Finding out who Jerry Garcia was:
Story of a Portrait
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"...two hours of reading his words and listening to his music were necessary for every hour of sculpting."

Jerry garciaThe project started when I was asked to do a bronze sculpture portrait of Jerry Garcia.

I didn't know who Jerry Garcia was, but was willing to look at the idea. I like to do portraits, and am able to work from photographs if necessary.

I received a couple books about the Grateful Dead, one done before Jerry's death, the other, done shortly afterward. I also had a videotape and some CDs to watch and listen to. My first look at the photos of the band was memorable. I guessed wrong on which one was Jerry Garcia, picking out Mickey Hart, one of the drummers instead. Then I realized I had it wrong, looked again, and remarked, "Oh, it's the one who looks like me!" As you may gather, I was never a Deadhead.

As I started my research, studying his face from innumerable angles and reading the interviews and biographies, I noticed that Jerry and I were both born in San Francisco in 1942, both lost our dads at about the same time, and both saw our mothers remarry at about the same time. He dropped out of high school to go into the Army; I dropped out after the first year of college, also to join the Army. Both of us started doing what would be our careers at about age 10. For him, it was music; for me, sculpture.

I began to feel a rapport. I had to get a feel for what sort of person he was in order to know where to start. There were hundreds of photos to choose from, and I knew I would need all of them to complete the portrait. But I had to pick one to be the basis, the facial expression and body language that would tell the viewer what Jerry was like as a person. I needed a concept photo.

I ended that search by choosing two photos and combining them. Both were taken in Egypt. The expression and body language came from one taken in the streets of Cairo, in which a grinning Arab guide has just pointed out something to Jerry and he is leaning forward with a look of delight on his face, a "Wow! Far out, Man!" expression. I also liked a very dramatic shot taken on a camel ride out of the city, in which the desert wind is blowing his big mane of hair back away from his face. I added the blowing hair to the Cairo street shot for my concept, because by then I knew he had a "balls to the wall " approach to life.

I packed some clay onto an armature and began. At the two-week mark, I took photos and sent them California to get feedback on both the concept and the likeness from people at the Grateful Dead's headquarters . They approved the concept and mentioned two items about the likeness, one concerning the nose and the other the eyes. Both made immediate sense and led me on to dozens of other small changes to refine the likeness bit by bit.

I studied the photos intently, trying to glean any minute detail of form that I could. Only one photo out of hundreds gave the shape of his right cheekbone. The light was just right for that on the occasion of the famous drug bust back in 1967. Several photos had slightly conflicting information about the right nostril. I re-sculpted the eyes about nine times as my perception gradually grew. The likeness formed slowly, remained elusive in the upper part of the face.

At the 6-week point, comparison with the two-week photos revealed that the armature was collapsing inside the clay: the chin was sinking towards the table. After rebuilding the armature inside the clay, I examined the sculpture with extreme care for any subtle distortion that might have been caused by the collapse.

Some minor distortion had occurred, and I corrected it, but the unusual scrutiny also revealed that I had placed the left eye a little low. When I repositioned it (that's 10 times now), the whole upper half of the face was suddenly Jerry, catching up with the lower half.

The scrutiny of the photos and video images was so intense that I would go blind after about three hours and have to stop being visual for the day. Then I would listen to music and read interviews to try to look inside his head. It seemed like about two hours of reading his words and listening to his music were necessary for every hour of sculpting. For a likeness to be any good, the sculptor has to know or guess the inner person of the subject. After reading and rereading interviews, and listening, I gradually came to sense a shyness mixed in with the gusto, and a slightly self-conscious goofiness in the grin.

I realized that I liked him as a person, and respected many of his views. There is a lot about his life I would not want to emulate, of course, but in any case I know that the affection I came to feel for him shows in the final version of the portrait. This, and the odd life parallels make it seem as if he and I were on a collision course over the years that only came to pass a year after his death. In any case, this portrait of Jerry Garcia is the most successful that I have ever done.

Steve Lester, Sculptor


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