Heart and Torch

Today I was looking through some photos and posters that I want to frame and hang, and was struck again by how much I love this picture of Rick Griffin, taken on Easter in 1971, at (I think) his place in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights district. (I have a poster-sized version of it, signed by the photographer, John Van Hamersveld. Definitely a keeper.) The tiny jpeg I posted above really doesn't do it justice; you can't see the eyes, but never mind. If you want to see it full-sized, come over to my house. Anyway, Griffin was an artist who became famous for his psychedelic posters in the 1960s. He designed some of the Grateful Dead’s most iconic posters and album covers, and became well known in the surfing subculture of southern California for his illustrations and comics for Surfer magazine.

In 1970, Griffin became a Christian—a self-professed “Jesus Freak”—and changed the focus of his art to religious themes. His most significant works from this period were the hundreds of paintings and drawings he produced for an illustrated version of the Gospel of John. He died in 1991, at the age of 47, from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident in Northern California.

A few years ago, the Laguna Art Museum held a retrospective exhibition of Griffin’s work called “Heart and Torch: Rick Griffin’s Transcendence.” David and I took the kids, who loved the colorful, comic-book style of much of the art. I personally don’t love all of Griffin’s work, but there is a current of hope and longing that runs through even the darker-themed pieces that is compelling.

I think I love this particular photograph of Griffin because he looks like a wild but gentle prophet, able to see things the rest of us might miss.

Your drawings of
breaking waves,
flying eyeballs,
swirling colors
and sacred hearts
tell me that even when you were here,
you weren’t really here.
You were never of this world
and left it a little early.
I look at your eyes
in a black and white photograph,
your hair and beard as wild as John the Baptist’s
might have been,
and wish you could tell me
what you’re seeing now.