Monday, September 14, 2015

Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with Adam Griffiths

by Mike Rhode

Adam Griffiths sent an announcement of a cartooning class he's teaching in to us, so I leaped at the chance to get the thoughts of another local cartoonist on record. 

What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

Right now, I have been working on my first graphic novel, Washington White, a satirical right-wing beltway insider treatise concerning white America, translated from the narrative center of a fictional African-American right-wing viewpoint. For a naturally purple-minded African-American raised in Wilmington Delaware, simulating both this viewpoint and this narrative is incredibly taxing. It’s taken me 2 years to finalize a script that’s engineered solely to deprogram aspirant douches from their entitled sense of necessity in western society. The final work will be published in 2 parts, each about 300 pages long. In the meantime, I post one fully-realized full-color non-sequitur cartoon online each week to my Facebook and Tumblr pages. 

How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

I use cheap ballpoint pens to make many of my drawings and cartoons. I color them digitally.

When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

I was born in 1982, at Takoma Park’s Washington Adventist Hospital, and it’s very weird that I live just around the corner from there now, considering I am the only member of my immediate member of family to move back to the DMV area. My parents were both police officers working in Southwest DC, and met on the police force.

Why are you in Washington now?  What neighborhood or area do you live in?

I came back to Washington because, probably, like many cartoonists, there is part of me that is largely invested in nostalgia. I got a Bachelor’s Degree in General Fine Arts with a concentration in Video Art at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, then went into an administrator position with Provisions Learning Project in Washington D.C., a nonprofit devoted to arts and social change before Busboys and Poets even existed. I worked as a fine arts administrator for many years, sometimes for private galleries, also for Washington Project for the Arts. While in school, I was skeptical of students who mocked the practices of popular New York fine artists, so much so, that I declaratively NEVER wanted to be in New York. I worked in the fine arts world here for almost a decade before realizing that it was not the place for the kind of work that I wanted to make. My art is very much a reflection of that experience. I make drawings that are sometimes abstract, I make drawings that are sometimes symbolic within the realm of editorial cartoons, I make drawings that are sometimes on the fringe of mainstream comics. So I see myself as a cartoonist who inhabits a number of roles, but currently, I attempt to feed the fine arts world of DC while seeking to address cartoonists’ and comics concerns.

What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

I am mostly self-taught, I started drawing when I was four years old, and started art education formally through weekend classes at the Delaware Art Museum at age nine. Later when I was in college, I thought I was going to work with communities in Baltimore to make publicly-engaged murals and video art; I considered this kind of work to be of the utmost decency in its political intent, the least condescending. Lucy Lippard and Jane Jacobs were my heroines, but the graduate program for Community Arts did not exist yet, I moved on.  Independently, I do my own research and reading. I reach out to cartoonists whose work interests me. Because the university system offers safe entrance to artistic validation, I’ve simultaneously embraced it because of the talented artists there, but also rejected it, because I abhor elitism. The university system is not successful at reorganizing society, our democracy, as it should. I am ambivalent about my own capacity to sustain cartooning as a career, but I recognize that education can bestow an individual with the necessary embers of autodidactism.

Who are your influences?

I read non-exclusively. I am at home with popular comics writers and artists, editorial cartoonists, graphic novelists, zine cartoonists, small press publishers and creators, and mainstream publishers, philosophers and I suspect that many other creators read the same way. It’s disingenuous for me to give you a list because I continue to read, allowing myself to be inspired, superseded, and bought into admiration by accomplishments in contemporary art, art history, comics history, and current comics being made world-wide.

To be influenced is to accept the presence of others. I’m very non-competitve because I think artists, above other professions, recognize that they generate peace through an active engagement with their respective societies. I look to creative people for community, whether living or dead, because something they’ve generated strikes me. My list for now: Barry Windsor-Smith, Stephen Bissette, Whit Taylor, Simon DeBeauvoir, John Chad, Josh Bayer, Sabin Cauldron, Phillip Zimbardo, Adam Polina, Chris Bachalo, Joseph Silver, Garth Ennis, Ashley Woods, Marshall McLulan, Howard Cruse, Victor Hodge, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine, Dan Nadel, Alison Bechdel, Elizabeth Beier, Lee Lai, Kara Walker, Danny Simmons,  Jessica Abel, Italo Calvino, Jim Mahfood, Jessica Abel, Mimi Pond. Also, there are some very interesting minicomics being made in New Zealand right now. When I am working, I ignore other creative people, it’s a mistake to look to them for ideas.

If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

When I wasn’t even in high school, I remember sending an inquiry to the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning in Newark, New Jersey for more information. I presented the brochure that I received back to my father, who told me that this school wasn’t ‘good enough’ for me. I ended up in fine arts school which was nice, but I didn’t belong, art-wise -- even the illustration department was too fancy. I’ve always been very interested in the popular arts but unfortunately my life experience has mutated me beyond that ever being a possible destination for my work. I’ve confronted the reality that there is nothing I can change about these experiences, and I am content with making it up from here on.

What work are you best-known for?

My first major gallery show was about drinking and adulthood, and happened in DC. I made a series of paintings, a sculpture, and a video about the life of Candice “Candy” Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). This was really a journalistic endeavor. I spent months talking with Candy over the phone so that I could create paintings that would define the era and time in which the anti-drunk-driving movement was formed, and how it came to be a typical Washington non-profit special interest institution in all its surreality. It was an odd show that I enjoyed thinking about and conceiving, and I only sold one painting, ha! Otherwise, I’m increasingly known for posting noticeably sick, yet compassionate cartoons online.

What work are you most proud of?

This question is beyond my personal self-awareness. Is dignity worth a lifetime of appearances?

What would you like to do or work on in the future?

I would like to have a daily comic somewhere, which I am already developing. There are also several other shorter graphic novels I’m trying to complete in addition to Washington White, but of course those aren’t real until I’ve executed them.

What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

I sing loudly and dance, probably because I’m so queer. This is a lesson that I learned from cartoonist Alec Longstreth’s very useful manual “Your Comics Will Love You Back.” He is an instructor at the Center for Cartooning Studies in White River Junction, Vermont who is very dynamic, who gives it all away. Not an inch of Miles Davis within him.

What do you think will be the future of your field?

Electronic media has been directing the future of comics so far. I think comics artists embrace their medium as interactive media already, and will likely figure out how to ingratiate their creative practice into the administrative structure, which ultimately, is where all art needs to go. Being in the fine arts world, I couldn’t focus on what was important because fine arts criticism is very palace intrigue, meditating about what decisions people in museums are making, which doesn’t help working artists at all. Constantly artists are accused of being useless because executives in private enterprise are close-minded, and historically, editorial cartoonists have largely been employed by newspapers in order to help their audiences and covertly, their own journalists quantify information about current events. However, they will soon realize that employing cartoonists as consultant creators will help them to make better decisions.

What local cons do you attend? The Small Press Expo, Intervention, or others? Any comments about attending them?
I have attended the Small Press Expo in Bethesda religiously for years, meeting many interesting artists and zinesters, reading their work. I am looking forward to two cons in Ohio: the Sõl-Con: Brown/Black Comix Expo and Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, which is hosted by Ohio State University, home of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. I went up there recently with John Kinhart, a filmmaker who dedicates himself to making films about indie comics legends, to help record interviews with cartoonist Carol Tyler and minicomics godfather Justin Green. I can honestly say that Ohio feels like a place where the mid-western independent and mainstream audience for comics can convene without any tricky media-engineered divisive politics intervening.  It’s that ecclesiastic spirit and enthusiasm for comics that I am always seeking, which begins with people.

What's your favorite thing about DC?

DC comics artists are uncommonly mainstream, even if their comics are not considered so, and even though there is no mainstream comics studio based in DC (we need one). When it comes to subject matter in DC, everything is welcome, and educating through comics is revered, in addition to humor and drama, and weirdness. I admire webcomics artists like Carolyn Belefski, dynamic comics shop managers like Esther Kim, organizers like Andrew Cohen and Matt Dembicki, and obsessive makers like JT Wilkins and Rafer Roberts, who are going to do what they will, regardless of whether an audience exists for their work or not. Comics remain relevant because of the risk-takers, not because of comfortable virtuosos.

Least favorite?

The comics community of DC doesn’t seem to interface with many other facets of the creative community here, and especially so with the editorial cartoonists, who only seem to want to run with other journalists and professionals within major news-worthy publications or at awards banquets (though, the Library of Congress rocks). As someone who worked in the non-profit art world of DC for many years, I want to say that uniqueness, flavor, and funkiness should be a DESIRED standard because of that cross-pollination, because, CULTURE. I wish I knew more actors. I wish I knew more writers, I wish I knew more in-house economists, graphic designers. What is the point of being in a city if all these worlds are frozen, incestuous?

What monument or museum do like to take visitors to?

The World War I Memorial. It’s quiet and you can have a conversation with one or two good friends on a swampy summer DC weekend afternoon.

How about a favorite local restaurant?

It’s very expensive to eat out in DC. My husband and I eat at home because fabulousness eludes us. Obviously, we are shameful homosexuals. 

In a rare instance of consistency in restaurant-going on my part, I’ll be hosting a SKETCH SHARE event every Thursday at 6:30pm, from October 19th to November 12th at Petworth Citizen , as part of 4-session class that I’m teaching at Upshur Street Books next door ( You don’t have to be enrolled in the class to attend SKETCH SHARE, it open to the public, so bring your supplies and come draw with us!

Do you have a website or blog?

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