Story, picture, painting: an interview with artist Linda Griggs

25 November 2016 on ArtStorm, Blog   Tags:

Interview by Amy Neswald 

Kelly and I were introduced to artist Linda Griggs’ work through my good friend and art dealer, Paul Bridgewater. We were taken with Linda’s work at first glance, and swept away into her story as we delved into her collection. Most striking for us, as story-tellers, is Griggs' use of language within the body of her painted compositions. Words tell the story of the visual images and vice versa--words become part of her visual image’s story. A native of Oklahoma and a graduate of Hunter College’s Fine Arts program, Griggs brings to the canvas a deeply resonant sense of verbal story-telling traditions into her painted work.

not-yet-titled-tomura-detail-tomatoAs writers and story-tellers, we are so excited by your Narrative Still Life series. Tell us about how, where, when your words and images met? What force or desire drove you to include written narrative into your paintings?

I had been working from family photographs. I was looking at the lies that are inherent in them – the most obnoxious events appear to be cheerful in photos and how the cheerful photo can actually change a memory. I took my stack of photographs and a month's worth of supplies too MacDowell Colony for the Arts. I had it all planned out. But then everything changed.

When chatting with friends, I'd always told stories about my family. As I began telling them at McDowell and looking at the family pictures, the images began to arrange themselves in a narrative sequence. My roommate back in New York had asked me to draw story boards for him for film school, so that kind of narrative sequence was already in my head. To fill out the missing images I went to the library for additional pictures.

One of the great things about artists' colonies is that you get that amazing cross-pollination of musicians, writers, visual artists, etc. I got really lucky. I met Sheila Curran Bernhard, one of the top 10 documentary scriptwriters in America. She was there working on a play.

She looked at my work and reorganized the pictures to reveal the story's conflict and suspense. That became the Family Outing series, in which the stories spread over five or six panels. Because they were small scale they wound up looking like Dotty Attie's paintings. I loved her work so it was not a surprise that she was an influence. Back in New York, Dotty Attie was kind enough to look at my series and said it was very clear that our work was conceptually different and we'd taken different roads to get to small art and text.

Beyond the obvious, words and narrative image partner in your work, creating a haunting sum greater than its individual parts. Were you, as creator, surprised by the resonating depth of your haunting, memoir-like collaboration between story and image?

Okay, so first, THANK YOU! I'm delighted you see a synergy between the word and image.

I was really surprised by how many weird puns you could fit into a still life! It's like they were hanging around the canvas, waiting there in the air to manifest themselves.

And it was essential that the words and the image not repeat each other. If I'd done that it would have been an illustration. Don't get me wrong--I love great illustration--but it's intended to be understood quickly, devoured in a minute, and I needed something that unfolded over a longer period of time. I needed the representational image and text to be art. I'm not really breaking new ground with this. William Blake did beautiful text and image that was not a bit illustrative.

Can you tell use a little about how this series came to be?

When I was a kid I always wanted to know the story in the paintings. If it was a Bible story my mom would know it.  If it was Greek or Roman my dad might know it. The rest were mysteries to them. I always wanted to know the story.

When I was in grad school at Hunter my favorite class was Dutch Art in the Age of Rembrandt. Professor Lisa Vergera was excellent. I loved the way Dutch artists often kept a book of icons so they could code their genre and memento mori paintings. At that time viewers knew the meaning of the objects and could read the paintings. Now we have to do a bit of research to decode those paintings' symbology and iconography.

Because my stories are of everyday, unknown people, the text is essential even though the images are loaded.

Because they wind up being so American I think they feel connected to American still life painters like the Peales.

Your work reminds us of the world building we as writers do in fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Do you have a sense when you begin working on a painting of the world you want to invite your viewer/ audience into? Can you enlighten us a little to your process as story-teller?

I do have a simple idea about the world I'm creating. I'm trying to explain rural and middle America.

My dad was with the State Department and I got to go to Hong Kong for a month when I was in my mid-twenties.  When I came back to Oklahoma and South Carolina, I realized how weird and wonderful and bizarre American is.  That's what's great about travel, right?

So, the process is simple. I choose a story and tell it to a friend and see what kind of response I get. I make adjustments and then try it on another friend. Then I try to make it as short as possible.

Do you consider the text in your story, which is a visual means in its own right, an upheaval of expectation that the role of imagery plays in your paintings? Or an explanation?


By the way, having text in painting does seem to really bother some people. I've had people be very adamant that text goes in graphic novels and absolutely not in painting. Or they felt like they could figure out the story without the text and I was telling them what to think. I gave them "Communion Ruminations" which didn't have the text painted in yet. They couldn't figure out the story. Heck, they couldn't even figure out that the image was taken out of Caravaggio's "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas."



The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Griggs 2008

Cousin Sybil's playmates at Ruby Baptist had gotten caught in the supply closet eating the communion wafers and drinking the grape juice. Forty-five years later she was still aghast as she told Cousin Judy the story.
Unconsecrated host in a supply cabinet is not the body and blood of Christ. The playmates were guilty of theft and perhaps gluttony but...
no transubstantiation, no sacrilege.
Cousin Judy said, Well, I didn't dare tell her that at Ruby Presbyterian we just let the kids have the leftovers when communion's done.
We don't use any special wafers. We just use Bunny Bread. It's the best anyway, better than Wonder or Sunbeam.
You know, we got this new preacher last year and he wanted something more, you know, formal looking than cut-up squares of Bunny Bread. So he went to the Communion Committee and asked if they could come up with some kind of little loaf for him to bless and break.
So Viola Outen volunteered to make homemade bread and set aside some dough to make a little loaf. Well, after doing that for a year she got sick of it. Viola said, I'll tell you what. That is just too much work for one little loaf of bread. If you need something just to bless and break, I'll give YOU a Pop-tart.


In this series, did you start with an idea for the narrative first, or an idea for the image? Can you describe your creative process when incorporating story/ text visually into your work?

It starts with the story and then I have to find the image.

How to incorporate the text is the hardest part.  I wish I could figure out a formula for it but every image requires a different way of inserting the text.



A Lot to a Chicken, Griggs, 2001


They ask Old Man Campbell, "How are you feeling? How's your appetite?"

He said, "I'm feeling right poorly. I can't eat nothing. Nothing tastes good." His daughter-in-law took this as a slight to her nursing abilities and said, "Now Daddy you know that's just not true. You ate two fryers for lunch."

He snapped his head around and said, "Well what's two little chickens to a sick man."








What sorts of books do you read and Would you say that reading influences your art and your motivations to be creative?


Being from Oklahoma and spending summers in South Carolina I read a lot of Southern writers, as you'd suspect. But the last book I read was "The Road" by Cormack McCarthy.

It's funny about the way my Southern family and Western family tell stories. For the Southerners their humor is aural and they play with and punch/emphasize unexpected words.

The Oklahomans I know tell stories by describing pictures. They paint pictures in your head.





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