Introducing Denny Griffith, a new artist on the rich Columbus scene who will have his first exhibition open this month at CCAD.

Introducing Denny Griffith, a new artist on the rich Columbus scene who will have his first exhibition open this month at CCAD.

Any confusion is understandable. Griffith is indeed the former and much-lauded CCAD president, serving for 16 years until his retirement in 2014. But the artist and former administrator, who has been fighting an as-private-as-possible battle with cancer for the past 20 months, insists that Another World, a sizable exhibition of his new work hosted by his former school, represents "a coming out as a new artist."

Not that Griffith ever wasn't an artist. He's been a painter for 40 years, including during his undergraduate and graduate studies in fine arts, and his career helping shape the local art scene first at the Ohio Arts Council, then for 13 years at the Columbus Museum of Art prior to moving on to CCAD.

"I've learned over time that the big goal is to find out what you have to say as an artist that is visually distinctive or unique," Griffith said. "I've always loved to look at the world and render the world, and I've kept up my art practice even while I was working."

Griffith was very clear in saying, "These paintings are not about cancer."

"I know people are going to say 'Denny's work looks radically different. Denny has cancer.' And make a connection. It can't help but affect it, I guess, but this work is full of color, joyous and vivid. [Retirement and the cancer diagnosis] have only impacted my work in two ways. One, sometimes I don't have the energy I'd like. And two, I have so much more time I've been able to generate an enormous amount of work."

He said the sea change in his work began prior to announcing his retirement from CCAD, when he made two decisions regarding his studio work which led to one conclusion.

First, he pushed himself to adopt a new language in his work. And second, he began to asking friends - CCAD staff and other colleagues - to his studio to critique his work.

"What happened was I underwent a radical change as a painter. I decided I was not going to make work that people expected me to make," Griffith said.

His new work has an extraterrestrial quality to it, one of otherworldly and mystical landscapes full of "biomorphic forms, microbes, molds, leafy, grow-y things," he said.

One of the critiques came from a 9-year-old son of a colleague, who compared Griffith's new work to the world of Spongebob Squarepants.

"The new work has freedom, not desperation," Tim Rietenbach, a CCAD professor who's had a chance to see Griffith's new work, said. "There is a great sense of humor in a sort of cartoon world, a surrealist landscape.

"I really admire him. Nothing's stopping him."

CMA Executive Director Nannette Maciejunes also expressed excitement at the "new"-ness in Griffith's work. "He's had this incredible burst of energy, a great new energy in [his] studio. The new work has a great risk-taking to it. It gives us a great new way of looking at the world," she said.

Maciejunes also said the exhibition provides an opportunity for the community to celebrate Griffith's legacy, since his retirement was so closely followed by the announcement of his cancer diagnosis.

"We've all hungered for this," she said. "Denny is one of those key cultural figures of this generation."

Kevin Conlon, CCAD interim president and provost, agreed, calling Griffith's legacy "significant."

"Denny is so incredibly tied to the Columbus community, and not just at CCAD," he said.

But he was quick to point out that this is not a "legacy" exhibition.

"This show isn't about that. It's about his energy in the studio and about his evolution as an artist. There was no anxiety for Denny in stepping back into the role of studio artist after years as a teacher and administrator," said Conlon, who has known Griffith since the two first exhibited together in 1987.

Another World is being curated by CCAD exhibitions director Michael Goodson, and will be on view in the school's newly-named Beeler Gallery.

"Admittedly, it feels like coming home," Griffith said. "To be invited back - I care about the place tremendously, and I'm glad the people there are excited about it."

Hammond Harkins Gallery, which has long represented Griffith, will host a concurrent solo exhibition of Griffith's work. "I got enough stuff for all that and then some," Griffith joked. "The two shows relate, but really, the curatorial focus is different."

"We've had a great relationship for over two decades, and we've watched his work grow and develop," Hammond Harkins Gallery owner Marlana Hammond Keynes said, adding, of Griffith's latest work, "You could see the progression. It was really intriguing what he was doing. He chose to push himself."

As for the cancer and treatment, Griffith was upbeat and credited the "caring and professional" staff at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital.

"I'm doing really well," he said. "It's never fun to fight this disease. I have good days and I have days when I want to take a nap all day - so I do. I take it one day at a time."