By David Pratt
“Why not challenge the establishment with a candidate they’ve never heard of? Who has never been primed or prepped or greased for public office? And whose lifestyle is already so weird that the idea of ‘conversion’ would never occur to him? In other words, why not run an honest freak and turn him loose, on their turf, to show up all the normal candidates for the worthless losers they are and always have been.” – Hunter S. Thompson, “Freak Power in the Rockies”:, Rolling Stone, October 1970
1970 THOMPSON FOR SHERIFF COMMERCIAL
After a two-year hiatus, the Gonzo Gallery (formerly The Gonzo Museum) in Aspen, Colorado, is re-opening this weekend in a new space with a free exhibition called Freak Power: a collection of political art and writing from Hunter S Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County.
“I wanted to talk about Hunter’s serious political side,” said Daniel Joseph Watkins, creator and curator of the Gonzo Gallery, noting that too often the focus is on the excesses of Thompson’s lifestyle instead of his writing and political insights and positions.
“I wanted to bring the conversation back to all those really significant political ideals he had,” Watkins said while taking a break from finishing the last minute touches at the gallery’s new location on 625 E. Hyman Ave., next to the Art Museum in Aspen. The exhibit includes assorted campaign materials, the Benton-Thompson Aspen Wall Poster series, art by Ralph Steadman and campaign trail photographs from David Hiser and Bob Krueger, among other “gonzo ephemera.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, on August 10 at the Gonzo Gallery, Watkins will release his new book, also called Freak Power (Meat Possum Press), featuring art, writing, photographs, political ads, cartoons and articles, along with a detailed account of Thompson’s 1970 campaign against Sheriff Carrol Whitmire. Both the book’s forward and afterward are written by former campaign worker Bob Braudis, long-time friend of Thompson and sheriff of Pitkin County for 24 years, from 1986-2010.
“For many of us, our first push into the sphere of politics was Hunter’s campaign for Sheriff,” Braudis writes of the hippies, heads and freaks who, in the late 1960s, were increasingly making Aspen and the surrounding area their home.
“Hunter brought together those local forces that found injustice in heavy-handed law enforcement and exploitation of our land, air and water,” Braudis explains in the book’s forward. “The freaks of Aspen were not organised in 1970, but we knew that a change in sheriff could be an end, not just the means.
“Hunter was the first candidate for sheriff who talked about environmental issues. He feared overdevelopment. He linked humane law enforcement and controlled land use as necessary ingredients to a higher quality of life.”
“Freak Power tells the story of Hunter’s plan to become Sheriff, take control of Aspen and transform it from a conservative mining town into a mecca for artists, rebels and activists,” Watkins writes on www.freakpower.com.
“Through original print material from the campaign, photographs and political art, Freak Power chronicles a little known period in Hunter S. Thompson’s life, a period when he wrote prolifically about politics, the environment, drugs and American values.”
Both the book and the exhibition are presented in chronological order with different types of material from the campaign mixed together to create a visual history of the growing political involvement of hippies and artists in the Freak Power movement. Watkins describes it as “a story arc largely driven by the growing intensity of the ideological disputes between Thompson and the opposition during the election. Amongst the material are death threats, cartoons portraying Thompson as a Nazi, articles about explosives, drug accusations, guns and undercover agents, anti-hippy propaganda and essays about the American dream.”
To illustrate all the weird facets of the campaign, Watkins also reproduced local newspaper clippings and original newsletters featuring writing by Thompson not seen anywhere since with headlines like For Whom the Bell Tolls; The Earth Belongs to the Living Not to the Dead; How Aspen Plans to Grow Gracefully on a Diet of Wildcat Stew & Sewer Water; and Innkeepers Amok, Tourists Menaced: Is Aspen Doomed by Strange Disease?
The 100 piece exhibition is complemented by access to over 25 additional works of political art by Thomas W. Benton. Benton and Thompson met in the late sixties when the journalist wandered into his studio looking for someone to frame a pile of Hells Angels photographs.
The two became friends and Hunter soon proposed the Aspen Wall Posters, a series of broadsides with Benton’s art on the front and Hunter’s text on the back. Benton’s best known image is probably the double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button, adopted by Hunter as his personal symbol.
Watkins is also the author of Thomas W. Benton: Artist/
Activist, a 2011 book about the Aspen painter and printmaker that won the Colorado Book Award.
He discovered Benton’s work while creating his own political posters protesting the Iraq and Afghani wars. Since then, with the assistance of Thompson’s friend and former landlord, George Stranahan, Watkins has been collecting and cataloguing posters, photographs and other historical material from the 1970 sheriff campaign.
He opened the Gonzo Museum in Aspen in February 2012 and over the following year organized shows of work by Benton, shotgun art by Thompson and beat generation icon William S. Burroughs, and showcased works by talented young local artists such as Stanley Bell and Tony Prikry.
The majority of the pieces in the current show are not for sale. Watkin’s plan is for Freak Power to remain for awhile in Aspen before eventually heading out on the road.
“What I want the show to do, I want the show to travel nationally and internationally, he said. “London, Berlin, New York, Louisville…”
“What’s going to happen here is going to be fucking spectacular,” said Watkins.
View images from the book and the exhibit at www.freakpower.com
HIGH NOON IN ASPEN: THOMPSON CAMPAIGN DOCUMENTARY