Over the years, I’ve been following the work of an artist friend, James Griffith, who has lately been making extraordinary paintings using the medium of tar–”primordial goo”– from La Brea Tar Pits. James has always demonstrated remarkable skill in creating exquisitely detailed images of flora and fauna, but with these works he lures viewers into a layered and sepia-colored world that reflects a vision of the origins of life and provokes fundamental questions about who we are and where we are going.  There is something both noble and poignant about them, wondrous and haunting. I don’t know that they are intentionally designed to call out to us across millennia and awaken impulses of concern and responsibility, but I certainly felt a renewed awareness as I stared into them of how deeply I cherish our planet, and a profound connection to the epic saga of life, and a hope, in these precarious days, that we are not obliviously veering towards the end of it. It has been said that art is not so much a way to change the world, but to change perceptions of the world. I believe the latter can lead to the first.

We met up with James and his wife Sue at the gallery in Santa Monica where his astonishing tar paintings were recently on view in an exhibit appropriately called Biophilia (love of life).  It was a privilege to walk around with the artist and have him point out elements I might have missed…the significance of a grid or shift in texture and color, a word on technique, perhaps a background anecdote.  And here’s a link to an in-depth article about the paintings, written by art critic Lita Barrie.

If you’re curious about Sue and James (and why I love them), a good place to start is this post from ten years ago about the Folly Bowl, an amphitheater they built in their backyard where friends can gather to hear music and poetry and express themselves in beautiful ways. An amphitheater? Why not? These two specialize in endeavors that are quirky, unlikely, and life-affirming. Sue is an artist too, but she has channeled her creativity, passion, and environmental conscience into a landscaping business that emphasizes native plants, water conservation, and the needs of the birds and the bees…in dazzlingly original designs. She is proud to say that the gardens she has created have enticed many clients to live more of their lives outdoors.

Afterwards, we walked around Santa Monica in the broad flat light at the cusp of dusk. James told me that his father had been a photographer, and one of his gigs was to take pictures of children with Santa Claus at the old Buffums’ department store in Long Beach. James was his assistant, gathering letters addressed to Santa, which he said felt somewhat fraudulent even then.

Eventually his father gave James his own camera, and he proceeded to take lots of pictures, then re-wound the film and took lots of pictures over it again. He did this repeatedly.

“I had watched my father deftly winding the film and taking pictures,” he said, “and that was the part that that interested me: not the end result, but the process.”

I thought this was kind of zen-like…noticing without necessarily capturing; intuitively accepting that all is in flux; attention to process more than product.  But I’m glad nonetheless that James eventually learned to stop time with an image.

Later, we had dinner in an unassuming little seafood restaurant with Christmas lights and fishnet decor and photos from the forties, and in the dim forgiving light, everything felt slower and more gentle than it is.

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