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Peoples Press

The Word is Out

When actions (and posters) speak louder than words

Posted in Blog by People's Press on August 16, 2011

The legendary collaboration between Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and artist Tom Benton is celebrated in Daniel J. Watkins’ new book, “Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist”

THEY SAY A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS, and well-written prose paints the perfect picture, but what happens when a powerful artist and prolific writer collaborate and the two mediums are combined? What if it’s March 1970 in Aspen, Colorado?

When Hunter S. Thompson randomly stumbled into a frame shop next to artist Tom Benton’s gallery with some pictures of Hell’s Angels making out, a fast friendship was born. “Right then, Hunter and I became friends. He seemed just crazy enough,” Benton reportedly said.

It was Thompson’s idea to create “The Aspen Wallposters,” the collaboration that featured Benton’s art on one side of the twenty-two-by-fifteen-inch sheet and Thompson’s political rants on the other. It was the official print media of the Aspen Liberation Front to promote their Freak Power movement. (Like we said, it was March 1970 in Aspen.)

These posters, and the fabled story behind them, are being brought back to life through DJ Watkins’ new book, Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist, with the most complete compilation of the collaboration to date.

“It’s a double-edged sword because I want to expand people’s horizons regarding Benton’s work,” Watkins says. “But Benton was friends with Hunter for forty years. This book is the first book to catalog and document Benton and Thompson’s collaboration. My hope is that’s the hook to grab people in to the larger project.”

The Wallposters are lesser known and perhaps even more coveted to Thompson fans, who might not have seen or known much about the collaboration until now. “I think it is fair to say that Benton has been criminally overlooked, not just in relation to his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, but also in terms of his contribution to protest art and political activism both at a local and national level,” writes Rory on totallygonzo.org, a Hunter S. Thompson fan site.

Watkins writes, “Embodying the ideals and beliefs of Thompson and Benton and other activists during this turbulent time, the posters capture a fascinating collaboration and an artistic experiment at pivotal points in these two men’s careers. They illustrate the development of Thompson’s Gonzo writing style and Benton’s artistic ability, yet remained their rarest and most relatively unknown works.”

What he doesn’t say, or doesn’t need to say, is that between the art and the words, it’s some powerfully provocative stuff that’s so progressive it’s still shocking, even startling, 42 years later. One of the posters of Nixon with blood running from his mouth and swastikas in his eyes was so controversial the duo couldn’t find a printer—in all of the United States—that was willing to publish it. Pushing the limits of free speech is taken to another level, in this case, when words and images are combined to make a powerful message. It’s also a testament to the power of an artist who is able and willing to collaborate with other artists.

It was a legendary partnership, and one that is forever preserved in the pages of Watkins’ book. What would Thompson or Benton have to say about a blog that tries to express in words, how words aren’t always enough? Check it out and meet the author this Saturday, August 20, when the Aspen Historical Society hosts “Remembering Tom,” a book signing, storytelling session and party from 4-6 p.m. at the Wheeler/Stallard museum.

Were you in Aspen in the 1970s? Tell us what it was like, and better yet, post your photos. We welcome, and encourage, your comments.

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