Joel Griffith boils down the experience of painting landscapes at night in his sleepy hometown of Tivoli to two words: "Skunks and drunks." After dark, the only passers-by are usually creatures of the night: inebriated college students and four-legged nocturnal mammals. In order to see while painting at night, Griffith rigged up an easel with two headlights from a Mercury Cougar clipped to the car battery. He could then paint for four hours at a stretch, until the battery gave out.
Griffith began honing his skills as a realist in the MFA program at Bard College in the late `90s. Previously, Griffith had painted in a more comic style, a Muppets-meets-R. Crumb mashup. (Two pieces in this vein were featured on the cover of Chronogram in July and September of 1998.) At Bard, however, his instructors turned him away from his previous work. "They were like, 'Okay kid, you got to stop doing cartoons,'" Griffith says.
For over a decade, Griffith has been documenting local scenes on canvas in all seasons, day and night. While his paintings represent a latter-day Hudson River School attempt at expressing the essence of this region, Griffith is as impelled by technique as place. "The act of painting and paint handling is where my joy really is," he says.
A film by Stephen Blauweiss, produced by ArtistFilmDocs
Although Griffith still accepts landscape commissions, he's frank about his desire to move on from his landscape-based work, as he's taken it as far as it can go from a technical point of view. "I'm bored doing it," says Griffith. "After you've mastered a style, eventually your artistic conscience says, 'Let's jump ship!'" Recently, the artist started making portraits of people he knows in the village, inspired by the expressionistic work of Alice Neel.
This turn from landscape to portraiture is a change of style for Griffith, but not of content. Since his days as a comic book artist, through his landscape years, and now his portraiture, Griffith has been crafting a larger narrative about Tivoli, its people and places. "My paintings have always been acts of homage to that which matters to me," he says. "Obviously, that changes through the stages of one's life, but the desire to record, to hold experience still and appreciate it, to commune with it, is constant." It's no surprise that Griffith was named "painter laureate" of Tivoli in 2004 by current Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who was then mayor of Tivoli.
Three years ago, Griffith himself became involved in local politics, becoming a village trustee. He sees parallels between art and municipal administration. "In both cases," he says, "you use your creativity to solve problems and direct people's attention to what's important." Griffith was recently appointed deputy mayor, and he's been spending a lot of time working on small-town problems like potholes and street lights. "Painting is an indirect way to make the world better," he says. "This is more direct."
North Road, along with two other nightscapes by Joel Griffth, are currently on display through October at Bread & Bottle in Red Hook. Three daytime landscapes by Griffith will be included in the show "Eastern Standard: Indirect Lines to the Hudson River School," which runs July 20 through September 30 in storefronts along Main Street in Catskill.