Jon Griffin – Artist of Notes
Remember your first gig? Remember maybe drawing up a poster, applying the original “cut and paste”, (scissors and tape-really!) or Photo-Shopping yourself into some dramatic back drop to advertise your gig? Remember how you felt when you arrived that night and saw your name standing out from all of that hype and color? Then, maybe even on the same night, same gig, you see the work of a real pro on the headliner’s poster and you think, wow, someday… Still, you were proud. You had arrived. You deserved that billing, that published attention.
I still have my first poster, handmade, back in the days of Kinko’s only.
I drew it up with pen and ink, taped a photo onto it and made about fifty copies, leaving the gig info area blank to be filled in as needed.
Jon Griffin is a musician from Decatur Il. He performs in bands and solo. He’s dabbled in writing. Jon plays guitar and most notably, washboard. His washboard playing has given him the opportunity to jam with several bands on stage at festivals around the region from Chicago to Indianapolis.
Jon Griffin is an artist. He used to work in branding. His job was to make the brand visible, like a household name. Jon no longer works for the man. Jon makes his living painting and drawing mostly music related poster art, billboards, album covers, festival programs, the list goes on. Jon Griffin put the “free” in freelance, meaning Jon Griffin is a free spirit. He has the uncanny ability to freely express what his mind sees, directly to his hands to create brush strokes that reveal what this mind sees. Jon Griffin is an American Treasure.
I know Jon Griffin. I met him four years ago at the John Hartford Memorial Festival, Bean Blossom, IN. We became part of the same planning committee for the festival, so I met him in cyberspace before actually meeting him in person. The visionary creator of this festival, John Hotze (see Meet John Hotze-The Man Behind the John Hartford Memorial Festival-nodepression blogs by Ernie Hill), had this to say about Jon Griffin:“I admired his ability to create right away. It’s just not Jon Griffin’s ability and spontaneous imagination that reaches out and grabs me, it’s his way with color and character. Jon just knows how to be right for the occasion.”
Jon’s gift and approach to art borders on whimsy and deep thought. You see, Jon Griffin makes the subjects of his craft happy, whether it’s a caricature of a musician, or a whole festival drawing. He makes trees and birds and dogs and such, instruments, mountains, the sky, clouds, all happy. I’m not just talking about smiles on characters. I’m talking about color, lines, blending, mood…happy. This is a very good thing because Jon Griffin is a musician and he draws mostly about musicians and musical activities. When you see a poster or add by Jon, you look. You go back and you look some more and each time you see a little more. Again, this is a very good thing because if you are the subject of one of Jon’s projects, you are going to be seen, read, and studied, over and over.
This is not an ad for Jon Griffin art, this is about Jon, who he is and what he does. Jon Griffin is an American Treasure. I’ve only been around him a few times in person, not near enough. Jon is a peaceful, soft spoken, soft featured, life toughened, kindred soul. I’ve had the good fortune to work closely with Jon on a pretty tough project, a souvenir program for the 4th John Hartford Memorial Festival, the first of it’s kind. I did the easy work, wrote copy, bios, sold ads. Jon designed and built the program. He added the personality.
Jon grew up looking at album art and posters for shows and now draws for music and hopes to continue a long legacy of amazing poster creators that came before. He wants the experience to have an image that one remembers as well as the show itself. A visual representation of the happening. He hopes to eventually help everyone who asks for his services. “Oh, and save the whales!” He says.
Jon Griffin is a busy man. I felt pretty lucky to catch him in a series of interviews to give you a sense of who this guy is. Meet this “artist of notes”, this musician, meet Jon Griffin.
Ernie- Please tell me about your musical background.
Jon- My dad had a great record collection of 70’s rock and I loved the radio as a child. Dr. Demento showed me that there was another, stranger side to music and I then went down the punk alleyways for a few years and ended up at a Grateful Dead show. I have always had an open mind about music. I lived in various rental houses with friends that were always playing music. I was the roadie for years. Then we all went separate ways and I was left in a house without music so I bought a guitar and learned a few chords. Still just playing with a guitar, I don’t actually play a guitar. Always learning.
E- Is art and music in your family?
Jon- My grandma still sings in church and I have an aunt that recorded an
album. I played violin in school until the school stopped funding my fiddle and I had to return it to them.
E- Do you have gifted siblings?
Jon- I have two brothers that both play the guitar. My sister also sings.
E- What instruments do you play?
Jon- Guitar, Harmonica, misc. percussion, and washboard.
E- You’ve done some song writing.
Jon- I try to write but I usually write lyrics and not whole songs.
E- Do you currently belong to a band?
Jon- Two at the moment, a Blues Rock Americana band called Alligator Wine; a bunch of old friends playing our favorite songs and hanging out together and then The Bent Pluckin’ String Band, which is Old Timey Americana music; another group of good old friends that get together and play when the Alligator Boys can’t make it out.
E- Do you perform solo?
Jon- I only perform solo when I am alone. I have the urge to play more but still to quote the Band, “Standing up there to give it all his might”. I get stage fright. I will play songs if there is no one else to play. I can fill a set or two.
E- Do you book gigs?
Jon- Not so much. I like to fill spaces and play for fun. My friends all know that they can
come around when we play and listen and we will play a few shows a year but our local
music scene is small and has a short attention span.
E- Who are some of your musical milestones?
Jon- So many to name. Danny Barnes, The Grateful Dead, The Descendants, The BeastieBoys, The Butthole Surfers, Townes Van Zant, Gram Parsons, Jim Croce, James Taylor, Jane’s Addiction, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, John Hartford!, and so many more.
Jon is an humble musician with a quick, quirky sense of humor, but this story really, is about the artist. Jon is gifted in that he could have chosen a number of mediums to paint and draw his art. He chose to showcase the music in his heart, the music in his surroundings and the musicians and instruments, and cartoon-like festival landscapes that make it all happen. If you’re reading this, you probably are a musician. You can certainly appreciate the rest of this interview. I always wonder what an artist sees. Do they think, feel and see the world like the rest of us do? Read on.
E- How did you begin your artist journey? Did you start as a child doodler?
Jon- When I was young my mom did a lot of art. She used to go out to the bridges in our
town and set up on the side of the road like a modern day Van Gogh. She would paint an “x” on the bridge guard-rail to save her perspective then return to the spot in the weeks to come and finish her pen and ink landscape drawings. One time she was mad because the city came out and removed her “x” and she was unable to finish.
She set me up with paper and pencil, watercolors, colored pencils and markers at the table to keep me occupied. I should have to say that I have been drawing since I could hold a pencil.
E- Were you encouraged as a child?
Jon- In every way although I was never pushed. Just allowed to create and never told it was wrong or a dead end hobby. There were always art supplies available. There was a
drawer in my grandmother’s house which was dedicated to art supplies. Pen and paper,
watercolors, and coloring books. And not the bottom drawer either. Top drawer. Grandma loved Bob Ross and we watched it religiously together. I didn’t really play sports so I spent a lot of time at those kitchen tables doodling. That was my favorite activity.
E-Who were some of your earliest influences?
Jon- Other than family, Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss followed in a close third by Pablo
Picasso. and I would also have to say Tex Avery, Mel Blanc and crew. They were my
favorite artists as a child, later I discovered the works of Stanley Mouse, Anton Kelly and
Rick Griffin(no relation) and I saw an outlet for my art that I appreciated. Music. I also,
about the same time, saw some of Robert Crumb’s work and the Fabulous Furry Freak
Brothers, probably way too young but it wasn’t the sex or drug content that grabbed me
as much as the wild styles of drawing. Something not Comic Book but still comic book. I
was never a fan of Marvel type artwork. I could never work in another’s style. I quickly
became frustrated when I tried to draw in that rigid form.
E-You, obviously, are “out of the box” with your medium. Any comments on this?
Jon- When I was young I had a box of crayons, I never much liked them, maybe that is why?
E-Tell me a little about your upbringing.
Jon- I grew up in a town in the middle of rural Illinois, an urban farmer I suppose. Farm field of soy and corn 100 miles in every direction. My grandfather worked his family farm til he had to take a job to pay for the 9 kids he had with grandma. He farmed the fields til the day he died and the farm is now in grandma’s name still being planted each year by a family friend. My father and mother worked hard in the town to raise my two younger
brothers and I, the best they could. My parents always supported my art. They still do.
E- Have you ever been a menial laborer? How did that affect your direction?
Jon- I have worked many jobs, from construction to destruction. From a tire factory to a
factory that made cardboard boxes. Pizza delivery to Ice Skating. As I got older I have
tried to stay in my field or around it by working in the print industry and copy centers and
screen shops. I even taught art to adults with disabilities and it was better than
going to college as far as what I picked up and learned along the way. My wife Amy gives me a lot of confidence and drive to produce more and more and better myself every time. My kids were always before the art. I could’t start drawing until I stopped changing diapers. Working hard sucks, everyone knows that but we all have to do our share.
E- Do you still teach art?
Jon- Not officially, I hope that every piece I make teaches or at least inspires something in someone.
I encourage art, especially in children but anybody really. I feel and have
always felt that art and music is very therapeutic. I will teach from time to time but I would rather work with someone on a project and learn from each other as we go. I think when all is said and done we all learn from each other what to do next. We might do it our way or with our drive but our ideas have always come out of history and experience. I can’t wait for what today teaches me.
E-Do you or have you done work as a caricature street artist?
Jon-No. not yet. My portraits are a grueling process of self judgement and lots of eraser
shavings. I would be scared to bring that out on the street. I have however painted live
many times and gotten great reaction from working where the people can see me. Just as long as I am not drawing their picture. I will do the occasional portrait but most of the time it is from a photo.
E-Will you describe and define your medium?
Jon-I work mostly these days with pencil and permanent marker. I draw black and white lines that represent all types of things from barber chairs to bicycles. I draw on whatever paper is available. I also have been known to mix my pen and ink work with acrylic paint
to create larger one of a kind pieces. I use a computer to finish pieces out but most of what I do starts as a drawing done by hand. My art is also representational of the thing
that makes my ears happy, music. I try to let my art become part of the music that helps it to travel so far. I like to think of it as part of the experience. The image that you see leading up to an event you are excited about, keeps you excited up until and then after the event takes place. So partially my medium portrays the music so that when you see it, it can remind you of the songs which are playing in our heads. Plus this medium grows feet when the bands take off on the road and my gallery becomes all the venues they play along the way and all the people that are part of that adventure
E- How about formal training?
Jon- I did take some art classes the first time I took a stab at college. I didn’t really mesh
with the teacher at the time and it sort of stumped me for years. All I could see were the mistakes and limitations of what I could produce. It took me years to realize that those things were what made my style what it was. Later I went back to school in California at Sierra College and took some digital art classes like Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. Those gave me the tools I needed to get my art on the internet and that was just one door in this amazing labyrinth of hallways and doorways.
E-How did formal training effect your natural flow?
Jon-It really just gave it a vehicle to drive in. Most of my art I got from my family and high school art teacher, Virginia Hayes. The only thing formal I do is on the electrical end of my medium. I hope to always be informal. Naturally I try to surrender to the flow whenever possible.
E-For your work itself, I am amazed at how you graduate color from dark to light. Is this
done with computer?
Jon- It’s all pen and ink, mirrors and wires, and ones and zeroes.
E-Do you ever dream projects?
Jon-Not so much, I have some strange dreams sometimes though.
E- Are you able to take a request and just get after it?
Jon-Sometimes, I can’t get started fast enough. After discussion with the interested party if I am motivated enough, I jump right in and go to work. The longer I put something off, the harder it is to get motivated.
I work better under pressure than without any. I challenge myself to get it done now instead of later.
E- How in the world do you produce so fast!
Jon-Just the speed I move at. My old boss who was a big racing fan, was alway saying to me, “Yellow Flag Griff”. Sometimes I have to get something done right away or the
pressure of doing it builds and eventually i don’t want to work on it at all. I figure, no time
like the present… Why put off til tomorrow and all that jazz
E-What went through your mind when you stepped into the commercial art world for real, did you think, well, here I go?
Jon- Not too much, mostly stage fright I suppose. Until I started getting positive feedback on what I was making, I was never sure of the quality level. I still battle with pleasing others at times. Even though the stage lights are bright, I just keep pushing myself to have my art out there and it pays off with more positives than negatives every time.
E-At what point in your life did you realize you could “sell” your art?
Jon-One day when someone paid me for it.
E-Did you have to learn to be assertive, and also learn to believe in yourself that you could survive as an artist?
Jon-Only with myself.
E-Would you say the John Hartford Memorial Festival has had an impact on demand?
Jon-JHMF was a kicking off point to showing my work to the public and presenting myself as an artist. John Hotze has been a wonderful supporter of my art. Every time I do a festival where I get the opportunity to meet the musicians, it becomes a great opportunity to speed the art even further. After I leave a festival I have at least 5 new contacts if not 20. I hope to come home from every event I attend with new friends and more work than I can handle. So far so good. Having all the samples of the over 1000 posters I have made so far for people to look through, helps as well. People can see my variety of work all in one place and in printed format.
E-How many bands and festivals have you produced art for?
Jon-This year so far I have 17 festivals under my belt. I have made 130 new folders each one for a new act or event. Some of them have multiple posters in them if not whole campaigns for festivals. I stopped counting a while back.
E- Do you get requests for free art?
Jon-Yes, everyday. Some people think that I must just want to make them something for nothing or for tickets to their show or pizza or something. I have worked for all three at one time or another. I tend to prefer the paying jobs as this is my main source of income these days in the cruel money world that we live in.
E- Do you have folks ask for non-themed art, like someone asks “Hey Jon, will paint me something from inside your head, your call, 11×14?”
Jon-Bands always start that way, Draw something weird or make it trippy or something. I usually ask for more direction. Sometimes I have complete license to do as I wish. It usually works out.
E-What can one expect to pay for a poster, cd cover, book cover?
Jon-Custom art right now has been ranging very low compared to a lot of artists that are out there producing. Single posters with original art are running between $120 – $200 and festival packages range up to the $500 range but includes a lot of bits and pieces including T-shirt art and handbills, pins, hats… Some artists that have been established charge up to 20 times that amount. I want people that want the art to be able to afford it. I know what bands make these days, I see the crowds thinning. I see digital music taking over. I am here to support the traveling or at least performing musicians out there and continue to spread the jam.
E-Tell me about your first commissioned work.
Jon-It was California, 199293 and a band that had gotten some money for playing Led Zeppelin tunes, The Hidden Child, asked me to do something in a semi professional manner. Their manager who was also a friend of mine propositioned me for an poster for an upcoming show and asked me what it was worth to me. I didn’t know, these guys were all friends. I think I got like $40 maybe. Whatever it was I spent it quickly on food and drink. I didn’t mess with selling much of it for years after that. It wasn’t til 1997 that I made another commissioned piece for a glass blowing company out of Oregon. Then it all changed in 2008 when I met Vince Herman and Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi/Leftover Salmon fame. They took some of my art on tour and it sort of started snowballing, them telling friends and so on.
E-Do you travel and exhibit? Is your work on permanent display anywhere?
Jon-I travel a little, I try to display my work wherever people will let me. I have the family in tow so it is hard to get out a lot but I am doing more all the time. I have paintings hanging in a local restaurant and so many in peoples houses around the country to Hawaii and beyond. For a while I was painting and people were buying them as fast as I could make them. I also do installations of poster covered walls. I have two up right now.
E-Would you say your career as an artist has “taken off”?
Jon-I would say that I hope I never have to refer to it as a career. I really enjoy what I do and I hope I can do it forever. If I make a few bucks along the way I am not going to complain but I hope to keep it an activity I enjoy and it will never be something I look forward to retiring from. As far as taking off goes, people are starting to recognize my name and style around the country and world. A mandolin player from Brazil saw it online and got excited and now my art is in Brazil. I am not sure what successful means to an artist these days. I think I am a success when my art is enjoyed by anyone other than me and I feel even more successful when my art influences others to be creative. I do keep busy enough with it and the demand is at a comfortable level. I look forward to helping more and more musicians represent their art in a creative way.
E-Is your life more difficult, economically, as an artist, or do you find other ways to bring home the bacon?
Jon-People have taken my art and it is well travelled. Working with touring acts is helpful. My galleries are anywhere they play and my art fans are folks who also love music. As long as there is a band that wants people to come to the show, I will have work. It has it’s difficulties but so does a regular job. I keep pretty busy. I designed for 17 festivals so far this year alone and I hope to do 20 more.
E- Where do you see yourself headed with music and art?
Jon-Right now, I am just sitting here. I try to live in the now. I will know better tomorrow…
E- What does Jon Griffin see when he closes his eyes?
Jon-Whatever he wants to. Most of the time it is more about the soundtrack than the visuals on the inside.
A note about this caricature of me: this little figure is the result of the quick mind and hands of our artist, Jon Griffin. When we decided to name our blog page after John Hartford’s “Morning Bugle” album, we first opted to use the album art for our headline. Well, there are more hoops involved in getting the rights to this than there are minutes in the day so I emailed Jon and mentioned our dilemma. In about twenty minutes he sent us this banner!
I emailed back, “Yippee!” and in another twenty minutes he sent back the caricature, and that folks, is the rest of the story!
Art and Music are like earth and sky. They belong together and as long as there have been records of man, there is evidence of both together. You can reach Jon Griffin and peruse some of his art by following the link.
www.jiveafro.com and also at Jon Griffin Art on Facebook. All of the artwork at www.johnhartfordmemfest.com, is by Jon Griffin.