Friendly breathing, 2005 : Oils, mixed media, sound sensors and electronic components on canvas, 1350 x 1070mmwith Robert Berold

Artist Tammy Griffin has spent the past two years working on a series of playful paintings which incorporate both paint and electronic components. The paintings can be viewed in the light as abstract paintings, while in the dark they turn into surfaces coloured by moving

How to describe this unusual artist?   I decided to visit Tammy Griffin in her studio in a semi-wild valley in the Eastern Cape.  I viewed her paintings in the daylight and darklight, and was astonished. They showed me the magical wild mind of an artist transforming impersonal industrial materials into delicate organic beauty.

I asked Tammy a few questions –

What goes through your mind while you work?

Often it’s trees, how they balance … tiny pinpricks of paint make leaf marks, bigger marks in luminous koki are often trunks and branches. People appear – spirits of the trees, I like to think.

Also going through my mind – war, the state of the world, family, words (mine and words of other artists), techniques, dimensions, colour, stars and planets, symbols, music, the I Ching.  And for this exhibition, magnified views of the inner workings of microprocessors.
Why did you move away from pure painting to making paintings embedded with electronic components?

I was feeling blocked, and I found that using electronic components shifted the block. When I started sculpting I began to play.  You know, there are distractions in sculpture – calculations, measurements, different tools, experiments, models, touching – it’s physical.  I play more when I’m bending wire, cutting metal, sanding, bolting, throwing resin moulds, soldering, drawing blueprints for light sequences or wire maps – when I’m being challenged by puzzles.  So I decided to mix a modern medium into my palette.  I wanted oils and computers together on canvas as a statement in itself.

Can you describe the process of doing a painting?

OK, let’s take a day I can remember, a recent work. I’d had a fight.  I was angry. So I took a tube of luminous pink acrylic.  I swore six times onto the white blank canvas … this helped me start.  Then I turned the canvas round.  On the one end I wrote to the person I’d fought with, on the other I wrote to me.  But this written conversation itself was short-lived … in no time my writing changed into cryptic script or marks influenced by my most recent portrait study.  It became more poetical, philosophical, then abstract.  This was the final piece in the series. I wanted no words, just paint. So I covered the words with paint and lights.

I sat and stared at the work for hours at a time without painting. I saw things … trees … possibly projections … premonitions.  At times I had to rest.  There was the wiring to do, LED wires to pierce through the canvas.  At the back of the canvas I had to solder, glue and tie wires in specific ways.  I had to join and cover the fragile microprocessors and make socket points in the aluminium frame.

How do you feel when you see one of your light paintings moving silently in the dark?

The random programming in the microprocessors produces endless surprises – faces, abstract images, figures appear and dance – always in new combinations. I’m often just starting to enjoy an image then itfades … never to return again. For instance when I was trying to photograph the paintings, I set up and was about to click on what I wanted to capture, and it moved out of my grasp … Looking at the lights painting themselves in the dark, sometimes I feel energised, sometimes soothed.

There’s an interplay between the electronic light and the painted surface…

Yes, in the total dark the lights slowly ramp up and create shadows in the bumps and grooves of the paint or reflect into the resin or the metal pins. As the lights change, the luminous or complementary colours bounce back and forth, the shadows move and create an illusion of movement …
What are the biggest lessons from doing this work?

I used to find it hard to know when to stop painting and say it’s time to let go.  In this series I learned how to begin and then end a work or series of works. I became more aware of my own language and dynamics as an artist.

Another lesson – I need to rest more, play more.  And make sure I have all the funding I need to avoid stress and panic attacks!

The biggest lesson?  Realising that the work goes way beyond me. When I paint I enter a world that is not familiar to me, I do not feel in control  – the painting and the surface talk back to me, the bumps an grooves, the spaces in between, the balance, the colour and the reflections. So that actually I’m just a transmitter.

Why do you live and work on a remote farm?

It’s quiet. I can walk to my studio any time day or night. I like to hear the crickets sing uninterrupted.  I like living under a forest, bumping into buck or bumble-bees, planting trees and hearing owls tuwit tuwoo.

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