Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff at Frazier History Museum

Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff
Curated by Daniel Joseph Watkins
April 30 – September 2, 2019.

Hunter S. Thompson came home from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago disgusted yet motivated by what he’d seen: protests violently suppressed, riots, corrupt politicians, and abusive cops. Back in Aspen, he found more of the same. The local police and sheriff’s departments were targeting hippies, charging them with absurd crimes, harassing them on the streets, and trying to push them out of town. He knew something had to be done and he realized it had to be done by people like himself. The hippies, intellectuals, and freaks had remained silent long enough. The time had come to organize and seize political power.

Freak Power tells the story of Hunter’s plan to become Sheriff, take control of Aspen, and transform it from a conservative mining town into a mecca for artists, rebels, and activists. Through original print material from the campaign, photographs, and political art, Freak Power chronicles a little-known period in Hunter S. Thompson’s life, a period when he wrote prolifically about politics, the environment, drugs, and American values. As the conservatives and freaks battled it out, the campaign became fraught with violence, accusations, and moments of absurdity that bordered on fiction. As weird a tale as Thompson ever wrote, his own forays into politics may have been his wittiest and most thought-provoking escapade of all.” —      Excerpted from the jacket of Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff (2015) by Daniel Joseph Watkins, curator of the Freak Power exhibition. Book available for purchase in the Frazier’s Museum Store.


Featuring 125 limited edition silkscreen prints, offset lithographs, mimeographs, magazine covers and excerpts, reproductions of historical newspaper articles, and documentary photographs; a 30-minute BBC documentary on the campaign titled High Noon and additional rare historical footage of debates, campaign speeches, and election night coverage; a faithful recreation of Hunter’s Owl Farm kitchen, countertops and all; and actual voter registration forms, Freak Power presents a visual history of the growing political involvement of hippies and artists in the Freak Power movement.

Replica of Hunter’s kitchen. Installation by Frazier Museum.

Replica of Hunter’s kitchen. Installation by Frazier Museum.

A special section dedicated to Thompson’s hometown roots includes a photograph of his childhood home at 2437 Ransdell Avenue and a copy of a 1955 issue of Spectator, a publication put out by the literary club of which Hunter was an Associate Editor and Censor. Also featured are artifacts related to the “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” the groundbreaking article Hunter wrote about his chaotic experience at the 1970 Kentucky Derby with artist Ralph Steadman. On display are Steadman’s illustrations for the article, as well as a 30th Anniversary Special Print with an accompanying broadside from 2000 that have been signed and splattered by Steadman.

Note: the Freak Power exhibition is curated by Daniel Joseph Watkins and all works included in the exhibition belong to the Freak Power Art Collection unless stated otherwise.

Hunter S. Thompson (1937 – 2005) was a journalist, writer, and counterculture icon of the 1960s and ‘70s. He is best known for devising the Gonzo narrative style, a type of journalism that bucks tradition by employing a radical, subjective voice, reporting events in which the author is both an active and influential participant. Thompson wrote several books in this style, including Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), as well as articles for Rolling Stone, TIME, ESPN, and other publications.

Hunter was born and raised in Louisville where he grew up in the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood. His mother was the head librarian at the downtown branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. Hunter attended Bloom Elementary and Male High School and he was a member of the prestigious Athenaeum Literary Club. But in 1955, just four weeks shy of his high school graduation, he was arrested for participating in an armed robbery — he had allegedly waited in a car while two of his friends held up a man parked near Hogan’s Fountain in Cherokee Park — and spent the next 31 days in jail, missing his final exams and consequently not graduating. A week after his release, he joined the Air Force and left town for good.

Although Hunter would return to Louisville on a number of occasions to visit his family, his most notable visit came in 1970 when he returned on assignment to write about the Kentucky Derby for the popular magazine Scanlan’s Monthly. Thompson was teamed with British artist Ralph Steadman to illustrate the article and the two would become lifelong friends and collaborators. Their colorful and scandalous exposé titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” became the first published example of Gonzo journalism.

In the late 1960s Hunter, his wife, and their young son Juan moved to Woody Creek, Colorado, a hamlet outside of Aspen, and bought a 40-acre property that they named Owl Farm. Hunter would spend the rest of his life at Owl Farm, mostly secluded in “The War Room,” his cluttered basement office, where he would spend up to 16 hours a day hammering out articles and books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In later years he took to writing in the similarly messy upstairs kitchen, the room where on February 20, 2005 he committed suicide with a handgun.


o   Politics, Prophecies, and Gonzo: What Louisvillian Hunter S. Thompson Got Right and Wrong.
A panel discussion. Tuesday, June 11, 6 – 7 pm. The Brown-Forman Theatre, Frazier Museum. MORE INFO HERE

o   Hunter S. Thompson Birthday Party. A celebration hosted by the Frazier in partnership with The Library Foundation.
Thursday, July 18, 6-8pm. Great Hall, Frazier Museum. MORE INFO HERE

Hot news on First Friday: