Art school jokes don’t carry much water in Columbus, and much of that has to do with Denny Griffith. When the longtime Columbus College of Art and Design president lost his battle with cancer last month, the city lost a man who steered thousands of CCAD students out into the world and into meaningful occupations. Columbus, as a whole, would be a little less artistic without the work of Griffith, a brilliant painter himself, and in addition to influencing some of the people who help make this very magazine, you can also thank him for that giant ART sculpture downtown. Simply put, the capital city had a certain energy to it when Denny was with us, and in his wake, (614) offers extra words of inspiration
When I started TEDxColumbus in 2009, I reached out to Denny Griffith for ideas of speakers. He was, after all, a member of the Kit Kat Club with my dad, the group that inspired me to want to do TEDx in the first place. He was really helpful in brainstorming the first year; the second year he then helped to host at CCAD. Then came the third year. I started the planning by sending him this note:
Subject: YOU! I wrote: You wanna take a stab at being a TEDxColumbus speaker this year? Back to what we discussed last year? Minutes later he wrote:
He and I spent the next months back and forth over his talk. It was both messy and cathartic for him, a fascinating journey faor me. I learned about what a truly creative mind goes through in trying to be concise and being “done.” I found that the talk sought for a sense of balance, beauty, and justice, just as his life had. We were not close colleagues, but we had a close bond after this experience. And then there was that moment in 2012 when I sent a note letting him know my dad had unexpectedly died in his sleep. His response: “Ruth, your Dad was a giant and one of the most brilliant, gracious, and admirable men imaginable.”Denny, back at you. Takes one to know one.
Ruth Milligan, Co-founder, TEDxColumbus
I was introduced to Denny’s world two decades ago by Susan Saxbe. From the beginning, I was amazed how this very public figure balanced the contemplative, creative, and focused life of an artist with the demands of the professional life of a college president and arts leader. Michael Goodson said it best: “I knew that Denny was not the president of an art college that also made paintings or, for that matter, a painter that somehow became a community arts leader but rather a native melding of the two. It was in his nature, I reckoned, to do both with measured passion and clarity.”From my perspective, passion was the center of Denny’s artistic life. Over the years, I would sit with him in his studio and discuss future exhibitions of his work. These conversations focused on progression and change in his painting and how it would be presented to the public. I realized how lucky I was to be a small part of his extraordinary vision.
Marlana Hammond Keynes, Hammond Harkins Gallery
Here’s what I remember about Denny Griffith, who came on board at CCAD after my first year without a school president. He sat down with our willy-nilly version of a student council for breakfast and listened to our gripes. He had a lot of important executive things to do, and he listened to a bunch of 18-21-year-olds. He threw a party at his own home for my graduating class. The personal touch—its influence lasts longer than a body ever can. Classy guy. I often draw confidence from what I learned in that transitional time at CCAD in the late ’90s/early 2000s. I’m more than just my chosen major or current job title; I’m an artist, I’m a designer, I’m a strategic thinker, I’m a community member, I’m a friend. The list goes on. One informs the other. I learned to embrace this complexity in myself and in others by being in the presence of Denny’s leadership style. Over the last decade, I’ve watched my alma mater grow more connected to the Columbus community…grow more originative within that community. Art, design, and technology have grown into more blended practices in that time, and Denny was at the forefront of making sure the students of CCAD had the tools and resources to grow in tandem. Forever thankful to have witnessed that.
Lisa Ragland, Senior Designer, DSW
I first met Denny … wow … a long time ago when he was with the Columbus Museum of Art. He was deputy director and I had just started working as a journalist, writing about a grab-bag of topics on the Columbus art scene. I was young and goofy and nervous to be meeting with the deputy director. Well, he was so kind and down to earth; he didn’t throw around art- world jargon that I had to pretend to understand. Instead,he was passionate. Passionate about not only the art itself, but the way art can serve as an aesthetic meeting place for the community. Then there was the time I ran into him at an ACME Art auction. The non-profit, emerging artist-focused gallery was a out there, like … out there – the bathroom itself was a separate gallery with its own exhibition schedule. And there was Denny, in the midst of all the starving, crazy artists in combat boots and Army Navy Surplus finery. And he was wearing leather pants. It was awesome.
The last time I saw Denny was to interview him for the (614) Interview issue a couple years ago on the cusp of his retirement as president of CCAD. He was his passionate and community oriented self—acknowledging the landmark changes from his tenure at the institution, but giving credit to the city as well: “And there’s a lot of really good, smart, committed, and passionate people here. I always get a little squeamish when people say, “Denny, You’ve done this and you’ve done that, and sure, I’ve tried to set tone, be strategically thoughtful, or even sometimes strategically crafting about how to advance the college —there’s a ton of really great people here and that makes the job easy.” On a whim, I asked him what was his theme song would be, and looking back at my notes, his answer now seems oddly prescient: “My theme song would be that Louie Armstrong song, ‘What a Wonderful World.’ It’s such a celebration of the beauty and joy of life.” Just like you were, Denny.
Kim Leddy, (614) Magazine