North Texas Daily

CoLab exhibit celebrates Willie Nelson, university alum’s work

CoLab exhibit celebrates Willie Nelson, university alum’s work

CoLab exhibit celebrates Willie Nelson, university alum’s work
May 12
11:06 2023

The UNT CoLab in downtown Denton has been transformed into a time capsule featuring artwork depicting outlaw country legend Willie Nelson. Original tour posters and vintage Nelson t-shirts are hung throughout both levels of the building.

On April 28, an opening gallery reception was held at the CoLab celebrating artist and university alum Steve Brooks. 

Willie Nelson shirts hang on display on May 2, 2023. Photo by Marco Barrera

“This is just overwhelmingly awesome,” Brooks said. “I’m looking around right now and I’m seeing all these t-shirts and everything and it’s such a flashback, because every single thing you see in here is my design. It’s just a lot of stuff.”

Brooks attended the university and majored in advertising art from 1969 to 1971. While attending the university, Brooks created a poster for Derek and the Dominos that was featured in a student showcase, which helped lead him into creating art for musicians.

Brooks had done some art for Iconoclast Magazine in Dallas, where one of Nelson’s promoters noticed his work. Nelson’s team asked Brooks to design some artwork for the Abbott Homecoming performance, a 12-hour-long concert performed in Nelson’s hometown, Abbott, Texas. 

When Nelson’s team reached out to Brooks, he had been doing tour posters for rock bands and artists like the Eagles and Pink Floyd. He said he did not even like country music at the time.

“I was mostly doing rock and roll promotion artwork, and then there’s Willie — this guy is not rock ‘n’ roll, he’s country,” Brooks said. “I went ‘eh,’ but the hippies were taken to him, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s see where we’re going to go with this.’”

A Willie Nelson poster is displayed on May 2, 2023. Photo by Marco Barrera

He eventually came to like country music, or at least Nelson’s music — his favorite songs by the artist are “On The Road Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground.”

As a result of his decades-long career as an artist, doing work for Nelson and Buddy Magazine, Brooks had a large collection of his own art. When he decided he wanted to donate it, he initially contacted Texas State University because of its collection of Nelson’s writings and personal items. Brooks said he interviewed with Texas State about his collection, but when he never received a response, he decided to look elsewhere to donate.

Brooks then approached the university to donate his collection, which was accepted a few years ago and has been in the collections ever since. Morgan Gieringer, university library head of special collections and university alumna, said she wanted an opportunity for Brooks’ work to be seen by more people. Since Nelson’s 90th birthday is April 29, the day after the gallery opening reception, Gieringer said it seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase Brooks’ work.

A Willie Nelson quilt is displayed on May 2, 2023. Photo by Marco Barrera

“One of the challenges we have in archives is our collections are non-circulating,” Gieriner said. “They’re really only available to researchers who schedule a research appointment to come in and look at things. It doesn’t give the general public an opportunity to really see some of this amazing stuff, so exhibits like these are how we really interact with the community and share these historical treasures with the world.”

Gieringer and the university library’s special collections staff put together the exhibit in collaboration with the CoLab. The downstairs level of the building showcases posters and informational blurbs about both Brooks and Nelson and a staircase strung with cans of Lone Star Beer takes visitors to the upstairs loft, where the vintage t-shirts and a State Fair of Texas blue ribbon-winning t-shirt quilt made from some of the shirts are hung.

Reprints of some of Brooks’ original t-shirt designs and famous “Honk! If you love Willie” bumper stickers are being sold at the CoLab for the duration of the exhibit. This is the first time the CoLab has sold merchandise to go with exhibits, according to CoLab director Kristen Kendrick Bigley.

Also available at the reception were free zines printed by Triangle Nonprofit Publishing featuring Brooks’ work. Michael Bartels, editor-in-chief of Triangle Nonprofit Publishing and Roanoke resident, met with Brooks to discuss his work and create the zines.

“The idea is that we’re serving a need to make this stuff available for public interest,” Bartels said. “We’ve done charity publishing before to raise money for charities, but this was our first time working with [university libraries] and it was a ton of fun.” 

Bartels said his company wants to work with university libraries in the future to create more zines featuring archival items.

Brooks’ work will be on display at the CoLab until May 27. Exhibit-related events, including a tribute concert on May 5 and an artist talk on May 9 previously took place — the next event will be an author lecture on May 20.

An embroidered Willie Nelson jacket is displayed on May 2, 2023. Photo by Marco Barrera

Featured Image: A Willie Nelson quilt hangs on display at the Celebrating Willie Nelson: a UNT Special Collection Exhibit at the UNT Colab on May 2, 2023. Photo by Marco Barrera

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Kaitlynn Hutchins

Kaitlynn Hutchins

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