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Chaos and composition 

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

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Griffin says the colors are there only to get people to look at his work. His real aim is to get them to look beyond the colors and instead to think about what's actually happening in the painting itself.

"The initial attraction is sensual and emotional, but the concept is more important," he says. "I want it to be disarming."

Vaknin Schwartz gallery closed a year ago, but Uri Vaknin continued to represent Griffin until last fall, after their relationship had soured. (Vaknin did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) But Griffin wasn't a free agent for long. At last year's Armory Show, a contemporary art fair held in New York every February, Griffin was asked by the Manhattan gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash to hang his work in their booth. The gallery had built its reputation selling from private collections and representing the estates of artists like Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein, but it was ready to branch out. It was a new beginning for both gallery and artist. Griffin sold everything he had in the Armory Show, and Mitchell-Innes & Nash eventually signed on to represent him.

Throughout Griffin's two-day stay in New York, the high-hat treatment continued. His new gallery threw dinner parties in his honor at trendy restaurants, introduced him to collectors and hosted an opening-night reception.

"It's kind of a benchmark for how people look at me now," he says. "People are going out of their way for me and my ideas. You're like, wow! Finally! You finally feel appreciated."

Two days after Griffin returned to Atlanta, the World Trade Center was attacked. Like everyone, he was horrified. But he couldn't help worrying.

"I thought, 'Oh no, nobody's going to want to buy my paintings now,'" he recalls.

He needn't have worried. He sold every piece in the exhibition and made his biggest sale ever -- $18,000 for a 10-by-8-foot untitled mixed-media painting on wood panel featuring a man handing candy to a child.

Although Griffin isn't scheduled to show in Atlanta again until February 2003, at the new Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, he's getting plenty of far-flung attention. His work currently is in a group show in Milan, Italy, and will appear in upcoming shows slated for Boston and Monterey, Mexico. But Griffin still worries, especially about the next step.

"Sometimes when I think about it, I think, wow! I've made this thing out of thin air and somebody wants to buy it. That's really cool because it validates you. Not because of the money, but to know you can create something that moves people enough to make them part with their money. But mostly I just feel like, what's next?"

Talented artists work their whole lives and never get the breaks and recognition Kojo Griffin has received in just five years. For the lonely boy turned angry, introspective teenager turned scared young father, the vindication is mighty sweet. But contentment eludes him.

"I want to be accomplished to the point, when it's all said and done, that I've made a significant enough contribution to the history of art and that I was a part of that history. I'd like my ideas, my thoughts and my work to be ... considered critically important overall, regardless of my race and culture. I don't want to be relegated to being just a black guy who makes art."

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