IF A painting stops talking to Ken Griffiths, he will put it aside, sometimes for years, until one day he sees what needs to be done and the dialogue begins again. Some of his works have taken 20 or more years to complete.
“If I wasn’t an artist I would be a scientist,” he says. “Discovery either by design or by chance is the thing that drives me. If I’m not interested I don’t work.”
He was always thus. School was a bore – and so became a trap. He didn’t have to study hard to do well, so he chose not to study at all. In fact he only took art because it was a bludge. Strange beginnings, though, as he found he actually liked and was good at it. He ended up being the most improved student in his second-to-final year of school purely because he found he wanted to paint so much that he was compelled to pass.
He won his school’s senior art prize. “There have been many winners of this prize in the past,” the principal told the assembly, “but Ken Griffiths will be a name which will be heard by many.”
And so it’s proved, with Griffiths winning many art prizes, although it’s only since coming to Wonthaggi in 2003 that he’s had the time to fulfil that early talent.
He loves Wonthaggi, describing it as “a lovely, developing and blooming art society”. “There are so many people moving down here that may not be artists but they support art and they promote art. I’m extremely happy to have bought my final resting place here.”
The path to full-time artist was not always a straight one. Despite passing only art and English in year 12, he managed to get into Deakin University on the strength of his portfolio, but in 1970s Australia there were so many tempting things to do besides study. In spite of his love of art, he kept deferring. In the meantime, he became a chimney sweep, a factory hand, a gardener and a farm hand – all the time living with his father. In the end, his father gave him an ultimatum: go to school or get out. He finished his diploma of fine arts.
Ken went on to get a graduate diploma of education. He enjoyed learning how to teach and structure curriculums. He started teaching at secondary schools and found his now life partner, Karin Murphy Ellis. It was life changing and together they decided that they would be able to support his dream of concentrating on art full time.
It wasn’t long before they realised the sale of paintings wasn’t going to pay the bills. A moment came when they went into a local corner shop with only enough money to buy the smallest packet of cigarettes and some milk.
So they moved from job to job to get enough money to support them. Eventually they ended up moving to Queensland where Karin cared for a vision-impaired elderly woman and Ken was offered a rent-free studio and the opportunity to exhibit his work at a large gallery. Unfortunately the free rent was offset by a fee taken out of his sales, leaving him with only $900 to show for more than 50 works.
Crushed, they thought their dream was over. Ken didn’t paint for a long time. Instead he became a nurseryman, with his nursery becoming nursery of the year. If you go and see Ken’s garden you will see this other talent in full splendour.
In 2003 a bequest enabled Ken and Karin to buy the State Mines Hotel in South Dudley, Wonthaggi. Coming to this part of the world was like coming home. Bellingham Street in Leongatha was name after Ken’s great-great-grandfather who owned a farm in Ruby and established a butchery in Leongatha.
And then it was time to paint again.
He generally works in acrylic paints because of their ability to be reworked over and over again. And then he likes to finish his painting with oil paint because of the richness of the colours and the crispness of the texture.
He likes to think of painting as a game of chess. There are many possible moves that need to be considered before you choose which way to go. The more experienced you become, the fewer bad moves you make.
One of Ken’s paintings was hung in the 1987 Archibald Prize. He has staged two one-man shows and has illustrated a re-telling of Billy Goat’s Gruff in watercolour for MacMillan Publishing. He has won many prizes, most recently the 2015 Bass Coast Artists Society award, which makes him eligible for the Bass Coast acquisitive art award, worth $5000, in September.
For the past 10 years in Wonthaggi, he’s been teaching adults. It’s forced him to formalise his understanding of processes, chemicals and media. He loves to share with his students the lessons he has learnt from his many years of painting – and help them reduce the number of bad moves they make.
Knowing this, I decided to join one of Ken’s classes. I went over with a clean canvas to Ken’s place, picked up a charcoal pencil and drew what I wanted to be me looking through a blackberry patch. Here is a photo of what I did. I won’t mind if you think it is pretty awful.
On the right is a photo of the same drawing one lesson later.
I am so chuffed that I’m going to enter it into ArtSpace Wonthaggi’s Winter Solstice Exhibition.