End of the Line

Roy Blount Jr.’s Colorful Marriage

Life on the other side of the easel

An illustration of a couple on a tandem bike; a man pedals in the front while a woman paints him from the back

Illustration: BARRY BLITT

The first time I saw Joan Griswold, I said, “Damn, she’s pretty. What does she do?”

“Paint,” I was told.

“You mean…?”

“Yep. An artist.”

“Well, where’s her ocelot?”

You see, I didn’t grow up around artists. I did once happen upon Salvador Dalí, in a department store, making an appearance, with his pet ocelot. They were upstaging each other back and forth. Neither of them looked like anybody you would want to spend twenty-five years with. Which is what Joan and I have done together.

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Yes, my wife is an artist—genuine, accomplished, practicing. In oils primarily, though she can sit there in the shotgun seat with her iPad in her lap and capture, with her forefinger or a special electronic pencil, what it looks like through the windshield at night on I-81 in the rain. When we go for a walk, she takes photos, for future reference, of big gray patches where graffiti has been painted over.

Her work has been shown, for sale, in galleries from New York to Nashville, Paris to San Francisco, Kyoto to Greenville, Mississippi. She can paint a tea bag or a typewriter or a barge on the Mississippi that anybody can enjoy—me, for instance, but especially people who know brushstrokes, close values, and the influences of Japan and John Singer Sargent. “I am not making art history,” Joan will tell you, but one museum curator saw a Griswold in a mutual friend’s house and tried to buy it. Said it wasn’t anything she would hang in her museum, because it wasn’t neo-surrealist or whatever, but she would admire to live with it in her home. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans did prominently hang a big painting of Joan’s, of the inside of a room, and if I do say so it looked smashing. And so did she. It is often said of the rooms she paints: They look like people of consequence have just left them.

She doesn’t do things for appearances’ sake, like Dalí with the ocelot. She does happen to be (and I say this with some resentment) the favorite person of our cat, Jimmy, but there’s nothing arty about Jimmy. Griswold still has all of her ears, if you catch my art-history allusion.

She doesn’t melt industrial furniture into shapes that make statements about world oppression. Nor on the other hand does she have a surefire trademark animal. People would forever be saying to me, “Oh, your wife is the one who does the magenta butterflies?”

And I would have to say, “Moths.”

And they would say, “Magenta, though.”

And I would have to say, “Fuchsia.” Over and over and over.

Another reason I’m glad Griswold would never resort to some instant-branding critter-doodle is that it would make us wealthy—blue-dog rich, you might say—and she’d be wanting to go to Paris or somewhere all the time, whereas I am happier going to Paris maybe every eight or ten or twelve years. People would be saying, “Where’s Joan?” and I’d be saying Paris, and they would say, “How come you didn’t go?” And I’d be saying, “Well, I had to write a column,” and they’d say, “Had to? Why?”

Although attached to no school, she teaches. Takes students on trips to Italy and so on. Firmly but friendlily imparts the fundamentals. This statement from her website will give you some idea of Griswold’s granularity:


I like how light moves: caresses a cup up to a point, slips around the cup’s curve into shadow, then bounces back out from the tabletop bearing the cup’s reflection.

I like how light casts seductive patterns of shapes and colors onto the faces of buildings. I like how the warmth of light brings out the life in an empty bedroom. I like the drama of a single light in a darkened hallway.

I aim to capture light.

With paint.

I enjoy mixing paint, brushing it on, wiping it out and scumbling it back on; I love making what looks like a mess, has all the energy of a mess, up close. But as you step back, the mess becomes a book on a desk, a pillow on a couch, lamplight across a bed.

She’s a fearless cook. The first time she undertook gumbo (having not grown up within thirteen hundred miles of Louisiana), she set a hearty batch of it out for a big Mardi Gras party, in our house in New Orleans. Beforehand, I said to her, “Uhhh, you realize our guests will include Cajuns?”

It was good gumbo. The Cajuns all endorsed it. And ate it.

The art of Griswold is like that.