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Northeastern woodland tribes come to life in artist's work

GIBSONIA, Pa. - As a boy growing up in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, artist Robert Griffing haunted the Indian trails that ran through the woods near his home, imagining he could still find a tree on which warriors had painted their battle exploits and warnings to their enemies.

''I was just naive enough to think I could still find a painted tree,'' he said in ''The Art of Robert Griffing: His Journey into the Eastern Frontier,'' a collection of 75 color reproductions interwoven with the history and photos of the Natives and artifacts that drive his artistic production.

Griffing never did find a painted tree; ''but, nevertheless, every time I went into the woods, I wondered who had been there before me ... what they had looked like ... and did they ever sit under the same tree as I did and wonder about the future?''

Griffing's early fascination with the indigenous peoples of the area became a lifelong passion; now, in his 60s, he is among the foremost painters of 18th century Northeastern woodland Indians.

The journey to mastering his unique style of super-realistic narrative painting led Griffing through the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and a 30-year career in advertising, where the rigors of illustration, design and layout formed the foundation of his artistic development.

''It was during that phase in my life that I learned to work with models and fine-tune my sense of composition. I could never have achieved success as a painter without the benefit of that experience,'' Griffing said.

Many of his models are descendants of the tribes he paints - Oneida, Tuscarora and Seneca. The work of embodying their ancestors and being immortalized in works of art is very meaningful to the models, Griffing said.

''They're just thrilled to death. I can't even tell you the reaction I get from them,'' Griffing said.

Deep friendship develops between the artist and models.

''I'm very fortunate. These are very close friends of mine and I have an intimate relationship with them, and I'm able to do that because of how they feel about the subject. I always have total respect for the people I'm painting and I do get the respect back. It's something I value probably more than the support of the white population. When you get the support of the people you are representing, it's very rewarding,'' Griffing said.

In 1992, Griffing left advertising to focus all of his energies on painting. A specialist in the Northeastern woodland Indian of the 18th century, he paints typical scenes from everyday life and depictions of actual historical events.

Griffing's paintings are filled with photographic-like detail that comes from extensive historical knowledge and archival research. Beyond the meticulous renderings of ornament, branch, leaf and river, however, it is the artist's uncanny ability to give life, character and emotional reality to each individual he paints that draws the viewer into his paintings.

In ''Brothers of the Forest,'' for example, one of the figures gazes calmly back into the eyes of the viewer. In ''Leaving,'' a girl's sad eyes peers off to the distance as she clings to the arm of her father, who is forced to leave the family because of Europeans' expansion and warfare. In ''The Peacemaker,'' an elaborately dressed Indian statesman wearing a wampum belt around his neck squints, each wrinkle of his furrowed brow finely drawn.

Light is a large aspect of his works. Along with the classical elements of perspective and composition, Griffing's figures and landscapes are bathed in a light as pure as the Dutch masters'.

''That's what I'm trying to achieve,'' Griffing said.

After researching every detail of an historic event, Griffing photographs the models outdoors.

''Just by putting them in that environment in the forest creates some very dramatic lighting and to actually portray that is always a challenge. I think that's what sets my art apart from the Western art,'' Griffing said.

Although Griffing's paintings provide intimate windows into the lives of Northeastern woodland Indians more than 200 years ago, they are not sentimental or nostalgic, but rather imbued with a kind of edgy reality that cuts through the centuries to say: This is what it was like to be an Indian in the 18th century in this part of the ''New World,'' when wars of resistance were fought with the European colonist/settlers who multiplied exponentially each decade as they pushed further and further West, expropriating Indian lands and plowing over indigenous culture and traditions.

Some of his originals sell for more than $100,000, said Cathy Seymour, co-owner of Paramount Press, which published ''The Art of Robert Griffing.'' Paramount Press (www.paramount

press.com), which specializes in the French and Indian War era, is Griffith's exclusive publisher and seller of original paintings as well as limited-edition prints.

Part of his mission is to educate, Griffing said.

''That's what I'm trying to do - educate everybody - because I don't think a lot of people know about the Eastern woodland Indians. I think it's not taught in schools. People look at Native American art and they're seeing Western Indians in art, on TV, in the movies,'' Griffing said.

Griffing and Paramount Press are preparing the second volume of his work, ''The Narrative Art of Robert Griffing: The Journey Continues.'' It will include around 125 color reproductions and will be published in the summer.

The title reflects the future Griffing visualizes.

''I just want to keep getting better and telling more stories. There's new research being done and new discoveries being discovered and things coming to light every day, so hopefully we can add new dimensions to the work that we didn't even know existed before,'' Griffing said.