Art of subtraction

Painter Sam Griffin displays an authentic view of the hassidic world.

Artist Sam Griffin at work (photo credit: SAM GRIFFIN)
Artist Sam Griffin at work
(photo credit: SAM GRIFFIN)
British-born artist Sam Griffin discovered two loves of his life simultaneously in high school. The third, his wife Rachel, would come years later. Griffin always loved to draw and came from an artistic background. His father was an established cartoonist for several newspapers.
Thus Griffin grew up around art books and pencils scattered all over the place.
He remembers walking into his father’s studio and watching him work. The artistic home atmosphere influenced Griffin’s two older siblings to attend art school and eventually trickled down to him as well.
It wasn’t until high school when he did a series of portraits of elderly people that he realized how much he loved it.
“At the time, I was working in an elderly home,” Griffin recalls. “I remember thinking that I really liked painting faces and people. I carried on with it after that. I decided that was the path I wanted to take. When they were gearing us up for higher education, I was sure I wanted to study art. A lot of my early works, when I got into using oils and acrylics and working on canvas, were to do with elderly people, because they’re so interesting to paint.”
Images of older rabbis and pre-Holocaust Europe dominated his early work. He began to realize that there was more to it than simply enjoying painting portraits of older faces. “I think it has to do with not really knowing my family history and where we came from in Europe before we ended up in Britain,” he says.
“I wanted to connect to this history and past that I don’t have a direct connection to. I guess these faces were sort of me looking for a face from the past. I recently came to that conclusion after looking at all my works until now. I saw this line running through them all – which was looking for identity, where I fit in, and what I’m doing now.”
Griffin was inspired by artists such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach; painters known for their figurative and realist styles. Griffin’s fixation on finding out where his great-grandparents originally emigrated from, and what their last name was before it was changed into an English surname, bore additional fruit for the young artist. He began to become more religiously observant and yearned to learn more about the Jewish way of life.
“My lifestyle choices and getting more into my religion was restrengthening the chain and trying to reconnect back,” he adds. “I became more religious at about the same time that I got really into painting. They pretty much ran parallel. They were both things that I was always interested in. In my late teens, I said to myself, this is the kind of life I want and this is what I want to do. They’ve been developing together ever since.”
Griffin visited Israel for the first time when he was 16. After living in an area of England that did not have many Jews in it, coming to Israel awakened him to the fact that he had a people, a language, a history and a land. Griffin longed to discover all of them and make them a real part of his life.
Toward the end of high school, his parents decided that they wanted to leave England and retire to Cyprus.
Griffin saw the move as a stepping stone toward Israel. He became involved with the Chabad House in Cyprus.
“I knew it wasn’t a regular synagogue; these were people who wanted to show me what Judaism is and I took advantage of that,” he states. “I would ask questions, did a lot of online research, and read any book I could get my hands on. I also studied art there for a year. So at the same time as I was discovering painting, I was also discovering the Jewish religion.”
This eventually led him when he was 20 to move to Israel, where he underwent a process of becoming Israeli. He spent six months on a religious kibbutz, attended Mayanot Yeshiva for a year, and then served in the army for the two following years.
“These things gave me the foundation that I didn’t have before,” Griffin shares. “I got to see how people lived a religious lifestyle. What time do they get up and pray in the morning? How do they do it? Until then, I was pretty isolated. It’s a process of learning that’s still going on in a way.”
Right after the army, he enrolled in Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Now four years on, he is in his final year and will graduate in July with a degree in fine arts. His time at Bezalel has been challenging in many ways, but also a time of immense growth, both artistically and personally.
Bezalel exposed him to a side of Israeli society that he hadn’t experienced before. After the requisite adjustment period, he began to really enjoy it; finding a place for himself as an artist, gaining connections, getting feedback from peers, and having the ability to showcase his work and discuss other people’s work.
“It loosens you up and prepares you for what comes next,” he says. “In an art critique, you have to be able to accurately describe what it is you’re trying to do in a way that you’re not talking too much, so that you’re taking away from the viewer’s imagination, but also not too little so that you’re giving the right amount of information.
“Honing that skill is not easy, but it really is important. When you don’t do it right, you get people asking you questions that you didn’t want them to ask or stopping you in your tracks. I’m not so good at talking about myself and my work. I think that’s why visual artists do what they do, because they’re better at communicating through the visual. I think it’s the best metaphor for tzimtzum, constriction. You have to take the essence of your art, put it in a nutshell, and give it over in a digestible way where it’s not going to lose all of its meaning.”
Griffin is showing his work in an exhibition at the Beit Hatfutsot – Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. The exhibition, organized by the Student Authority, is a collaboration with a group of artists who are all immigrants. Griffin’s piece is a large black and white painting of a hassidic farbrengen, or spiritual gathering of singing and learning.
For Griffin, the piece marks the beginning of a new stage in his process and technique. Instead of applying paint with a brush, he covers the canvas with paint and then wipes it away with a rag to reveal the image underneath. This technique gives his work a somewhat ghostly, even haunting effect. The emotions seem to seep up and out from the canvas.
“It’s very quick because I have to do it before the paint dries,” he adds. “I did whole series of black and white paintings depicting different hassidic scenes, all of them with this method of subtracting rather than adding. It’s a style that I’m using a lot now."
"For me it was closing the circle, coming back to religious, Jewish- themed paintings; that idea of wanting to reconnect to our history. This new technique is really fun and I’m experimenting with it in different ways. I’m trying to hone it and make it into something that’s mine.”
Griffin initially learned the subtraction technique as an exercise at Bezalel. Once he tried it on his own outside of class, he was hooked. The feedback he received confirmed that he was on to something and it opened up doors for him artistically.
“I wanted to paint these subjects, to talk about hassidic Judaism, but I didn’t know how to do it in a way that would accurately describe how I felt about it,” he explains. “I didn’t know how to paint hassidic Judaism without making it into Judaica, which I see all over Jerusalem. I was always frustrated with that kind of art."
“After being a part of the hassidic world and seeing what it really is, that’s not an accurate description for me. Once I discovered this technique, I knew that this was how I could do it. I want to show contemporary hassidic life through contemporary painting, trying to make it relevant and interesting for everyone.
“I still see myself as an outsider sometimes, because I didn’t grow up in this world, so I can look at it with new eyes. It’s strange, funny, interesting, and amazing. I’m fully part of it, eating kugel and herring on Shabbos, singing hassidic songs. Sometimes I step back and think, where am I? I’m not trying to say anything sophisticated. I’m asking, have you noticed this?”
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