Grace Slick: Artist in control

Aging rocker explores creative side by painting portraits of stars

Thursday, November 23, 2000

— She once performed topless in the rain so she wouldn't ruin her silk blouse, and she threatened to spike President Nixon's tea with LSD.

But that was a lifetime ago for Grace Slick, the steely psychedelic rocker who added enough salt to her words to wither a seasoned sailor.

These days, she has tamed that wild child. And she's turned to painting to get her creative urges out.

While Slick says she finds inspiration everywhere � in animals, in her friends and in her emotions � her best-selling works are her portraits of the rock stars she knew in the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Jerry Garcia.

She has sold about 60 paintings in the past year. They're a mix of sizes, styles and mediums: oil and acrylic, pencil and ink. She studies as many photographs of her subjects "as humanly possible," then tries, she said, to add "my own memory of how they were, how I felt around them."

She's especially proud of a Hendrix portrait that uses bold splashes of bright colors against a black background. She also likes a painting of Bob Dylan holding a cross in one hand and a Star of David in the other.

There are two portraits of Janis Joplin in her show at Artrock gallery that runs through December. One is in hues of blue with a smiling Janis holding maracas and another is a close-up of her face with vegetation coming out of her head. Slick dislikes both works.

"I haven't gotten it yet," she said. "I talk out loud to her, 'What do you want me to do this time, Janis?"'

Back in the late '60s and early 1970s, Slick and Joplin were the high priestesses of rock � spontaneous, outrageous, wisecracking mamas who grabbed life by the heels and shook it dry. But while Joplin was troubled, fragile in a way, Slick was more centered. She boozed and drugged with the best of them; said anything, did anything and wore anything � or nothing. And she survived, from Jefferson Airplane to Starship to her own short-lived solo career.

Now 61, the aging rocker has adapted an artful look. Her shoulder-length, straight hair is completely white � she says she had been dyeing it since her mid-20s � and sets off her violet-blue eyes.

Striking and statuesque, Slick could be a model once again � a profession she tried briefly before turning to music.

After a foray into pop with Starship in the 1980s, Slick quit the music business a decade ago and became a painter. She loves creating something outside herself, something that doesn't involve her appearance.

Her studio is the dining room in her Malibu, Calif., home, where canvases litter the floor. "It's the usual nutty-looking slob artist arrangement," she said. She spends an average of about a week on each painting and cranks out about 100 a year.

Slick studied art for a half-semester in college, "not because I wanted to be an artist, but because it was easy. I have some talent in drawing and I was at the University of Miami to play," she said.

But she also never studied music and to this day cannot read a single note. Persistence has gotten her everywhere, she said.

Slick grew up in Palo Alto, the daughter of an investment banker father and singer mother. She was "right in the middle of the WASP caricature of family life," she wrote in her 1998 autobiography, "Somebody to Love?" She married longtime family friend Jerry Slick when she was 20. Jerry Slick's brother, Darby, wrote "Somebody to Love," which later helped make Slick famous.

In 1965, Grace Slick formed The Great Society and played in San Francisco clubs for about a year until she was asked to join Jefferson Airplane, a band she had admired.

"This was an invitation, an invitation to hold what I'd always thought was a lofty position reserved only for supermodels, movie stars and great physical beauties," she wrote. She brought two hits along with her � "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," which she wrote. Today, she lives mainly off the royalties from "White Rabbit" � $30,000 every time it's used in a movie, she said.

Selling her paintings, she said, "pays the water bill."