Zane Kesey is the son of American novelist Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion), who pioneered the 60s psychedelic movement alongside Neal Cassady and the rest of the Merry Pranksters. Today, Zane and his wife Stephanie run Key-Z Productions, a small production company that later morphed into a blotter printing after they moved from his father’s farm in 1991. 1xRUN has partnered with Zane to hand-perforate blotter editions since 2018, carrying a tradition passed down from the family that started it all. Through Zane’s legacy, the Bicycle Day Collection is deeply connected to a history of creating art on blotter paper.
In our exclusive interview, we spoke to Zane about growing up with one of America’s most influential figures, collecting blotters, and the secret history of Acid Tests. Read our exclusive interview with Zane Kesey below…
1x: For those who don’t know, tell us a little about yourself…
Zane Kesey: I’m Zane Kesey. Ken Kesey was my father. He’s the guy that wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, and drove around in a psychedelic bus with the Merry Pranksters and put on these parties called The Acid Tests, which had a big vat of Kool-Aid in the middle of the floor, and in the Kool-Aid was LSD. It was legal at the time, and they had a lot of fun with that. Out of these parties came all the things we consider to be part of psychedelic festivals: the wild clothes and the day-glo and the strobe lights and the psychedelic light shows and the weird music. That whole feel.
1x: How old was he when you were born? What were some of your earliest memories?
Kesey: How old was he? Good god, this is math. No idea. I don’t do that stuff. I know that around the time I was born, in 1961, while he was writing Cuckoo’s Nest, he signed up for these drug experiments with LSD. It turned out to be the CIA that was giving it. That’s sort of where Cuckoo’s Nest got its oomph from: it was this fairly boring, straightforward, first-person story until that night he hallucinated Chief Bromden, who was crazy, and told it through his point of view.
1x: Were some of your earliest memories with him? He was doing all these crazy, psychedelic buff antics––was that part of your life?
Kesey: Yeah, totally. Painting on the bus, riding around on the bus, all the wild Pranksters doing their thing. Eventually all of us moved up to Oregon onto the farm. There was a commune there. It wasn’t until about 1969 or ‘70 when I went to school and found out that not everybody grew up in the circus. I learned words like “hippie.”
1x: What was your relationship with psychedelics early on? How was it introduced to you?
Kesey: In general, acid was this cool thing, just like people smoking pot. No worries. I remember, it wasn’t until I was deep into school when they had cops come in and show us this or that. All the sudden, I realized, “Wait a second, you mean acid is the same thing as this horrible stuff I’ve been hearing about called LSD?” I had a hard time putting those two things together. Realizing that, all this time, the straight world was freaking out about acid? I was never worried about acid.
Later in life, when I started really participating in it, I came to respect it a lot. I’ve never been very good at megadosing. It still scares me, as far as taking too much of it. I don’t like the idea of being out there where my feet aren’t even a little bit on the ground.
1x: That’s a good way to put it.
Kesey: I don’t know if I would pass the actual Acid Test.
1x: Once you started taking LSD, did you guys start working together on things? How did your relationship with your father evolve?
Kesey: Well, around that time, it was me and the neighborhood kids. An easier way to look at it would be pot: that every now and then, the joint would be passed in the direction of the kids. Same with acid, in a very rare and very tiny amount. But once, as kids, we found where the stash was… that was a different story.
It wasn’t something that you talked about because you’re sneaking off to do it. About that time, I’m fairly deep in school, an athlete, and this was frowned upon. I’m supposed to be more serious than this. I’m really sneaking off to do it. People always assumed it was this wonderful relationship of getting high whenever you want, it’s all a party. No, that was when I was really young, when the Prankster scene was happening. Later in life, it was, you’re a farm kid, these are your chores, this is what is expected from you. Dad was a different person from what you see in his public persona. This was more about him and the way he grew up, which was fairly strict and straightforward. If I tell you do something you do it. Normal dad stuff.
1x: When did you guys first start working together, making art? How long have you been doing this printing and perforating?
Kesey: Key-Z Productions goes back to just before I got married. I moved into the family farm with my future wife, and Dad had us looking through the old films. He had my wife Stephanie and I start transferring these old historical films of the Merry Pranksters to video, editing them, and my wife and I started a company that dad named K-E-Y-Z Productions. We’d do films for people, and we came out with the old bus films. We had a lot of fun. It went on for a while. We had a catalog that we would put in the Grateful Dead magazines.
And then came along Tom Lytle. He had these blotter prints that he was having Timothy Leary sign. He wanted to have Dad sign, too. I told him, “Well, give me a couple hundred of them and I’ll get them signed, and I’m going to keep some to sell ourselves.” And by gosh, they signed! I couldn’t believe it. They sold. We got them signed and they sold. I was surprised. And then I spent a long time after that trying to find out where to get these things printed.
1x: When was this?
Kesey: Mid-90s. That wasn’t easy. You could find the ones that were already printed, and I had Dad sign all of Mark McCloud’s, who is the godfather of blotter art. All the early blotters were from him pretty much. So I’d get some of his, and have Dad sign them. You can always find Dad’s signature on a Timothy Leary blotter, but I wanted one with the bus, or with the Merry Pranksters, or “Acid Test” for him to sign. I spent ten years trying to find people to print them, and finally found one person to print for us. It was just about that time that Dad died.
After that, the printer was going out of business, and I tried to find one of these machines. Finally I realized I was just going to have to have somebody make one. So I had somebody design it, and fabricate it, and create the darn thing after a few sample tries. I’ve been working with that one ever since. It’s an old school printing press. You run it by hand with a big wheel and hope you don’t get your fingers caught in it (which I have done a number of times).
1x: How many do you think you’ve printed since you started doing everything yourself?
Kesey: I don’t know. Hundreds of thousands. It’s been quite a while. There’s a lot of people coming in with really big orders. You wonder where they went to.
There’s been a few other people that are in the business. My main friend bought the business of blotterart.com, and he’s now in England doing it. I’ve got another pseudo-partner down in the Bay Area who does it a little bit. And still, the godfather of all blotter art is Mark McCloud. If anybody’s ever down in San Francisco with a day to kill, man, go drop in at his place. He is still one of the real revolutionaries. He’s out there ready to change the world. His whole house, one of those painted lady houses in San Francisco, is floor-to-ceiling all framed, original blotter art, one of a kind, from the old days. He loves to have people come in and blow their mind.
He’s a really good guy. He is a bit out there like you’d expect, but not too far. He has spent his family fortune, twice now, defending the right to collect blotter art. That he’s not trying to do something illegal. He’s trying to preserve this art form.
1x: Can you tell us a bit about your blotter editions, Acid Test Diploma and Acid Test Flier?
Kesey: The diploma is the original diploma that was handed out to Acid Test graduates. They handed out a diploma just like this, except on basic white paper, and this one has an aged look to it. There’s still a few of them around. Mountain Girl has hers and Jerry Garcia’s. I’ve seen two or three others, and that’s about it. Getting a real one is psychedelic gold.
1x: Would Ken give you that?
Kesey: Handing them out? That was Neal Cassady. Actually, you can go online and you can see footage of Neal Cassady handing out diplomas to people who they decided had passed the Acid Test. They actually judged these people, and decided who didn’t pass.
The other one is sort of like Wes Wilson’s design (below) of the Acid Test, with the swirly colors and optical illusions. It’s got the great words up in the corner about the Merry Pranksters and their psychedelic symphony, and listing who all’s going to be there. One of the famous things that Acid Test posters had was, Pranksters would put them up on a telephone pull and let it sit there for weeks, and the day before, they would put the location in. Oftentimes they didn’t know the location, but they were also one to keep it secret. That’s a hugely collectable thing, nowadays: one of these Acid Test posters taken off a telephone pole that has the location on it.
1x: Was this for a specific one? Do you know the date of the one that we used?
Kesey: There were really only two main Acid Test posters, and there were a lot of Acid Tests. They would use this poster in San Francisco, and then use the same one in LA, and put in the location at the last second.
1x: Who are some of your favorite blotter artists that you like to collect?
Kesey: If you’re going to collect blotters, the place you have to start is the double-sided Alice In Wonderland / Through The Looking Glass and its sidekick, The Mad Hatter. Then comes Mark McCloud’s double-sided Dancing Condoms and Pink Elephants on Parade. Those were printed together with a reverse side. If you get both of them together, the reverse side combines into one image. But the most highly sought-after one of all is the Purple Jesus by Alex Grey. Before Alex Grey was well known, it was a Tool cover, I think. This was back in the day, where you didn’t ask for an artist’s permission because this was hitting the streets. Everybody was really fond of that.
That’s kind of how blotter art exists now: there’s a ton of people that are my age who want to remember back to their college days. It’s kind of like having a diploma on the wall: “Yep, I passed it, and it was that design right there!” The people who don’t really know what it is don’t really notice it. The people who do notice, oh, it brings back a lot of stories. But I’m still surprised at how popular it’s gotten. It really has become sort of the psychedelic trading card, where the collectors out there are so deep into it, that once some new artist comes up who is now doing blotter art, they have to have his art too. It’s gotten big.
1x: I think we can attest to that. That first year we did it started off with just Mike Giant, and then each year it’s just ballooned.
Kesey: It’s one thing that I can say: if you’re an artist and you’ve already done a great limited-edition print of your work, and you’d love to be able to print it again in a new format, blotter is the perfect excuse.
1x: That’s what we’ve been saying to people.
Kesey: There’s people who have done this great artwork, and their blotters are selling fantastically because the earlier editions sold out long ago, and this gives them another chance to cash in on it, and to give people a chance who otherwise can’t afford the more highly collectable prints. I’m really shocked at how great some of these artists you’re finding are, though. Wow.
Zane Kesey was interviewed over the phone by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba during first week of the Coronavirus pandemic while on his farm in remote Oregon. Read previous interviews for Bicycle Day here.