‘Freak Power’ in Santa Cruz

Fat City Gallery show hits the road

Thompson at his polling place in Aspen, Election Day 1970.
Bob Krueger

What: ‘Freak Power: The Art of Hunter S. Thompson’s Political Movement’

Where: Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

When: May 27-Sept. 25

More info:

“Freak Power” is back on the road.

Curator Daniel Joseph Watkins — founder of Aspen’s Fat City Gallery, author of a 2015 coffee table book about Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff and co-director of a 2020 feature-length documentary about it — is due to open his touring exhibition of art and artifacts from Thompson’s “Freak Power” campaign in May at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

The Northern California museum is a natural fit for the show, as Thompson moved from the Bay Area to Woody Creek shortly before he began mounting his watershed political campaign for sheriff here.

“Thompson’s time in California inspired his activism, solidified his sympathy for alternative lifestyles and led to a passion for environmental protections that were incorporated into his political platform,” Watkins said in the exhibition announcement. “We are excited to bring this exhibition to the West Coast for the first time at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.”

The show, co-curated by Yuri Zupancic, whose Aspen shows have included the 2020 William S. Burroughs exhibition at the Gonzo Gallery in Aspen (before its name change to “Fat City”), is sponsored by current sheriff candidate Michael Buysee and follows previous stops at the Aspen Historical Society, Poster House in New York and the Frazier History Museum in Thompson’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

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It originally opened at the Gonzo Gallery in Aspen in 2015, in conjunction with the release of Watkins’ book.

In all, the show collects more 120 pieces including campaign materials, the iconic “Aspen Wall Poster” series by Thompson and artist Tom Benton, photographs from David Hiser and Bob Krueger, along with newsletters, newspaper clippings and Gonzo ephemera — most of it from Watkins’ own extensive collection.

Hunter S. Thompson giving his concession speech at the Hotel Jerome on Election Night in 1970.
David Hiser

It serves as both an introduction to the ideas and oddities of Thompson’s Freak Power for the uninitiated, and a deep dive for Thompson fans who know the story inside and out (Thompson himself, of course, wrote definitively about it as it was happening in the seminal Rolling Stone piece “The Battle of Aspen.”)

As ever, the campaign’s fierce rhetoric against commercialization, war, criminalized drugs and environmental destruction remains relevant to today’s headlines and societal concerns, while the colorful details of Thompson’s original platform (sodding the streets and renaming Aspen “Fat City”) and street theater (the shaved head, the gonzo debates at the Isis Theatre) leave an impression like no other political campaign in history.

There are uncanny echoes of the recent movements to de-militarize police and legalize marijuana in Thompson’s then-radical ideas.

Election Day 1970 in Aspen.
David Hiser

The exhibition chronicles Aspen from the hippie incursion of the 1960s, attorney Joe Edwards’ court battle to protect hippies from police harassment and his losing 1969 bid for mayor, through Thompson’s run against Pitkin Sheriff Carrol Whitmire — detailing those circus-like debates, the undercover DEA agent who attempted to infiltrate Thompson’s camp, the international media attention the campaign drew — and its transformative effect on politics and government in Aspen.

If you’re going to San Francisco this offseason, a gonzo-inspired day trip to Santa Cruz is in order.

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