A Gillett Good Griffin exhibit

A swarm of Princetonians fluttered about Princeton Public Library’s second floor gallery last Tuesday night at the final exhibit before the space disappears into renovation. Gillett Good Griffin sat in his wheelchair at the center of it all with a smile so quiet it could hinder you from realizing the portraits strewn across the orange wall were his.

A crowd of funky university students, foreigners, long-time locals and graceful old friends of the Meso-American anthropologist, curator and master sketcher/painter/graphic artist weaved in and out of Griffin’s foggy gaze offering hugs and congratulations. A few strangers added to the diversity: a boy with his face tattooed staring at the works while munching on banana bread baked by Brown Little, Griffin’s neighbor and co-curator.

The exhibit entitled “Portraits and Legends” arose when Andor Carius, a friend who had been interviewing, or rather conversing, with Griffin for years, became curious about the many people who sat for Griffin.

“As I was interviewing Gillett, I noticed many of his portraits were done when his subjects were at a younger age and wondered whatever happened to them, where are they now, and what are they doing today? I researched some of these names, and suddenly very interesting life stories emerged,” Carius said. “Some of his depicted subjects had became legends in their lifetimes.”

Curated by Carius and Little with support of the library and Arts Council of Princeton, the exhibit is filled with Griffin’s portraits. Each was accompanied by two legends containing the subject’s stories, one as remembered by Griffin and the other recorded by Carius years later.

The pieces were pulled out from closets and from under beds. Individuals from all walks of life, both dead and living, awoke on the library walls in mismatched frames.

“It’s incredible,” Griffin whispered in response to the crowd who’d surfaced from the snow the way his portraits surfaced from the dust.

Griffin, born in Brooklyn in 1928, drew so often he could do a 17-inch by 24-inch portrait drawing in about 20 to 40 minutes. He studied graphic arts at Yale when graphic art was but a bud in the art world. In 1952, he became curator of graphic arts at Princeton University’s Firestone Library until 1967, during which he cultivated a passion for Meso-American culture. Griffin was later appointed as the Princeton University Art Museum’s curator of Pre-Columbian Art where he stayed until 2005. Griffin traveled extensively throughout Central and South America to learn more of his trade.

“I didn’t want to be a camera-toting gringo, so I decided to draw or paint what I see,” Griffin, now 87, told Carius during one of their chats.

When Griffin became curator, PUAM had just a few works of Pre-Columbian art. Today, thanks to Griffin’s devotion as well as many contributions from his own reservoir of artifacts, the museum’s collection is widely recognized.

“After some introductory remarks about the significance of certain pieces, [Griffin] allows students and visitors at the museum or at home in his private collection to handle expensive antique artifacts directly without gloves and without fear, to get in touch with them by sensual and intuitive feeling to perceive their use and meaning,” Carius said.

In addition to his unique teaching approach, Griffin adored drawing his subjects and, according to Carius, illuminated “their human essence and dignity, regardless of socio-cultural status.”

Ty Heineken, a local anthropologist, writer and patron of Japanese folk art, met Griffin in 1972.

“Gillett has a beautiful eye for all sorts of things,” Heineken said. “He has a way of finding reality without seeking it and, while shedding his naiveté, has remained innocent, which I think is what we all are supposed to do as we get older.”

“You are a living treasure,” Little told Griffin at the opening.

“This is the last exhibit of this kind in this space,” Arts Council President Jeff Nathanson announced. “And for this I am sad. But I cannot think of  a more fitting artist to have in this final show.”

“After I am recycled,” Heineken continued, “I hope to meet Gillett in a cloud and pass the time doing wonderful things like looking at art and listening to music.”

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida