Journeys on Canvas at ArtCenter Manatee

Todays News

Pictured: James Griffin's "Magic Mountain"

Walking James Griffin’s latest exhibition at ArtCenter Manatee, The Road to Home, audiences may indeed feel as though they’ve been on the road themselves, exploring exotic and dramatic locales on an adventure the likes of which the pandemic has forestalled for most. Comprising a whopping 65 paintings, all made during the pandemic and all sporting Griffin’s characteristic bold color palette, the subject matter hops from Florida to Tennessee to Maine and back again, juxtaposing Sarasota scenes with dramatic looming mountains and historic river rapids. But under all that geography, The Road to Home is revealed to be something much more personal.

When the pandemic began, Griffin rarely left his neighborhood. But he didn’t need to. With a painting studio at home and inspiration right outside his window (“I just have to look out at my garden and it’s like a tropical jungle.”), the artist found solace “in a strange, peculiar way” by embracing the artist-as-recluse and focusing on working every day in this quieter world. And these soaring palms and glowing orange sunbeams find their place on the walls of Griffin’s exhibition at ArtCenter Manatee, but a neighborhood stroll taken twice daily still hardly amounts to a “road to home.”

Enter grandchildren, a road trip and a house in the mountains of Tennessee.

“You don’t walk on the mountains,” Griffin says today. “You walk into the mountains.” And into another world, quiet and secret, sacred under the canopy where the air is still and everything smells a little different. Thus a quick trip to Tennessee to visit the grandchildren turned into the spontaneous purchase of a new house and the beginning of a longer journey. “It was almost a spiritual change in me,” the artist says, and the impact is reflected on many of the canvases hanging in ArtCenter Manatee, where tropical foliage gives way to portraits of those great forested peaks that loom and beckon like mysteries.

One of the largest paintings, Magic Mountain, was a long road on its own, taking nearly six months to complete. It began as something Odyssey-inspired, an experiment in storytelling that took a turn for the illustrative—at which point Griffin hit the brakes. “I’ve done enough illustration,” he says. “So I attacked it with more paint.” Half a year later, working in fits and starts, the magic mountain began to take shape, thrust to the foreground by the tectonic workings of the artist’s creation. There is no real magic mountain, Griffin says, except on the canvas. “The culmination of all those mountains in my subconscious,” he says.

Of all the works on display in The Road to Home, only one is not for sale. There is no price to match what this painting means to Griffin. Entitled Sycamore Shoals, it’s a water scene, a wide capture of the rocky rapids where, centuries ago, native peoples would cross the river. And it was painted entirely with one eye.

By the time Griffin reached Tennessee, a growing trouble with his right eye had progressed to the point that he could no longer see out of it at all. Worried but not willing to quit, Griffin took his paints and went to the shoals to see if he could capture the feeling of the water, the emotion of the scene, if not the exact details of every drop. “I found I could still do it,” he says. “I became the water.” And Sycamore Shoals became more than just another painting. 

“It symbolizes that moment when I was painting from my heart,” Griffin says.

Currently on display at ArtCenter Manatee, The Road to Home runs through December 28.

Note: The artist has since recovered vision in his eye.

Pictured: James Griffin's "Magic Mountain"

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