Meet an Artist Monday is an ongoing series of mini Q&As with some of L.A.’s most active and eclectic contemporary artists, introducing themselves to you in their own words. For this edition, we meet narrative materialist painter James Griffith, whose darkly poetic works are made with tar rather than paint, and often depict the very flora and fauna most threatened by climate change, which is exacerbated by our use of fossil fuels.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
JAMES GRIFFITH: My earliest memories are of growing up under my mother's easel. She was a fashion illustrator. As a working mother, she made me a deal: I could have all the drawing supplies I could use if I would be quiet and let her do her job making newspaper ads. It worked. I was quiet and always assumed I was an artist from the start. My father, a professional photographer, reinforced this notion by giving me a camera and encouraging me to make double exposures.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
For me, a painting starts with a real material and ends with an emotion. The complexity and diversity of my work is generated from this one simple idea. From the material, the physical, tangible stuff you can touch, comes the experience of emotion. The material I use as a substitute for paint is tar from the La Brea Tar Pits. I love that my art supplies come from a big hole in the ground. This particular hole provides me with a dark, sticky, smelly, primordial brew, which I transform with my own chemical alchemy so that it will dry like paint. For the last decade I have painted images of animals that suggest their emotional experience by describing the animal's physical presence. They offer a contemplative moment to be with another species, to imaginatively project ourselves into another form of life, to wonder what they feel and know about our shared world. (Yes, that is the short answer!)
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
If I were no longer able to paint, I would continue to find ways of celebrating and preserving the diversity of life our physical planet has produced. I am constantly trying to find ways of spending more time with animals.
Did you go to art school? Why/why not?
I value the years I studied at Art Center in Pasadena for many reasons. It was an intense, demanding education. It was there that I also met Sue Dadd, my wife for 30 years. I enjoyed teaching drawing there after I graduated. The most valuable lesson from the school was learning how to learn. That means since leaving school my self-education has only intensified. Life without reading is no life at all.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I love Southern California for its diversity of landscape, its diversity of people and its wildlife. It is full of cultural microclimates as well as ecological microclimates.
When was your first show?
I had my first show in 1981 at Dan Saxon Gallery on Melrose. My studio was downtown next to the First Street Bridge. Downtown was a lot quieter then. Sue and I have gradually moved to the edge of Los Angeles, up to Altadena, where we are next door to the San Gabriel Mountains.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
I have just installed a solo show at the Santa Monica College Pete and Susan Barrett Art Gallery called "Relative." It’s up through Dec. 8, with a gallery talk on Saturday, Dec. 1, at 3 p.m.
What artist, living or dead, would you most like to show with?
I love work from any time in history that is graphic and favors black, white and sepia. I would love to show my own work alongside the earliest cave paintings of animals. I would also love to share wall space with Victor Hugo and Goya or any of the great zen tsumi artists.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
My favorite musician to listen to while I paint is Nik Bartsch. He combines my interest in jazz, the audio patterns of Philip Glass, and experimental live performance. I would love to see him perform live!
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