Laura Dowling and the Dead

Laura Dowling, whose home and studio are in Trumbull, Connecticut, is one of the leading Dead Head artists of the modern (post-1995) era. Her work was revealed to this author by the ticket-request envelopes she created as GDTS TOO mail-order entries.

Many at GDTS TOO were repeatedly struck by the soulful expression of the eyes she painted into her work, revealed here in envelopes portraying Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh. “The eyes she paints,” said Frankie Accardi-Peri, head of GDTS TOO, “are mesmerizing, but they also are so kind.”

For a dozen years Laura was an art teacher in the Stamford, Connecticut, public schools. She previously earned a bachelor’s degree in art education at Southern Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in studio art at the College of New Rochelle. She’s now a freelance fine artist and is illustrating her first children’s book. Here she explains the relationship between the Dead and her art:

The subject matter of my fine art is almost always natural imagery, landscape, and still life, while my illustration work is more about storyline or the interaction between characters. Sometimes my work is based on form and light, other times it’s all about texture, line, and color. As things turned out, my exposure to the Dead’s music also led me in new and unexpected directions.

My first Grateful Dead concert was April 14, 1984, at the New Haven Coliseum. I’d been listening to late-1970s bootlegs, wearing them thin, and I was pretty eager to “get on the bus.” That whole night was nothing less than an organic experience involving the band and the audience and everyone’s collective experiences building together. The Dead Heads were fully involved audience members, and as the excitement built and the music enveloped us, we felt every note of Jerry’s exquisite guitar work and the honesty of his voice. I struggle for the exact words to explain how wonderful it all was, but I do know this: the band members became one intelligent entity. Grateful Dead music was something I could actually feel coursing over me, coursing through me. I had just turned fifteen, and that one night took me in forever. Now I’m forty-two, married to Greg, mom to Cole and Gavin, and I’m still inspired by what took place—and Greg and I are still going to events on the tour schedule like Furthur.

Every painter and illustrator is influenced by what’s been previously created by others.

Finding the “original” in your own work can be a major challenge. In my experience, the Dead have been very helpful in overcoming the mental obstacles of doubt and confusion. Mickey Hart once said that their music elicits “deep listening,” a kind of intangible, but-oh-so-real means of spiritual transport. It’s really a gift to a visual artist! The depth, joy, pathos, and diversity inherent in their music actually enhance the creative process for an artist such as myself; it has helped to untie myself to the point where I’ve experienced new personal creativity year after year. I would say—while hopefully there are no finite endpoints for a working artist—the Dead have helped me visualize higher plateau after higher plateau. There is no end in sight to that progression, so there is endless motivation to keep on being creative, striving to reach that next plateau.

I typically work in many scales. I’ve painted fifteen-foot murals and created hugely detailed compact etchings. So working on a number 10 envelope—what us artists send in to GDTS TOO—is on the smaller side of life. It’s not so much that it’s more difficult, but having the right materials is key. I use small brushes, ultrafine-tipped pens, colored pencils, and applicable watercolors and gouache, but I also source motivation, working from a theme related to the band or the venue. Sometimes I might incorporate characters from a book I’m reading if they happen to remind me of a Grateful Dead song. Sometimes if I’m mail ordering for multiple venues, I carry the theme throughout, as with my band member envelopes shown here.

Making envelope art is gifting back. It’s a way to say thank you to GDTS TOO for all their hard work in making tickets available to us all. It’s also a way of paying loving tribute to band members who’ve given us community, inspiration, good times, and yes, a special soundtrack for our lives.