The UNT CoLab celebrates Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday with an exciting new art exhibit

“Celebrating Willie Nelson: A UNT Special Collections Exhibit” opens at the UNT CoLab on April 28.

Celebrating Willie Nelson at UNT CoLab
Steve Brooks’ artwork for Willie Nelson will take center stage at the UNT CoLab – Pictures courtesy of the UNT CoLab

The UNT CoLab is preparing to celebrate two legendary careers, and one very important birthday, in style with its newest exhibition opening on April 28. “Celebrating Willie Nelson: A UNT Special Collections Exhibit” features a collection of artistic works from illustrator and graphic designer Steve Brooks, who worked with the country music icon in the 70s and 80s.

An accomplished artist, Brooks designed tour posters and promo materials for some of the biggest musical acts of those eras, like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Elton John and many more. Some of his most prolific work, however, came during his time with Nelson, who will be celebrating his 90th birthday on April 29.

Just the day before, on April 28, the UNT CoLab will be opening its new exhibition showcasing a number of artistic works spanning Brooks’ time with Nelson, such as gig posters, concert t-shirts, guitar picks and more.

Celebrating Willie Nelson at UNT CoLab
Steve Brooks’ portrait of Willie Nelson for a tour poster

“Celebrating Willie Nelson” is a partnership between UNT Special Collections, which maintains Brooks’ artwork, and the CoLab, which will host the exhibition and different special events related to it.

“We reconnected in the fall. We’d hosted a Special Collections exhibit about a year and a half prior,” UNT CoLab Director Kristen Kendrick Bigley said, referring to a 2021 photography exhibition spotlighting a special local project from Byrd Williams IV. “That was one of the first times we’ve worked with Special Collections on a prior exhibition, and we knew we wanted to do something again.”

Kenrick Bigley explained that she reached out to the UNT Special Collections team to see if they had any ideas for a new exhibit. The team responded with the proposal to create a gallery around Brooks’ work in honor of Nelson’s upcoming milestone birthday.

“We tried to find stuff that would kind of encapsulate the vision that Steve Brooks had…of the whimsical and fun persona that Willie kind of has,” UNT Special Collections Processing Archivist Haley McGlynn said. “I know he’s an outlaw country guy, but he is also just fun and laid back. And I think that Steve Brooks was able to illustrate that really well in his work for Willie.”

Celebrating Willie Nelson at UNT CoLab
One of the fun and whimsical graphics created by Steve Brooks for Willie Nelson

The exhibition contains pieces that show Brooks’ full creative process on works for Nelson, complete with various different drafting steps prior to the production of a completed work.

“A lot of it is original drawings or original color separations for creating screens for screen printing. (Brooks) saved all that stuff and it’s in its original raw form,” fellow UNT Special Collections Processing Archivist Elizabeth “eMott” Mott said, describing how the team preserved drafting pieces in their original conditions and honed the focus of the exhibition on certain works in particular. “We wanted to show as many t-shirts as possible because Steve had the nickname of ‘the Texas t-shirt czar’, which I think is kind of cool. So, we wanted to feature the t-shirts and show as many of those as possible.”

In total, more than 70 different pieces will be on display at “Celebrating Willie Nelson.” The UNT CoLab will host the exhibition’s grand opening from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on April 28 with Steve Brooks in attendance. Following the opening, the exhibition will run through May 27 with a variety of special events planned during that time.

“We are having a tribute concert with three local musicians (Will Kapinos, Holly Manning and Jesse Thompson), and they’ll be playing a five-song set each between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m.,” Kendrick Bigley said. “That’s a free concert for folks to attend. It’s a come-and-go type of event, so they can just kind of come in, enjoy a few songs and see the exhibition.”

Kendrick Bigley added that there will also be an artist talk with Brooks on May 9 at 3:00 p.m. and a lecture with Dave Dalton Thomas, author of an upcoming book on Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July Picnic concert, at 11:30 a.m. on May 20.

The exhibition and accompanying events appear poised to be fun and engaging ways to celebrate a Texas icon and music legend through exceptional art.

Follow the UNT CoLab Facebook page for more information about “Celebrating Willie Nelson: A UNT Special Collections Exhibit.” Also, check out the Collin-Denton Spotlighter’s recent feature on the UNT CoLab here.


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