Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Of Dragons and Demons: The Art and Legacy of Kevin Kanai Griffith

A framed Malthael Sketch by the late Kevin Kanai Griffith (2013) next to his Frostmourne sword

We never know how long we have, or what our lasting legacy might be. I'd like to think that, generally speaking, a life long-lived is a good one, and so it's all-the-more painful when friends or family pass away "too soon."

In 2013, I shared a memorial blog about fellow artist, and nature and bird enthusiast named Caroline Muchmore, who passed away from Cystic Fibrosis (she was 26 years young).

  

And today, and for the last few years, really, I've wanted so desperately to share the legacy of a fellow artist and dear friend Kevin Kanai Griffith with the world, but attempting to do so feels like an incredibly impossible prospect. I simply can't hope to encapsulate someone in a few paragraphs and scattered images, but I'll try my best.


Memories of Kevin
 

Kevin Kanai Grifftith's birthday is March 24th, and he would have been 34 this year. Unfortunately, sometimes the lights that burn the brightest are sometimes snuffed out far too soon, and Kevin passed away on October 17th, 2014 from Alveolar Soft Part Sarcoma (ASPS) cancer (he was 32 years young).

The Late Kevin Kanain Griffith's Blizzard ID Photo

Kevin was a Senior Artist at Blizzard Entertainment, and if you played World of Warcraft or Diablo III, you were undoubtedly touched by his artistry, and if you were lucky enough to know him, you were awestruck by how authentic and giving a person Kevin Kanai Griffith was.

I first met Kevin a little over six and a half years ago at a Sketch Group he’d helped get up and running at Blizzard.  At the time, I was working in the Community Development department, and was eager to stretch my creative muscles and connect with like-minded individuals. I’d been directed to the sketch group by a fellow artist, Jessica Johnson, and in short order I connected with Kevin and he was off and getting me set up on creative mailing lists about sketch groups, live drawing sessions, art challenges, and more. This might not seem like a big deal to many since Kevin was an artist, but it takes a certain kind of person to see the best in others and be willing to spend time and energy helping people and, well, Kevin was just that kind of guy.


 

Kevin wasn’t one for cliques. When folks from other departments or specialties showed interest in joining Sketch Group, Kevin did any and everything in his power to make them feel welcome, regardless if they were already employed at Blizzard as an artist, or were someone interested in learning and spreading their wings. He took time to get to know people and introduce people to one another. He was as inclusive and open as any artist I’ve ever known, and genuine to the core. Whether he was spending time helping other creative souls flourish, or working on his own assortment of projects, he was always striving to bring out the very best in himself and those around him.


Kevin was a close friend and mentor to me, and I will miss our talks so very much. I am thankful also to everyone at Blizzard, especially those that welcomed me to sit in the Environmental Artist pit in the Diablo III area a few years ago. Whether I ever said it aloud or not, it meant the world to me to be able to sit by Kevin on a daily basis, and I know that it meant a lot to him as well. The people at Blizzard are seriously the best.

I'm also thankful for knowing Kevin for how much he inspired me on my art and encouraged me to believe in myself and my abilities. I'm thankful for his awesome choice in partners in crime, too, because he chose wonderfully in his wife/widow, Constance Griffith, and I am thankful that through Kevin, I've had the opportunity to grow closer to her, and discover an incredible, lifelong friend in the process.


 


Kevin and Art
 

Kevin loved Diablo something fierce, and he was always eager to stretch his skills as an illustrator and contribute to all sorts of Community and development initiatives, and inject his special humor along the way. He created a number of holiday pieces for Diablo III during his tenure, and the top one holds a special place in my heart because I remember so many hilarious discussions we had while he was creating it. During one particular evening of OT, I remarked the lower right boggit (then hairless) wasn't reading as female to me. Boggits didn't have hair, though, so we couldn't come up with a solution... until I mentioned perhaps she was wearing the scalped hair of a Hero or adventurer. Maybe the Enchantress?

We laughed about it, and the idea stuck, and Kevin added it to the illustration. If you look carefully, you can even see blood trickling out from under it... ;)

A piece of holiday art that Kevin created for Diablo III.

 

Kevin was also instrumental in encouraging me and offering critiques on one of my first Blizzard-sanctioned illustrations I ever did a few years ago for a Community blog for the holidays.

"Season's Wishes" final illustration by K. LeCrone - Completed on December 23, 2013

Gestures like offering to critique my work meant the world to me as a growing artist.

Here’s a small selection of some of his art which spans some of his contributions to Blizzard as well as his personal work. You can find his galleries on DeviantART and Blogspot. If you want to learn more about these pieces and many others, please check out his personal galleries. I've also uploaded over eighty pieces of his art and some photos to this Google+ Gallery to make sure they have yet another location to reside for posterity, and aren't lost to the sometimes fickle winds of the internet.

 

  

  

     

In addition to being a welcome ear for oh-so-many conversations, Kevin also offered me heartfelt and much-needed advice during some stressful and complex times as I navigated balancing my work-life balance at Blizzard. He chose to stay upbeat even during his own health trials, and kept his humor and caring about everyone else around him right till the end. 

"Planet Eater" - by Kevin Kanai Griffith

While Kevin and I never played World of Warcraft together on the same server or guild, we definitely played Diablo III together, as well as a bit of Heroes of the Storm and a hefty dose of Minecraft on his custom server. It was always a hoot to group with him, and it was fun to watch him play with fellow artist Neal Wojahn, as well as Brandy Camel (one of our Diablo III Community Managers) and a member of the Diablo III community. He truly loved the games he worked on, and interacting with players and coworkers alike.


I am so incredibly thankful for the time we had as friends, even if it didn't feel like nearly long enough. While it brings me sadness to think that I won't get to chat with him any longer this life, or see his latest art updates or new tools or books he's discovered, but I am also so, so happy that he can finally be at peace away from that awful, awful cancer. After immersing myself in so many movies and games where in the nick of time, a cure miraculously arrives to save someone, I think many of us were met with the harsh reality that sometimes there is simply nothing we can do but hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

I've said it many times, but seriously: fuck cancer.


Honoring Kevin
 

Kevin's lasting legacy was honored in a number of ways. In addition to a memorial service that was a celebration of his life, the Diablo III team also introduced a number of updates in Patch 2.3.0 that were a nod to him, including Kanai's Cube and the Barbarian area where King Kanai resides, the Ruins of Sescheron. You can learn a bit more about them in the Diablo III videos below (both of which I helped capture after becoming an artist at Blizzard last year. Fitting, isn't it?).



There's even a secret mini-event called Udder Cowlamity that only takes place during the month of his Birthday (March).

Kevin was also honored with a World of Warcraft NPC, Kanai Griffith. Kanai Griffith is a Forsaken art teacher located on the mountain ridge on the southeastern side of Coldarra in the Borean Tundra, and his dialogue is very Kevin-inspired, right down to the doge memes it references. :)



Additionally, Kevin was honored in Gamer for Life: A Fan Art Tribute for KKG. It was an ambitious project organized by Gamers for Good, and in it, 283 game artists came together and donated 476 gorgeous art pieces to be used in the campaign to raise funds for the fight against cancer.

 

Unfortunately, the project was not completed until after his passing, but the funds that were raised were split between two charity organizations in KKG's memory: Game Changer and CureASPS.

Many, many people created art for this project, as well as included relevant art. Kevin and I contributed the following pieces:

"Final Fantasy 6 Level - Lethe River Battle with Ultros" - by Kevin Kanai Griffith

  

"Primal Fury - Altered Beast Fan Art - Project KKG" - by K. LeCrone, Completed on March 3, 2014
You can read more about this piece and the process I used for it in this blog update: Altered Beast Fan Art for a Great Cause - Project KKG.


Fly Free Plate
 

The final few months of 2014 were rough for many, myself included. Weeks after Kevin passed away, some of my family and friends gathered to celebrate my Birthday by painting ceramics. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to paint (and wasn't necessarily in the mood to create art), but I wanted it to be something with meaning to me. So, after some thought, I worked to painted a red tailed hawk flying free.  It seemed appropriate under the circumstances.

Glazing is always guesswork, because you never know how the colors will turn out until they are fired. I've slowly been getting the hang of layering the various glazes, though, and this plate ended up nearly as I'd imagined it. It's around 8 inches in diameter and was painted freehand.

  

"Fly Free" - Fired Plate - Completed on November 1, 2014


Our Living Legacy
 

But like anyone else, living or dead: Kevin’s legacy doesn't really end there.

His passing actually made me rethink and reevaluate quite a lot in my own life, and in a way I'm not afraid to admit, some of the discussions we had helped prompt me to take the risk of changing careers and moving into a more creative and rewarding role, which you can read about in these blogs: Onward to New Opportunities within Blizzard and BlizzCon 2015, and My 2015 Year in Review.

Kevin believed in me and encouraged me, and I wish he would have been alive to hear that I am now an artist at Blizzard, but then: I think he knew I had it in me all along, and that it was only a matter of time until I figured it out for myself.

 

While it makes me very sad that I will never again be treated to see new art or a silly quip from him, in a way, Kevin’s legacy lives on in all the lives he touched along the way. And by proxy, everything we create and the people we inspire, well, in a way we live on through them too.

So, what will your legacy be?

Here's to you, Kevin, and all the lives you touched along your incredible journey! And thank you, for everything, and most of all: for being you.



If you feel so inclined, please share this blog to help perpetuate Kevin's memory and consider donating to Game Changer and CureASPS to help the many other "Kevins" out there.