There is a certain prehistoric feel to James Griffith’s artwork, and that’s probably because his medium is derived from a source that is several million years old — the La Brea Tar Pits.
For the last three or four years, the Altadena artist has been incorporating into his creations tar — or, more accurately, asphalt — from the La Brea Tar Pits by using the “goo” to make paint.
“I’m still absolutely enthralled in the process of working with this stuff,” Griffith said, adding that turning the tar into paint is challenging, requiring him to “do a little chemistry” in his studio.
He said he adds varnish and drier to the tar, and sometimes uses solvents to make it appear almost like watercolor. Griffith said the substance responds differently than traditional oil paint, which results in a lot of technical challenges but adds to the spontaneity of his work. Regardless, he said he embraces the task as if it were sport.
Griffith said he began experimenting with tar after working with traditional oil paint became expensive. He had done printmaking in school and had some tar lying around in the studio. After toying with it, Griffith was told that he could get some tar for free at the Tar Pits.
“I thought, ‘Hey that’s a bargain,’” he said.
Griffith said the staff at the George C. Page Museum was “incredibly friendly,” and after making an appointment, he was escorted to the Tar Pits, where he has a sentimental attachment that began during school field trips several years ago.
“They gave me the red carpet treatment,” he said. “The outcome was that the material itself was sensual and fun to manipulate. It had a content in and of itself, mainly because it’s from the La Brea Tar Pits.”
Griffith said the petrochemical has historic and modern qualities. It paved the way for the Industrial Revolution yet remains an ongoing topic of conversation in contemporary politics due to the ecological effects of fuel, he said.
“It just had a lot of wonderful baggage attached to it,” Griffith added.
While he will work with tar for the foreseeable future, he uses other non-traditional art materials in his artwork. Griffith said he adds volcanic dust, drain cleaner (copper sulfate), pollen, ash and even his father’s ashes. All of the materials carry a certain historical element with them, he said.
“I try [to combine] life-affirming materials with death-acknowledging materials,” Griffith said, adding that the tar adds a “soup of content” that is there before he even makes an image.
Aisling Farrell, the collections manager at the Page Museum, said Griffith is not the only artist to use the tar in artwork. She said a lady recently collected some to waterproof a basket, and teachers occasionally collect samples.
The tar is not sold, but given away to people who sign a form saying they will use the tar for educational purposes only, Farrell said. She said individuals generally reach out to the museum first.
“People like to play with it,” Farrell said. “It’s irresistible.”
Griffith said he hasn’t shown his work at the Tar Pits, though he would love to do so. However, the Altadena resident will continue to use the tar in his artwork and show pieces at exhibitions, such as an upcoming event at El Camino College.
“I think they’ve got an endless supply of it,” Griffith said.
For information about the La Brea Tar Pits, visit www.tarpits.org. To view the artwork, visit www.jamesgriffithpainting.com.
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