The Griffis family is synonymous with art in WNY. I recently had a chance to sit down with Larry Griffis III, to learn about his own experiences, including being the son of prolific sculptor Larry Griffis Jr., and his time away from Buffalo.
What does art mean to you?
The important stuff is being able to build something from scratch and to see other people enjoy it. To know that you’re doing the right thing, critical or not, in a world where everyone is copying everyone else. Just look at commercial real estate – it’s typically bland. Art pushes people – there are no parameters. In the old days we called people squares if they were not hip – these days they say “out of the box…,” which I find funny. Nobody wants to be looked at as square, or confined inside of a box.
Have you always been interested in art?
Art is related to culture, and makes us who we are today. I believe in the history of art – I have always wanted to know as much as humanly possible. Art always changes. I don’t write off the old art; I’m influenced by it. I’m proud of the way that my sculptures work with architecture and gardens. I believe that it benefits the citizens.
You were influenced by your father as well?
Growing up, I was always challenged by art. Jazz was always on the radio. It’s all my dad listened to. He encouraged all of us with our creative pursuits. Originally, my dad thought that I was going to be a businessman. I worked for him for 4 years. He knew how hard it was to be an artist. I started taking art courses. I went to Goddard College, which was famous for its artists. The interesting thing is that my dad met with the head of the sculpture department – Peter Ruddick – to talk about sending my brother Mark there, who would eventually go. But during the visit he suggested that I go as well. So I went over to the admissions office to see if I could get an interview on the spot – it turns out that I was also accepted. My dad was really impressed by Ruddick – I ended up working with him for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Ruddick made an impression on you?
He was a big influence on me. I started carving wood, which was very difficult. My brother and I were in the same class – that turned out to be a competition that drove me to be better. Goddard might have been a liberal arts school, but it was not easy. My 100 page thesis taught me the skills of being a good writer, which came in handy later.
While at Goddard, I went to Florence, Italy and studied the renaissance artists. I also went to Greece to study the ancient pottery and sculptures that were fished out of the oceans. Goddard wanted you to travel. Later on, I taught at Goddard – it turned out to be a great college for me.
During college, you were summering in Buffalo?
I would come back to the Essex Art Studio. Initially I did this plaster head, but I never casted it (see inset photo). So I took it back to Goddard to be in a show. And then I did the 8-foot man at the Griffis Sculpture Park. I made that at Goddard in plaster. I then trailered it back to Essex in Buffalo.
When my father saw it, he said that we needed to cast it and take it to the park. He wanted it in aluminum because it was cheaper. I wanted it in bronze. It ended up being in aluminum. It took two years to cast it and take it to the park. That’s because they were working on ten other sculptures at the same time.
One of your most high profile pieces is “Birds Excited Into Flight” that is found in Bidwell Parkway, right?
Yes, that was my father’s original design but we collaborated throughout the process. I was building the birds while in college and summering in Buffalo. A couple of years ago, we tried to move the sculpture into the middle of Soldier’s Circle, where we thought it would look great. But Olmsted said ‘no.’ My dad did the Spirit of Womanhood, which is found along the expressway at Delaware Park. Hopefully when the expressway is downgraded to a boulevard it will be a focal point once again.
You spent some time out west?
I moved to the West Coast, but was having a hard time finding a job as a sculptor in Oregon, so I got into the steel business. I ended up in Portland, doing some freelance sculpture work, but not enough, so I started welding and fabricating for big contracts. I got to learn how to read blueprints. I also got the commercial fabricating hands of a journeyman fabricator. I had to know a little about everything. It was very challenging. It was also getting to be baby time.
Yes, my wife got pregnant, and she was longing to come home to Buffalo. My dad was clamoring for me to come home to finish work on the birds. So back to Buffalo we went. I ended up starting a wood stove business… making wood stoves (see inset). I was also looking for a stable career at the time.
Did you find one?
I went to work at Fisher Price in East Aurora. I learned an incredible amount there, which I needed at that time in my life. I wrote a lot… spontaneous prose like Jack Kerouac. Then I went to Hasbro in Rhode Island, where I became the senior director of design (1986-1994). I brought that experience to my future art projects. Hasbro let me see the world – I was going to Southeast Asia 4 times a year. I have an appreciation for that part of the world. It also stabilized my financial situation.
Were you done with the corporate world by that point?
No, I then worked for Marvel Entertainment in the toy department. I managed the department that made Spider Man and the X-Men. I worked with Universal and Warner Brothers, via forming my own consulting business. After that, I wanted to get back to the fine arts. So I started competing for jobs and networking, and landing commissions. That was great, because I got to put my name on my work. I’ve been in it ever since.
You’ve been around the block a few times.
Over the last 25 years, I’ve had experience working with the best people out there. When Peter Ruddick was head of the sculpture department at Pratt, he ended up giving me a letter saying that I was the best sculptor that he ever worked with. I thought that that was pretty cool. And now, in my life, I’m happy. I have a good place to work, surrounded by good people, and I love Buffalo. And my wife Betsy and I are happy.
What’s next for you?
I have a number of designs that I have not been able to put into 3D projects – they take so long to build. I’m working on a memorial for a couple at Forest Lawn Cemetery (a two-person bronze). And I have a foundry that I’m happy with in Sarasota, Florida – I have family there as well.
Is there a good foundry in Buffalo?
UB has one, but it caters more to students. Buffalo State has one, but same thing. And the Maritime Center has a small one. Buffalo could us a full time foundry and fabrication center. I would help to get one started.
Can you list some of the projects that you have worked on?
The marquee at the arena, a lifesize bronze in Cleveland of St. Ignatius at John Carroll University… Florence Nightingale at the University at Rhode Island, 5 bronzes for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, 3 bronzes in Forest Lawn (4th is coming) – one was for the Frederick Albert Cook (famous explorer) memorial, St. Peter at Canisius College (a 7-foot bronze), the medallions for the DOT on the Grant Street bridge (the tree motif was approved by Olmsted Conservancy), the roundabout in Hamburg (an abstract bronze), and the Energy Weave at Rigidized Metals (90’ long 40’ high), among others.