Landscape artist Jay Griffith teams up with Kiss the Ground to create green space that’s truly a work of art

By Andrew Dubbins

Griffith is redesigning the landscape of Venice Arts Plaza to give it a better sense of identity
Photo by Maria Martin

Before I could introduce myself to landscape designer Jay Griffith, he stomped off into the cactus, in his flipflops, to find some rocks to use as paperweights for his concept sketches, which kept getting blown away by the wind.

Griffith was about to begin his tour of the Venice Arts Plaza, a cluster of Art Deco and Spanish-style buildings that were once Venice’s old jailhouse and city hall but now house the nonprofits SPARC (Social Public Art Resource Center), Beyond Baroque and Kiss the Ground. He’s spent the past several months redesigning the plaza’s garden area to give the place a sense of identity and make it visible to motorists speeding down Venice Boulevard.

After steadying his drawings with two large rocks, Griffith disappeared around the side of the old jailhouse. My tour group of about 15 area residents eventually realized he wasn’t coming back and decided that perhaps this tour was self-guided. After a few minutes strolling around SPARC’s gallery of Chicano-themed artwork, I decided I’d better go look for Griffith because he was supposed to be the subject of my article.

I found him in the garden showing his concept drawings to an older woman. Griffith has a bushy white beard and talks in short bursts. He sometimes struggles to articulate his vision, relying on animated hand gestures and words like “reinvention” and “reinvigoration,” but, true to an artist, his passion for his vision is contagious and makes you want to be around him.

In a rapid-fire overview of his Art Plaza project, set for completion in August, Griffith told me about how he’s using a very specific shade of Coca-Cola red for the planter boxes, how he’s planning an installation of antique surfboards, and how he wants to plant vines on the parking lot fence to “create a line of green that softens the cars.”

For the boring background details Griffith punted me off to Matt Finkelstein of Kiss the Ground, a nonprofit that promotes regenerative gardening as a method to reverse climate change. It was Kiss the Ground that first planted the garden, three years ago, to provide a model of regenerative growing.

The garden is open to the public and contains sunflowers, cacti, various flowers and beds of annual vegetables, as well as a greenhouse, wood fire-oven and small stage. I asked Finkelstein how Griffith got involved. “I have no idea,” he answered.

Finkelstein recounted that one day he got a frantic call from his garden co-manager about some guy stomping around in the flower beds, pulling up plants. Finkelstein headed out and confronted Griffith, sternly, but then Griffith rattled off his long list of local community garden projects and said he was there to help.

“He’s been a gem,” says Finkelstein. At least once a week, Griffith has been volunteering his time and five-person landscaping crew to bring his unique vision for the aging plaza to life. He’s painted two tall century plants turquoise, which he selected as Kiss the Ground’s “identity color,” and he’s installed large signs out front that read SPARC and ARTS. Finkelstein says he had to veto one of Griffith’s wilder ideas — hanging reflective streamers from the trees — because plastic streamers don’t gel with Kiss the Ground’s eco-friendly mission.

The rest of my tour group eventually wandered up through the bushes, looking for Griffith like kids playing hide-and-go-seek. He climbed onto the stage and offered some concluding remarks — which was a surprise, since few of us had realized the tour had even begun. He described phase two of the project, which will involve vegetable beds radiating out like sunrays, a mural of Cesar Chavez, and a row of doors recycled from a mansion in Beverly Hills. We listened, wide eyed-and slack-jawed, excited about this artist’s vision, whether we understood it or not.

Meet Jay Griffith at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 20, during the concluding party for the Venice Design Series, a fundraiser for the nonprofit Venice Community Housing Corp. The champagne gala includes a tour of the former Hughes Aircraft Co. executive headquarters that is now home to the digital advertising firm 72andSunny. Visit venicedesignseries.org for more info.

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