The Man Who Found Water Where It Wasn’t

The heat wave is beating down on Kirkland. Houghton Beach Park is layered with half-covered, lethargic bodies like in the crowded beach scene in Jaws, just before the shark appears. I glance at my cell phone to find an ominous text message from a friend: “There are 130 people in line at Home Depot, waiting for a truck that only has forty air conditioners on it.”

Behind the heavy door of the Central Club, Kirkland’s first beer pub, there is mercifully low light and killer air conditioning. Established in 1936 by entrepreneurs L. C. Streeter and Joe Reidt, the bar is a safe bet for hipsters seeking cold PBR on tap in relative anonymity. Painter and Kirkland Arts Center (KAC) exhibitions director Cable Griffith occasionally stops here after work to catch Mariners highlights before facing the gridlocked road home to Ballard. He likes the contrast with the über-hip (but not air-conditioned) KAC.

Photo by Charlie Clay

I find Griffith sitting near the pool tables, and we chat over cold beers. He has a great way of letting dry humor complement an unblinking passion for art. Maybe it’s the East Coast accent, peppered with hints of a Christopher Walken–style cadence. Even when he’s talking high-falutin’ art concepts, you sense his feet are firmly on the ground.

When it comes to the arts, many local critics look at the Eastside as a wasteland bearing a few scattered cultural oases. So the question can’t be avoided: will KAC tap the well and create a flourishing arts community here — one that parallels Seattle’s? Griffith isn’t sure. “One of my strengths has always been that I’m a little naïve enough to think I can do anything; I’m kind of oblivious to cynicism. I just feel lucky to be given an opportunity.”

He demonstrates optimism even as he tells me about the morning’s bomb scare (a guy held up Kirkland’s Sterling Bank, claiming to have a bomb in a bag); he jokes: “The street culture here, I think it’s on the upswing. Did Seattle have a bomb scare today? No, Kirkland did.”

Griffith grew up in Bedford, NY. His grandmother, a talented draftswoman, attended Parsons School of Design, back before it was common for women to cultivate such high-powered career paths. Griffith may have inherited some of her innate confidence: “In elementary school, I wore a beret to school,” he admits, laughing. “I thought: ‘I am the art kid at the school. I am the artist.’” He had his first solo show at the local library when he was six years old.

He went on to study art at Boston University, and in 2000 he moved to Seattle, where he earned an MFA from the UW. He taught classes at KAC for four years, painting houses so he could afford to paint canvases in his spare time. By the time KAC’s previous exhibitions director moved on, Griffith had become such a valued contributor around the place that the torch was passed to him.

It seems appropriate that Griffith was named after the titular character in Sam Peckinpah’s Ballad of Cable Hogue, who finds water “where it wasn’t” and makes a fortune building a desert pit stop. While the hero of the film is motivated solely by revenge (he wants to kill the lowlifes who ditched him there in the first place), Griffith just wants to help create more intersections where art meets people’s daily lives.

He’s realistic about the kind of artistic community he has in mind — and how it differs from the kind that exists in Kirkland now. (The majority of artists showing at KAC are imports from Seattle and beyond.) “It would be nice if there were something like the Hiawatha Lofts for artists out here. I think that’s actually one of the fundamental things. We need artists to live here.”

Griffith seems to have a soft spot for the undiscovered or underappreciated. A born explorer — his days as a kid were spent playing video games, traversing the woods behind his house and creating original board games — Griffith wants to find his own path and make his own rules.

Part of that, he says, is being a painter: “When you give someone every possible tool under the rainbow to make something interesting, I’m not too surprised when they succeed. But when people are able to make something really fascinating with limited tools that go back thousands of years, that’s really interesting to me.”

As he describes it, the limited language of painting Griffith uses in his work creates exciting challenges: using only sticks, lines and circles, he creates “photo-realistic” paintings of a fantasy world he sees in his head, almost pared down to the cellular level. And he’s serious when he says “world.” He’s painted a giant map inspired by the video-game maps he spent a lot of time with as a kid. It gives you an overview of this world, which he then reveals at closer range in his smaller paintings. “I’m doing this forever,” he says. “I’m making this world as real as I possibly can.”

Griffith would love to paint versions of this world on cave walls — he fantasizes his work will still be there after a real apocalypse (not just the Northwest’s pity party excuse for a heat wave). But he was stymied when friends told him caves are generally owned — that his plan was technically illegal graffiti. Why not make a gallery wall your “cave,” I ask? After all, a cave in the middle of the Olympic Mountains isn’t going to have much of an audience. “No, it wouldn’t,” Griffith considers. “But it would have a specific audience.”

“As a kid, I’d have a dream where I’d found a new place in the woods,” he continues. “I’d wake up convinced that it existed — or confused over whether it was really a dream or not. So I’d go out in the woods trying to find these places. I’d never find them — but I would find other places. That’s a totally addictive place to be: on the verge of discovery, always.”


The Central Club
— where “It’s Never Too Late
to Start Wasting Your Day”

124 Kirkland Ave.
Open Mon. – Sun., 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 a.m.
Happy hour at all hours