By KIRSTEN MORGAN
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts found what they were looking for in retired University of Mary Washington art professor Steve Griffin.
The VMFA awarded 43 fellowships to Virginia art students and professional artists over the years 2011 and 2012, presenting a total of $258,000, according to the VMFA website.
Each professional fellowship winner, including UMW’s Griffin, was awarded $8,000.
He was one of four in the painting category of the professional section. In addition to the professional awards, there were nine graduate students and 14 were undergraduate students also given the fellowship award.
“The fellowship funds come from a privately-endowed fund administered by the VMFA. It was initiated in 1940 by John Lee Pratt of Fredericksburg,” the website added.
Over the course of the VMFA Fellowship Program’s 71 years of existence, the museum has awarded more than $4.4 million. They have given 1,147 awards to Virginia’s art students and professional artists, according to the website.
In celebration of this year’s VMFA’s 75th anniversary, it awarded an additional eight fellowships to four student and four professional artists. This represents a 25 percent increase in funding. This year there were a record of 642 applicants who submitted work, marking the highest number of applicants in the program’s history, the site stated.
Griffin has won various awards in different shows, including a Wisconsin State award. But the VMFA fellowship award is the most prestigious. He won his award with his horizontal stripe paintings called the “Strata, Neo-Strata and Core” series.
These paintings are an allusion to the characteristics of the layers of a rock and were inspired by Griffin’s current residence, Colonial Beach.
“I go for my morning walk along the river,” Griffin said. “In Colonial Beach there’s a street that runs along it, and you know each morning it’s different; the sunrise is different, the colors are different, the waves are different, and I started to really study color, I wasn’t thinking so much about doing stripe paintings necessarily. The horizontal kind of composition started with the river, but once I started working with the painting, I thought of it more like an archaeological dig.”
To create his works, Griffin said he puts layers of paint and horizontal stripes of different sizes.
“At some point I start taking it back off and the combination of what’s underneath and what’s left on top really gives me unexpected colors and combinations,” Griffin said.
The colors of the paintings along with the incredible texture bring out the natural influence Griffin was going for when creating the work.
Griffin also explained the process he goes through in his studio.
“When I start a painting, I try to envision certain color combinations, and even do sketches once and a while, but starting with a particular color combination never stays there and I think that’s what is nice about the painting,” he said. “If I get too many layers on there I lose the texture and I have to just throw it away and start again. There’s a level of three to six layers, I would say, that work and then it starts to break down.”
Even though Griffin has found these stripe paintings are what the VMFA thinks worthy of a fellowship award, it is not what he has always done.
He started his striped paintings around 2007, just before retiring from UMW in 2008. In the 1970’s when Griffin was in graduate school and shortly after when he was in his early teaching career, he was a photo realist.
He mostly created large paintings of interiors with older furniture and emphasis on the light streaming in through the windows, a much different style from what he currently creates.
“I started to work with water color, and it’s smaller, a more fluid paint and I can do it faster, and it also started to loosened me up, and then I started to float away from the image altogether and was just working with the shapes and colors,” Griffin explained.
While he was teaching, Griffin often found motivation and creativity in his students and channeled that into his artwork.
“[My students’] energy inspired me, the idea that sometimes students would do something, not knowing they weren’t supposed to mix these things together and it came out, and I would say I need some of that attitude in myself,” Griffin said.
Griffin reflected on his time as a professor at UMW and the artistic process.
“There’s no formula for producing art or judging art really, it keeps changing, and I think that’s what makes it what it is, in fact if you use the same formula and you try to do that again it wouldn’t be the same,” he said, adding that, “If you can think creatively you can apply that to a lot of things whether you’re a writer, or a mathematician, or whatever else, and that’s what I try to emphasize; you look at your situation and you look at the materials you have and what you can do with those things?”