Gonzo for Sheriff: MAH tells story of Hunter S. Thompson’s bid for office

Art by Ralph Steadman and photography by David Hiser - Courtesy of Freak Power Art Collection
(Via Freak Power Art Collection)

Through art and the man’s own writings, “Freak Power” chronicles famous bad-boy journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 run for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado.

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Undergrad majors in the field of Gonzo-ology — that is, the study of the life and career of the infamous writer Hunter S. Thompson, aka Dr. Gonzo — might assume that Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado (home to Aspen), on the “Freak Power” ticket was all an elaborate joke, a kind of goofy, counterculture stunt only to make a statement and attract publicity.

Graduate-level Gonzologists, however, know otherwise, that Thompson’s run for sheriff was in earnest, that Thompson, long before he adopted his cartoonish Gonzo persona, seriously believed that the flower-power generation should, by rights, inherit the seats of power and control in America. And, for him, that started with the sheriff’s job where he lived in Woody Creek, Colorado.

Thompson’s quixotic campaign for sheriff — spoiler alert: He lost — is the subject of a new exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History titled “Freak Power: The Art of Hunter S. Thompson’s Political Movement.” It’s a collection of posters, drawings, printed material, writings from Thompson himself and original artwork by longtime Thompson friend and collaborator Ralph Steadman, all in the service of throwing light on one particular episode of Thompson’s one-of-a-kind career.

Thompson is, of course, most famous for his lurid and criminally funny “nonfiction” book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which was published only a year after his loss in the Aspen sheriff’s race. “Fear and Loathing” launched not only Thompson’s career as the unhinged Dr. Gonzo, but inspired a generation or two of young would-be journalists and writers, many of whom know little if anything about the 1970 campaign in Colorado.

Curator Daniel Watkins said that his exhibition is an “amalgamation of all these different people’s contributions to the cause.”

Watkins also co-directed and produced “Freak Power: The Ballot or The Bomb,” a 2020 documentary film on the same subject. Though it was 50 years ago, the Thompson campaign for sheriff, said Watkins, still has relevance for today, particularly in a place like Santa Cruz, which has long been a friendly environment to the ’60s counterculture, at least in retrospect. “The message is that you can have an impact, and have fun,” Watkins said, “that freaks and outlaws and weirdos could band together and fight for change.” (Another unrelated film about the same episode, a 2021 black comedy called “Fear and Loathing in Aspen,” was directed by Bobby Kennedy III — yep, the grandson of RFK.)

A poster from Hunter S. Thompson's run for mayor
(Via Freak Power Art Collection)

The campaign was, of course, soaked in hippie-culture theatrics and ironic wit. In a time when the cultural divide was often measured by the lengths of one’s hair, Thompson shaved his head bald so he could refer to the John Wayne-esque incumbent sheriff as “my long-haired opponent.” But underneath all the smirky pranks, Thompson, 33 at the time, was aiming to get hippies and “freaks” a seat at the table of power with an appeal that blended hard-headed rationality with idealism. As one campaign ad put it, Thompson was a “moralist posing as an immoralist.”

“It might have started out as playful — not necessarily a joke, but a ploy,” said Watkins. “But it quickly steamrolled into something very serious.”

Before settling in Woody Creek, Thompson had spent several years in Northern California, in Big Sur at the site that would later become the Esalen Institute, and in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. It was in the Haight where he met and eventually wrote a book about the Hell’s Angels, which became a sensation.

Watkins said Thompson’s time in California — a year in Big Sur and about three in San Francisco — was crucial in the development of the idealism that allowed him to run for sheriff.

“The beauty of Big Sur and the beauty of the Central Coast, I think that really affected him in terms of having a love of the environment and wanting to protect it,” Watkins said. “He went so far [in the sheriff campaign] as to have a two-page handout that said [if Thompson were to win], the sheriff’s office is going to protect against crimes against the environment, and we’re going to enforce criminal penalties for people that rape the land.”

The MAH exhibit, which opens Friday, marks the first time the traveling “Freak Power” exhibition has come to California. The exhibit was first shown in Louisville, Kentucky — Thompson’s birthplace —in 2019. That was followed by a stint at the Aspen Art Museum and the Poster House gallery in New York City.

An image of Hunter S. Thompson
(Via Freak Power Art Collection)

The collected artwork features much of the most reproduced imagery of the campaign that came to be known as “The Battle of Aspen” (Gonzo-ologists take note that that was also the title of Thompson’s first byline for Rolling Stone). The collection includes the famous six-fingered clenched fist holding a peyote button by artist Thomas Benton that served as the campaign’s primary symbol.

Watkins first entered into the Thompson universe through Benton, after he had helped Benton archive and publish a book of his work. Benton, a decades-long friend of Thompson, led Watkins to discover material from Thompson’s run for sheriff that had not yet been published.

The British-born illustrator Steadman served as Thompson’s primary visual collaborator for much of both of their careers. Steadman’s fingerprints are all over the new exhibit.

“Hunter and Ralph met at the Kentucky Derby in 1970,” said Watkins, “and that was their first collaboration and the birth of gonzo journalism, the article that appeared in [the now defunct] Scanlan’s Monthly. They were just getting to know each other when Ralph contributed two original drawings to the campaign.”

A poster reading "God Bless Nixon" from the MAH's Hunter Thompson exhibit
(Via Freak Power Art Collection)

In the years since Thompson’s death by suicide in 2005, Watkins and Steadman have worked together to sell Steadman’s art in the U.S. For the exhibit, Watkins brought several photos from the sheriff campaign to Steadman, who would then paint in his identifiable splatter style on the prints of the photos, along with a zinger or one-liner referencing the photo.

“I saw those and I said, I gotta take all these, get them professionally framed, and put them in the museum exhibit, instead of selling them.”

Thompson’s unique style of journalism has a broad appeal in Santa Cruz. In 2018, the Special Collections and Archive at UC Santa Cruz received a donation from collector Eric Shoaf of some 800 items of HST material. Watkins feels as though Santa Cruz is a natural landing spot for “Freak Power.”

Thompson’s experience running for sheriff, said Watkins, was key in the development of his later career as a journalist, particularly when it came to Thompson’s political writing such as “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” chronicling the George McGovern campaign for president in 1972.

“Hunter’s experiences during the sheriff’s race gave him such a backstage pass,” said Watkins. “It allowed him to really report on politics with kind of a first-hand knowledge of what it means and what it takes to be a political candidate. And I think that it really illuminated his writing. An argument can be made that Hunter was one of the greatest political writers of the 20th century, and I think that the campaign for sheriff was instrumental in giving him that knowledge and education and experience to elucidate. It made him a better journalist.”

“Freak Power: The Art of Hunter S. Thompson’s Political Movement” opens Friday at the Museum of Art & History. Curator Daniel Watkins and former Aspen sheriff Bob Braudis will be on hand for an art talk Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at the MAH. It’s free with museum admission.

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