Where others see modern-day cities, he sees ancient Indian villages. Where others see today’s crop fields, he sees vast virgin forests. In short, Robert Griffing sees Ohio as it was long before it ever became a state. He also sees — and paints — the Native American people who lived here more than 250 years ago.
Born and raised in the extreme northwest corner of Pennsylvania (Linesville, to be exact), Griffing has been intrigued by North American Indians ever since that memorable day as a boy when he found his first flint arrowhead lying along the shoreline of nearby Pymatuning Lake. “That was the beginning of my fascination with Indians,” Robert says.
Possessing an innate talent for drawing, Griffing enrolled in art school after high school, and became art director at an advertising agency in Pittsburgh for the next 30 years, but he pursued his painting hobby during odd hours. “I just couldn’t get Indians out of my head,” he says.
In 1991, Griffing’s alma mater, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, offered him a one-man show featuring his art. It was an evening that changed his life. “Within an hour, all of my paintings of Eastern Woodlands Indians had sold, and many people ordered prints of those seven original portraits,” he says.
Soon after, Griffing resigned from his ad-agency job and turned to painting full-time. “It was the best career move I ever made,” he says. Since then, he has created more than 325 paintings of Eastern Woodlands Indians, and he shows no sign of slowing his pace.
Prices for his original artwork now range from a few thousand dollars to as much as five figures. Lithograph prints of his original paintings, more within the financial reach of most people, sell from $40 to several hundred dollars each.
What makes Griffing’s artwork so popular are not only the subject matter and historical accuracy and detail of his paintings, but also his use of dramatic lighting, reminiscent of the Dutch master painters of the 1700s. Not surprisingly, it’s the same type of light frequently found in old-growth forests. His paintings tell a story, creating a certain mood.
Ohio has a rich Indian history, and Griffing takes full advantage of that fact. For instance, one of his more recent works depicts a dozen warriors traveling along a small stream. The background setting for the painting is Old Man’s Cave, today part of Hocking Hills State Park in southeast Ohio.
Models for his paintings during the early years of his career were mainly re-enactors — non-native people interested in 18th-century living history. But during the last decade, Griffing has developed relationships with Native Americans of several tribes who have become good friends and now act as his models. One of those people is Roger Moore, who lives in Mansfield. Moore’s portrait graces the cover of the first of two books of Griffing’s art.
“When I got the natives involved, my paintings began to take on a different look,” Griffing says. “There’s just something about a real Native American in the way he stands and in his actions that gives my paintings the authentic look of a warrior, chief, or Indian woman.”
W.H. “Chip” Gross is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor.