Chaos and composition 

A quest for success drives Kojo Griffin from troubled youth to celebrated artist

Page 2 of 4

Then, one day in 1991, Griffin learned he was going to be a father.

"I always mark off the time that I've been very serious about my work by the age of my son," he says, "because it was when my son was on the way that I was struck with the realization that I had to really decide what I was going to do with my life. I was in college, and I was studying psychology. My plan was to be a child psychologist eventually. But ... having a baby on the way -- it sort of forces you to re-evaluate who you are. All the sudden, everything seems much more serious, so that was when I buckled down. I wanted to finish school, but I was like, I think I want to be an artist."

An encounter in a graffiti-covered train tunnel by Piedmont Park drove the point home even stronger. While Griffin was painting, a man came out of a store and started snapping pictures. "I'm thinking, what the hell? I start to go after him, and all the sudden there's a cop at one end of the bridge and a cop at the other end of the bridge, and I'm in the middle. Obviously, I wasn't getting away."

Griffin was handcuffed, put in the back of a patrol car and on his way to jail when he began to plead his case. There must have been something about the tall, serious young man calmly explaining that he wasn't a vandal but an artist that convinced the police officer to give Griffin another chance. As it happened, the cop was a budding children's book author who'd hired an artist to provide the illustrations.

He pulled the squad car over, retrieved his work-in-progress from the trunk and asked Griffin for advice. ("They were baaaad," Griffin recalls of the illustrations.) After Griffin gave the officer pointers on perspective and composition, the officer drove Griffin around the corner and let him go.

Griffin eventually completed his undergraduate degree in psychology, but by then it was irrelevant. He was working at Pearl Art Supplies at the time and had become friends with many local artists, including Charles Nelson, a formally educated painter who helped persuade Griffin to abandon commercial work for a career in fine art.

Griffin had nearly failed the one formal art class he'd taken, and he worried that he didn't know enough to jump into fine art as a career. So he started hanging out in libraries at Georgia State and the Atlanta College of Art, where he gobbled up what he could find on art history, theory and aesthetics. He pored over contemporary art magazines. He studied the careers of famous painters like Picasso and Dal'.

Success, Griffin realized, takes more than talent. It takes strategy and the development of a recognizable style. And it takes a tenacious drive to succeed. He learned that lesson well.

Many in the art world find it gauche when an artist openly reaches for commercial success. But Griffin has his eye on that prize -- unabashedly. Underneath the easygoing exterior is a competitor who is carefully crafting his career.

"I'm here to succeed," he says. "People hate it when you mix commerce and art. They feel cheated, like it's been cheapened, but commerce is a big part of what directs things. People coming from art school aren't prepared for competition and the business side of things, but the art world is a business, and it is competitive and it is full of sharks."

Griffin's first public exhibition was part of a group show held in 1996 at King Plow Center. Sampling an Insistent Beat featured artists influenced by hip-hop. Other group shows followed and recognition began to grow. A year later, he was selected to show in the Atlanta Biennial, a group show featuring hot new local artists at Nexus (now The Contemporary).

Griffin was wearing a painter's smock, seated at a fold-out table in the middle of a Publix store, trying to teach art to any kid that passed by, when he received the page that would change his life. He was working for a Fulton County neighborhood art program at the time, wondering if his career would ever get past the starving stage. Though he had no idea whom he was dialing, he returned the call on the store's pay phone. It was Vaknin Schwartz, the hottest new gallery in town; owners Uri Vaknin and Carolan Schwartz had seen his work in a group show at City Gallery East and wanted to represent him.

"At the time, it was incredible. It was a godsend. It was the first glimmer of hope," Griffin says.



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