School of Art

Beloved Tucson legend and folklore icon Big Jim Griffith died peacefully at his home in December. He was 86.

Tucson legend, folklore icon, Jim Griffith
“I love getting people together and I love talking about our regional culture. There was an old cowboy who lived in Clay Springs, who once said, ‘Well, if there were any other placed I’d rather be, I woulda gone there.’ And I feel the same way about Tucson. This is an exciting place to be and the more I find out about it, the more exciting it gets.” — Big Jim Griffith
Image courtesy of Borderlore and Southwest Folklife Alliance.

Griffith earned three degrees at the School of Art, led the University of Arizona’s Southwest Folklore Center for 20 years and was a recipient of the 2011 Bess Lomas Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship. 

“He was a folklorist, cultural anthropologist, storyteller extraordinaire, banjo picker, University of Arizona scholar of religious art, artifacts and practices, co-founder of the Tucson Meet Yourself festival, lover of Tohono O’odham waila music and kwalya dance, historical preservationist board member of Patronato San Xavier, a 6-foot-7-inch-tall cowboy poet, an author, an encyclopedia of wit and wisdom.” – Arizona Daily Star

Griffith was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011 for his four decades of work “devoted to celebrating and honoring the folkways and religious expression found along the Arizona-Mexico border” with the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, awarded to an individual who has made major contributions to the excellence, vitality, and public appreciation of the folk and traditional arts.

Griffith, (BA, ’61, MA ’67, Ph.D. ’73, Art History and Cultural Anthropology), took his education and put it to work in the community he loved.

“Big Jim Griffith was committed to this community, its traditions, culture and the arts,” said Andy Schulz, vice president for the arts at the University of Arizona. “He appreciated our place in this unique intersection of cultures of the Southwest. He understood the power of the arts to connect people and change lives for the better. We are proud to remember our alumnus Big Jim Griffith as a shining example of what we hope to do at the University of Arizona and the College of Fine Arts, develop artists who contribute to their community, using creativity to make a positive impact.”

  • Co-founded Tucson Meet Yourself in 1974 with his wife Loma Griffith, a festival that celebrates Tucson’s ethnic and cultural diversity
  • Director, University of Arizona’s Southwest Folklore Center, 1979-1998
  • Folklore professor in the Department of English, retired in 1998
  • Recipient of the 2011 Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship
  • Curated “La Cadena Que No Se Corta: The Unbroken Chain” for the University of Arizona Museum of Art, the traditional arts of Tucson’s Mexican American Community
  • Published numerous books, including “A Border Runs Through It: Journeys in Regional History and Folklore” (2011), and “Saints, Statues, and Stories: A Folklorist Looks at the Religious Art of Sonora” (2019)
  • Hosted AZPM’s Arizona Illustrated feature, “Southern Arizona Traditions”
  • Columnist for BorderLore, 2016-2020; Southwest Folklife Alliance publication
  • Earned numerous awards American Folklore Society’s Benjamin A. Botkin Prize in 1998 for significant lifetime achievement in Public Folklore, the 2005 Henry Glassie Award from Vernacular Architecture Forum, and the 2009 Pima County Library Lifetime Achievement Award and served as the Grand Marshall for the 2010 Tucson Rodeo Parade.
“Jim is a visionary and a groundbreaker in ways that were so subtle, so simple, so intrinsic to the aesthetics and practices of everyday life that many people, I think, missed the radical edge that his propositions have.” Maribel Alvarez in the AZPM profile of Griffith in 2015.

Griffith’s legacy will continue both in the community and at the University. Maribel Alvarez arrived to Tucson in 2003, taking over a position once held by Griffith that became a position endowed by Jim and Loma Griffith. Alvarez is Jim Griffith Chair in Public Folklore, sustained by the Jim and Loma Griffith Endowment for Public Folklore.

“His trust meant more than a million wise exhortations. But when he spoke of love he didn’t limit it only to the grand schemes of planning a festival or an artist’s apprenticeship. I felt loved by Jim,” said Alvarez in the Southwest Folklife Alliance memorial article on Griffith. “That is the fuel I need to keep doing the work that honors his memory.” 

Tucson legend, folklore icon Big Jim Griffith remembered
Folklorist James S. “Big Jim” Griffith in front of San Xavier del Bac Mission in 2011, the year he was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Image courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star.

Tucson legend, folklore icon Big Jim Griffith remembered 

“He was an American original and a local treasure.” — Tucson Weekly

“James S. “Big Jim” Griffith lived such a big life defining Tucson’s senses of place and self that it’s hard to imagine this special place without him.” — Arizona Daily Star

Image by Steven Meckler courtesy of Borderlore and the Southwest Folklife Alliance.

“So much of our work at BorderLore and the Southwest Folklife Alliance has been inspired and guided by Jim’s kindness, respect, curiosity, and devotion to observation. He loved the region we celebrate and friendliness, curiosity, and ever-growing knowledge won him fans and admirers from those Indigenous to this land, as well as from long-time dwellers and newcomers.

“If there’s one word we repeat over and over while working to celebrate, make visible, and ensure the longevity of folklife in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, it’s this one. Respect. It was Jim’s favorite word, the foundation of his entire career. It’s what guided his way in the world, his manners, his music, his research, his camaraderie, and was just one of the reasons he was beloved by so many.” — Borderlore

“No one can fill Big Jim Griffith’s shoes, for he—more than any other Tucsonan—triggered enormous and lasting community pride in our “folk” traditions of music, food, santos, architecture, and border culture.” — University of Arizona Press

“The great photographer Dorothea Lange said a camera is an instrument to teach you to see the world without a camera. Jim gave us the complete sensory experience. He gave us the deeper meaning and the context. And all of us are forever in his debt.” — Tucson Sentinel

“‘Big Jim,’ as he was affectionately known, was devoted to celebrating and honoring the folkways and religious expression found along the United States-Mexico border.” — NEA Statement on his passing

“The happiest I ever saw him was in a tour in Sonora. He had joined an all-star cast of brilliant tour guides running a trip to the mission churches. He and his great friend Bernard “Bunny” Fontana, an anthropologist who studied the Tohono O’odham, led a merry busload of fans across Sonora. Over a couple of days, the group visited the tiny jewel-like mission and a couple of the big ones, including the Magdalena church where Father Kino’s remains rest. We listened to a talented soloist singing in a sanctuary and we shared jolly family lunches at Mexican homes. And everywhere we went, Big Jim would pull out his ever-present banjo, sit under a tree or squeeze in the bus, and send his music sailing out into the world.” Margaret Regan, Tucson Weekly