A vision of Dylan’s Desolation

  • Dylan inspired: Graham Foster translated the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row, into visual art (Photograph supplied)

    Dylan inspired: Graham Foster translated the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row, into visual art (Photograph supplied)

  • Bermudian artist: Graham Foster (File photograph)

    Bermudian artist: Graham Foster (File photograph)

  • Academic setting: Graham Foster’s cover painting (Photograph supplied)

    Academic setting: Graham Foster’s cover painting (Photograph supplied)


It was the misfortune of three black men travelling through Minnesota with a circus to be accused of raping a white woman in 1920.

They were taken from custody and hanged, the photos of their lynching sold as postcards.

Desolation Row, the song Bob Dylan wrote 45 years later, is supposedly about it.

In 2018, a fan of the singer’s asked Graham Foster to create a visual for the tune; the painting was chosen for the cover of this month’s issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

“Upon reading the lyrics for the first time, being so complex and surreal, I wasn’t sure I could do it,” said Mr Foster.

He knew many of Dylan’s classics, but wasn’t familiar with Desolation Row, from the classic Highway 61 Revisited, said to be among the songwriter’s greatest.

“It was only after many rereadings and lots of preparatory sketches that a final rough of the whole painting began to emerge. I’d tick off a line from a stanza as each image was created and added.”

Having never approached his art in that way before made his task more difficult, although the experience has opened him up to doing it again.

“There are so many classic songs out there that might translate well into paintings.

“The closest thing I’d done before this was the Brian Burland mural at the Bermuda College, which is a painting depicting scenes from five of his books.

“[With this, the challenge was] not only deciphering all the meanings, but creating an environment that was visually readable and that allowed a believable interaction of all the characters and events.

“The opening verse highlights a racially charged triple street lynching which took place a century ago in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota.

“The song then introduces a plethora of motley characters pulled from history, fiction and the Bible as they weave their way through a fevered, hard-knock urban chaos, rife with accompanying tribalism, hysteria, paranoia and dehumanisation. A descent into madness and the darkest excesses of the human psyche seems inevitable.”

The painting includes every single line from each verse of the song. Mr Foster also put in “things relevant to Bob Dylan’s life”: a Triumph motorcycle that he crashed, one of his dogs stealing a piece of pizza, posters from acts he admired; one of his nicknames, Elston Gunnn, is carved into woodwork.

The completed work, measures around 5ft by 3ft and took the artist “about four months flat out”, to finish.

“This project would have been far more difficult without the internet and Google images,” he said.

“Being able to print out source material at home, such as the Titanic, seedy 42nd Street bars, Triumph motorcycles etc, makes things way easier.

“The most difficult part was using my imagination to place characters and events from the lyrics into a believable, readable environment.”

Once done, Mr Foster presented it to his client, who “loved” it.

And then a local psychiatrist he knew suggested he submit it to the British Journal of Psychiatry, always on the lookout for artwork.

“A few months later they e-mailed, saying they’d chosen the Desolation Row painting for the cover,” the artist said.

Most interesting was the message he got from a subscriber almost as soon as the February issue was published.

“I received an e-mail from a psychiatrist wondering whether I was suffering from any underlying psychiatric issues and, if so, would I like to be featured in his upcoming book, Art of the Insane. Unfortunately I had to decline, telling him I was actually disturbingly sane!”

Mr Foster then took it upon himself to send a giclee print of the painting to 78-year-old Dylan, a singer-songwriter, author and visual artist for more than 50 years.

“Bob Dylan is a hard guy to contact but, thanks to some music business contacts, I may get the print to him via Ronnie Wood of the Stones,” he said.

“There are only a couple of paintings I could find on the internet based on this song ,so I thought he might like it. Hopefully he got a kick out of it!”

Look for Graham Foster Art on Instagram and Facebook. For more information: grahamfoster.com <’i>

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Published Feb 14, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 14, 2020 at 12:30 am)

A vision of Dylan’s Desolation

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