Capturing the power and grace of animals in motion
By Richard Gaw
(Originally published in the Spring 2012 edition)
For artist John Griffith, all the hours spent working on a sculpture come down to a magical moment.
"The piece has to capture a frozen moment," Grifith said. "Sometimes you're working along and you do something and it's like, 'Whoa, he's breathing.'"
During an interview at his home in Landenberg last month, Griffith was surrounded by a few of his own bronze sculptures, as well as an eclectic collection of other art and antiques. Each window overlooked rolling pastures where horses stood in the distance.
Griffith spent 32 years as an art teacher at Kennett High School, but as a young child growing up in Hockessin, he was always drawn to the free-form creativity of clay. His father was an engineer and his mother taught first grade. Griffith studied art at the University of Delaware and graduated with a degree in art education. All the time, he pursued his own work – painting occasionally, but mostly working in sculpture. "I just felt I was more successful with sculpture," he said. "I think more in 3D."
Griffith's passion for art was supported early on by famed Delaware sculptor Charles Parks. "My dad worked with a guy who knew Charles Parks," Griffith said. "He worked it out so I could go out and meet Charles and see his studio."
Parks, who was working on his monumental Madonna sculpture at the time, would offer Griffith tips and advice. Griffith formally studied with Ardmore-based artist Kathleen Friedenberg, a renowned sculptor who had been a veterinarian, so her knowledge of anatomy is clinical in its detail. "She offered a class one time at New Bolton Center," Griffith said. "This was 10 years ago, maybe. It was such a great class. People came from Wyoming, all over. She was a good help many times to me, with a good eye."
Griffith has always been drawn to animals for inspiration. "I always liked horses," he said. 'I got my start riding horses at the Flower Market when I was a year old. My mom plunked me on a pony. I never had horses until I got married and we moved to Pennsylvania."
Raising a family, Griffith bought ponies for his four children, and being part of the equestrian community drew him into the world of foxhunting, a sport he still enjoys. Today, he has three horses which are stabled in a small barn just down a gentle slope from his home. "My wife and I have had as many as eight," he said. "We have three right now and it's actually very doable."
The walls of his home are packed with photos taken at area equestrian events, and a hall rack is full of bridles and tack. Constant exposure to the animals has paid off with a keen understanding of their form as well as their moods – something Griffith tries to capture in his work.
"You have to be true to muscles and ankles, that kind of stuff, and I have books on anatomy," he said. "First, I decide what I want the pose to be. Then I go and try to catch the horse in that pose. Sometimes I look in magazines to get a pose. I also take photos."
For his first bronze, "Turned Out," Griffith was inspired by a fleeting moment.
"It shows when you take the halter off a horse and they get to run in the pasture, the first thing they do is sort of freeze up and check out who's in the pasture," he said. "They're very alert, the ears are up. My most recent one, 'End of a Good Day,' it's after foxhunting, when you go back to your trailers. Time and time again, my horse will lean up and smell the trailer to make sure that it's his. His back foot's off the ground, his ears are very intent," Griffith. said. The bronze shows the horse in mid-stride, his nose held out expectantly.
When he's working, Griffith said, "I get so far, then I'll take my little stand and go to the barn to really make sure that I'm not making it up, that I'm not assuming something."
By shoeing his own horses over the years, "I'm underneath the horse, I'm bent all the way over, so I can see how the legs move up," he said. "And by clipping their coat, you see every little nook and cranny. That's another way to make yourself understand the horse thoroughly."
Griffith's tabletop-scaled bronzes are 15 to 18 inches high. They are limited editions and are cast as they are sold. He has produced eight so far. The process from inspiration to finished bronze is a long one, involving several other artists along the way.
To begin, Griffith constructs an aluminum wire armature that is held to a base with a common plumbing pipe. Clay is added, layer by layer, shaped and reworked, until Griffith is satisfied with the result. He then takes the oil-based clay piece to Laran Bronze in Chester, Pa., a company that produces high-end works for prestigious clients.
"They've done a piece for the National Cathedral in Washington, they just did the World War II Memorial in Washington," Griffith said, smiling. "I'm the little guy. They let me in on occasion."
The casting process takes at least six artisans and perhaps a dozen steps of molding and finishing before the piece is complete. The bodies are hollow but the legs are usually solid. Details such as ears, tails or bridles are sometimes added to the main body of the piece before Griffith comes in to do final work and add the patina. Before the rich brown patina is applied, the sculptures are a dull gold color, Griffith said.
He sells several sculptures each year, largely by word of mouth, to people he meets through foxhunting. He often works at his dining room table, with each new clay sculpture created on a pedestal where he can see all sides of it. His current project is a spectacular combination of figures – a horse jumping while a fox lies hidden beneath the coop. "It has lots to go," Griffith said. "It will also get a rider. The idea is to that sometimes when you're on a chase and you come to a jump, it all gets bottlenecked. I'm trying to get more of the activity, that split second. I want people to say, 'Oh, I can picture being there.'"
Griffith recently exhibited one of his bronzes at the Oxford Arts Alliance, and the Station Gallery in Greenville, Del., has several of his pieces on display. Three of his bronzes have been used as trophies at regional races.
Griffith's four children grew up surrounded by art, but he said he didn't pressure them. His oldest daughter is a doctor, he said proudly.
"All of them took art in school and did above average in their classes," he said. "Even with the kids I taught in school, I never pushed them more than saying, 'This is fun.' Because if they were going to do it, you couldn't stop them anyway. I didn't want to lead them down a trail that wasn't their trail.
"But now I'm working on my grandson," Griffith said with a smile. "I have a little book and I'm saving all his drawings."
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.