To the untrained eye, the Light bus looks as eclectic as the hippie culture that birthed it. But Dr. Robert “Bob” Hieronimus had a more specific intention nearly 50 years ago, when he painted an Eye of Providence, ankh, astrological icons and other spiritually significant symbols all over a Volkswagen Kombi van.
“My bus was about consciousness, about how to elevate and get those symbols,” Hieronimus said Monday morning. “Our whole philosophy is that we are one people on one planet. How corny that sounds, but how true it is. And some day, we’re going to get there. We’ve got to get there."
Hieronimus reiterated the importance of higher consciousness during a ceremony Monday morning at the American Visionary Art Museum. The artist and several contemporaries gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the vehicle’s journey from Baltimore to Bethel, New York, for the original Woodstock festival.
Attendees listened to Hieronimus and those friends, including several members of the band Light who rode that bus, which can no longer be located, a half-century ago, discuss the bus’ historical significance. While the original Kombi van couldn’t be located, a replica was on hand that Hieronimus and a team of artists restored and painted over the past decade. There also was a showing of part of the documentary “The Woodstock Bus: Finding the Light,” which details Hieronimus and Co.'s search for — and re-creation of — the original bus.
The bus’ story stretches back to 1968, when Hieronimus, an Owings Mills native, was a struggling artist in Baltimore’s counterculture scene. There, he met the members of a local rock band called Light, who took their band’s name from the Light Meditation that Hieronimus practiced with the band and others at the Savitria commune in Baltimore. Band member Bob Grimm ultimately commissioned Hieronimus to paint the bus.
“He and I drove to Vermont, where the bus was, and began painting in the woods, drove it to Baltimore and completed the paint job," Grimm said.
Grimm and Light eventually drove the bus to Woodstock, where a photographer captured two Light members sitting atop the vehicle. The Associated Press published the picture and turned the VW into an enduring symbol of the hippie movement.
Light member Trudy Morgal said she didn’t even know about that iconic photograph, let alone that she was in it, until two decades later. The image outlasted the band and bus, the latter of which was last captured on camera in 1972, and still features in popular depictions of that era.
John Wesley Chisholm, the documentarian behind “The Woodstock Bus,” eventually reached out to Hieronimus in the ’00s and assisted him as he tried to find the original that he lost after 1972. They couldn’t find the original, but obtained another Kombi that Hieronimus and collaborators resurrected for the present. They raised roughly $200,000, which went into its restoration at an Owings Mills barn.
Hieronomus recalled discussing the importance of symbols, including the Eye of Providence, with the likes of Woodstock performer Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970. He noted that the symbols, like the counterculture’s message of universal peace, remain extremely important.
“We’re heading in a direction in this world where we’re going to lose a lot of people, a lot of land," he said. To him, higher consciousness can bring people to a place where true peace is possible. Chisholm credits this thinking to Hieronimus’ generation.
“In that era, we got our hopes up,” Chisholm said. “From that point on, we expected more and better. We expected more peace, health and prosperity... I see America’s coming-of-age here, in the cultural power of getting your hopes up.
On Tuesday, the new Light bus is scheduled to depart for Bethel, which hosts its own anniversary festival — unrelated to the failed Woodstock 50 concert that organizers tried to resurrect at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion — on Aug. 18. Those who cannot see it in upstate New York this week can watch “The Woodstock Bus" on-demand via Curiosity Stream, which publicly premiered the film Monday.