Firefighting Master Painter Michael Griffin will Sizzle at Art World Expo 2014

Interview With…
Michael Griffin 
by Alyssa Laube 
About: Raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Michael Griffin is a painter, sculptor, and firefighter specializing mainly in scenic pieces. More can be learned about Michael at

Michael Griffin awaiting the returnMichael Griffin three fatesMichael Griffin silverpoint study2

Considering you have been an artist since your childhood, did creating art come naturally to you? How were you introduced?

In a way, I feel that art chose me… Both of my parents are artistic, so I guess some of it was passed along genetically. I did a lot of drawing and colouring as a kid. Playing with plasticine was also a big favourite of mine. My dad was a sculptor and I have memories of going out to his workshop and watching him carve stone. One memory that I believe helped build my interest in art is from kindergarten. One day, I did a drawing of a bird that the teacher liked so much she pinned it up on the “good work board” I was so proud and remember feeling the need to start immediately on my next masterpiece. I think that this moment and her encouragement definitely helped push me towards becoming an artist.

There seem to be religious undertones in your work. Is this true, and if so, how come?

Over the years, my beliefs and the way I look at life evolved – a lot of values that I once had are still important to me but in a different way. It’s gone from what’s written in a book to looking at the bigger picture; seeing it for what I believe it’s truly all about. It’s about faith, kindness, charity and courage, not a set of rules that one must follow. With some of my work, I hope to talk about those values. Not to preach, but to inspire.

Although you have been involved in art for most of your life, you’ve also had a history working as a Firefighter and Army medic. How has this changed you, as a person and an artist? 

One thing that working as a Firefighter does is help keep me grateful for my health, family, friends and the time that I have left here. My work with the army has been as a reservist and in a training capacity only, so I can only say what the training its self has done for me. I have had the honour to learn from some people who I look up to and admire very much – people who have incredible strength and sense of duty. Some of which who left the comfortable life we live here and risked everything to try and provide a better one for others. I find that the training is not just applicable to life in the army but to life in general. It teaches discipline, organization and leadership skills. The extended family that’s provided through the Fire Department as well as the army has given me a huge amount of support and inspiration. I’ve come to know some amazing people. In time, I would like to use art to explain what we do and what kind of people we have serving our country at home and overseas.

How would you describe your style? 

I am primarily a realist painter but I feel that my style is always changing. One of the things that I have noticed about my work is that every piece looks different to me. There’s always a realistic element to each piece but the way it’s presented makes it seem like each piece was painted by a different person.

Is there a reason why you find beauty in anatomy?

The human body amazes me – how everything is engineered and balanced out. I just love the lines, shapes and shadows as well as how it feels to capture a certain pose or feeling. I find that I get a huge amount of satisfaction when I complete a piece and can feel the gravity and balanced weight in the figure, for example. A piece of art can speak to a lot of people in a number of different ways. I feel also that with figurative art, you can create things that are quite open as far as meaning goes but also have the ability to tell a story exactly how you wish it to be told.

How have you developed as an artist over time?

I have quite a troubled past, so with me, most of my change has been as a person. It’s been more of a search to find myself and learn about what is important to me. I wish I could have documented the changes better through artwork. As far as changes to style and choice of medium is concerned though, I believe I’ve spent most of my time just learning things that I feel should have been taught in art school: developing technique, balancing painting, drawing and sculpture.

What was the last artwork that had a lasting effect on you? How so? 

I visited a gallery in Rome called Galleria Borghese a while ago. It sells only a limited number of tickets per day and spaces the visitors out into groups so that there are only a few people in the gallery at the time. In this gallery, there are several works by my favourite artists. I remember entering a room, turning a corner and actually jumping because there in front of me was a painting by Caravaggio and beside that one there was another one…and another… and another! I was moved to tears as I was able to get right up close to each piece and see the brush strokes and the technique of these artists whose work I love so much.

What is your favourite art gallery or event in Vancouver? How about outside of Vancouver or Canada?

It’s hard to say which gallery is my favourite here in Vancouver because there’s always something new and interesting going on around town. There are lots of neat ideas and things to see. As far as galleries in other places go, a few of my favourites are the Tate Gallery in London, as well as the portrait gallery there,The Uffizi Gallery as well as  the Galleria del’academia in Firenze. Last but certainly not least, the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

As a man with experience in both sculpting and drawing/painting, how are they different?

 I believe that they tie together quite closely for me, especially as an artist who works mainly in a realistic style. Working in sculpture gives more of an understanding of the volume of the subject you’re working with, a feeling for the form, and how deep to push the shadows. When drawing and painting, you’re not only painting the surface of your subject. You also represent what’s underneath. Similar to how a figurative artist is better off having a good knowledge of anatomy, it gives you a sense of where things are and why.

Where do you get inspiration for your art?

I get my inspiration from a lot of different places. As far as art that I find inspiring, I’d have to say that work done by pre-raphaelite painters is among my favourites.

In the past, you’ve said that you “try to tell stories of personal conviction and strength to do what one believes is right in the face of adversity.” Is this the main message of your work, or are there others?

I try to do work that talks about these things but not all of my work deals with it. My painting, “Awaiting the Return”, for instance, tells a story of Mary Magdalene, who according to the story was a strong and faithful follower. The story of Jean d’Arc, a fierce and courageous leader, is another one I’ve worked on, but recently I’ve been doing sketches and pieces on mental health. Specifically depression, as over the last few years I’ve found myself wrestling with that. It tells a story of a slightly different struggle – an internal one.

Have you ever gotten  “Artist’s Block” and if so, how did you deal with it?

Picasso said it well when he said, “Inspiration hits but it has to find you working.” Sometimes it’s difficult to come up with ideas if I think too much about one specific piece. I find that if I work on more than one piece at a time or doodle, sketch or even create some random unrelated stuff, ideas will come to me. Staying busy in my sketchbook is a great way to stay on track as well.

Has traveling impacted you as an artist? In which ways?

Absolutely! However, I think that traveling has changed who I am as a person more than it has had an effect on my art. It has been an invaluable experience for me, as it taught me a lot about myself and indirectly affected my art in that way. I learned way more about myself than I could have at home in my comfort zone. Traveling has also been an enriching experience as far as my art is concerned because I was able to visit masterpieces and study them up close, like getting lessons from giants like Sargent, Carravaggio, Michelangelo and Bernini.

How do you hope to experiment in the future?

I actually have a tough time talking about myself as an artist as I consider myself to be a student – always learning. I am quite drawn to traditional work and almost all of my art has roots in western traditions. I’ve been experimenting with mediums and processes used by old masters and will most likely continue to experiment and create work using these techniques.

What is your favorite (and least favorite) thing about being an artist?

I love the exchange of ideas and the seeing the creativity in how others share them. Personally, I love sitting down with a blank canvas and paint or a block of wood and watching something materialize as I enjoy my favourite coffee or music. Making a page look back at me is something I love. One aspect of being an artist that could be unpleasant is feeling pressure to create. I don’t think that making art should ever feel like a job. You should be able to create with a mind free of stress. This is a problem that I faced at one point, and a major part of the solution to that problem was becoming a firefighter. Besides it being a job that I love, it gives me enough time to create and the income to buy good materials and courses if I want them.

How would you define art? 

That’s a difficult thing to define in black and white because everyone seems to have a different idea of what art is. I’ve been told that art needs to say something. It can be a powerful tool of expression for important and profound things but I don’t think that’s necessary. I believe that art is created when someone genuinely combines their imagination, creative spirit and skill to produce something that they love and is meaningful. I look at it as a personal experience.



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