Making poster art came along naturally to Darren since he was playing music. “My love for music and the direct correlation between music and posters was just a perfect outlet for me. The same way a songwriter/musician was free to express without boundaries of training, a poster artist was free to express it in kind. Anatomy, color, typeset and perspective, these were not as important as the ‘feeling.’ That was and still is the beauty of poster art,” he recalled. His first “real” poster was for the Fillmore, a piece for Two Gallant (an amazing San Francisco band). That gig rolled into a poster for Galactic, and he kept going from there.

Darren and his cat Elvis

All the years combine, and Darren is a card-carrying member of our Grateful Dead scene, which made it only fitting to have him design the 2024 Skull and Roses poster, with imagery that will be featured on all the festival merchandise. Of course, he found inspiration from the poster art masters, his friend Zoltran, and that Aoxomoxoa cover art finally resonated in the most perfect way. Explaining the new poster, he said, “I wanted to have a skull and roses, of course, but it being held in Ventura, I wanted waves and/or surfers.” 

Expanding on his process, he shared, “When I have the time, I sketch loosely for the shape and the focal point. Over and over and over and more. Then I start inking it. No real frills in my process but I do get stupid with my line work. Way overcritical! I wish I could be looser! That’s another conversation!”

Darren loves the music of the Grateful Dead and admits he wished he had been around to see it back in the day, but sees the blessings in the evolution of the bands dedicated to the songbook. He explained, “The scene is definitely different now. The hard-core fans have definitely let me know! But I think that if any band can get people together, all in the name of art, music, love, and community, then that’s always a good thing. It’s a magical thing! People need magic. If something can make you feel that good, that happy and that safe, what could be better in these crazy times?! We should all be so lucky!”

Links: Poster art website  | San Geronimo

Trina Calderón is an LA-based writer, proud to be a part of the sunshine daydream of the Grateful Dead.