A brilliant natural history painter who usually inserts an ironic twist to the subject, Walton Ford mixes hyper-realism with a dash of surrealism and underground comics to create life-size images of birds and animals like we’ve never seen before. Exhibiting gigantic watercolors internationally since the mid-‘90s, Ford’s work is coveted by rock stars, fashion designers, and Hollywood directors, as well as the Whitney Museum and MoMA. FLATT contributing editor Paul Laster recently spoke with the artist about his rough start, early breaks, lifelong inspirations, and take on endangered species and wildlife today.
PAUL LASTER: When did you develop an interest in art?
WALTON FORD: Almost from the time I was out of diapers. I drew animals and prehistoric beasts, as well as comic characters. I had an older brother who drew. He was six years older than me. When he did something I would try to do it, too. It got me going at quite a clip. He ended up as an art director and now he paints natural history subjects as well. He paints fish in a more conventional way, like scientific illustration style for sportsmen’s magazines and for books. I grew up in an atmosphere of people making art. My dad was an art director at Time Inc. We had a drawing board and watercolor paints at our house.
PAUL LASTER: Did you take art classes in high school?
WALTON FORD: Yeah, I had a high school art teacher who was very supportive, but it wasn’t helpful instruction. It mostly just gave me a lot of room to do what I wanted to do. I almost dropped out of school. I wasn’t going to classes very much. I was a difficult kid to control, but I drew and painted everyday. I sculpted and did make-up jobs on myself and on my friends. I was constantly doing some project. I painted the backdrops for the school plays and did drawings for the school newspaper. There was no other discipline in my life except for the art. I was failing and my mom was worried about me. I wasn’t going to be able to get into any college. I read voraciously, but I didn’t go to class. So she sent me to the Rhode Island School of Design summer session program. She was able to get the money together. My dad left when I was about eleven. He was a heavy drinker. There wasn’t a lot of structure.
My mom was very loving, but she had four kids to raise. She figured out a way to get me to RISD and that really turned things around for me. During the summer session I saw that there were people that would celebrate the kind of things that I was good at. I could have a whole day at a school without feeling completely behind and anxious and wanting to get the fuck out of there. I enjoyed my classes and was kind of a star.
I could draw as well as I can draw now by the time I was 16 or 17, mainly because I did it all of the time. It was a little more goofy and conventional. I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to do with myself, but I had a certain professional hand long before I was 20. I just didn’t have anything to say.
PAUL LASTER: Did you end up going to RISD for college?
WALTON FORD: Yeah, when I was there I painted in oils and made etchings. Once they let me loose at that place, even for that first summer, I was in heaven. The teachers that teach at the summer sessions are usually associate professors or grad students and they were like as long as this school is here there’s always going to be a place for a kid like you. I was like, ‘I’m the fucking juvenile delinquent here.’ The advice I got that summer was try to get a high school diploma and gather together the work from this summer and put it in a portfolio and send it to us and you’ll be accepted.
PAUL LASTER: What influenced you the most when you were there?
WALTON FORD: I guess being around the other kids that were so ambitious. The cool kids were the ones that worked all of the time. I’d never been in a place like that. I imagine that’s also true at places like MIT or a ballet school or Julliard, where the coolest kids are the ones busting their butts the hardest. That work ethic, that discipline, was important to me. Being around other kids who figured they had a stake in this, that they had a life in it. It wasn’t always just the art students. During the time I was there, there was an upperclassman named Bob Richardson who ended up as a cinematographer. He shot Django Unchained. There was a semiotics major that was making independent, weird-assed films. One was titled Superstar, and that was Todd Haynes. And I was in a theater class with Jeff Eugenides, who wrote The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. The idea that there were people functioning at this level all around me was inspiring. I didn’t even study painting when I was there. I studied film.
PAUL LASTER: Yeah, I read that you had studied film and had considered becoming a filmmaker. There’s a cinematic quality to the scale and narrative nature of your work. Has that interest found its way into your paintings?
WALTON FORD: Yeah, it’s definitely there. I’m one of those artists that are more heavily influenced by popular culture. I read a lot of underground comics, like R. Crumb, when I was young. If King Kong, the old 1933 movie, came on TV it wouldn’t matter what hour of the day it was playing, I’d drop everything to watch it. My dad was a friend of Jack Davis, a legendary comic book artist from the 1950s. Jack had given us all of these old DC Comics, which were super-violent, science fiction, war comics from the ‘50s. These comics were the reason there was a code put in place for comic book art because they were so violent, so wild. He was the same guy that ended up doing Mad Magazine in its earliest days, when it was actually something to look at. I just poured over that stuff. I can be a pretty big cultural snob, but that kind of pop culture had a huge impact on me, and it probably shows. Film, comic books, and animation—those things were big for me.
Then I get to RISD, where I’m studying film, and they have a seniors honor program in Italy. I go to Italy and I see Giotto and narrative painting in Padua and Assisi telling stories in panels that look like comic strips—the life of St. Francis in 28 episodes. I was like, ‘Wow, this is the highest level of the shit that I already love!’ That turned me around the most. When I saw The Legend of St. Francis fresco cycle by Giotto in Assisi it made me want to be a painter more than anything. I wanted to communicate in that way with large scale narrative paintings, which at that time in New York was probably the number one un-hip thing you could be interested in making.
PAUL LASTER: Does the idea of making the animals on a one-to-one scale relate to cinematic screen in any way?
WALTON FORD: It does and it also relates to the Museum of Natural History—going there and seeing animals in their natural sizes in an artificial environment created by a person that tells a story, but isn’t necessarily one that you’ll find in nature. While that’s one of the criticisms of diorama art, it’s also one of its strengths. There’s a feminist essay by Donna Haraway titled “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” that had an impact on me. The writer says that the dioramas basically tell Teddy Roosevelt’s narrative of what a family should be like. The idea that you can manipulate narrative in a scientific diorama was an exciting idea for me because I want to manipulate the narrative in my work. In the Audubon elephant portfolio, all of the birds are one to one. I like that idea. I was in India and saw some paintings in Jaipur that a maharaja had commissioned of tigers that he had shot. They were life-size tigers with the right identifying stripes and markings with notations about how they were killed and what valor was displayed. They were gigantic, schematic, informational graphics of tigers that died. It blew me away. The first five-foot by ten-foot work that I did was a tiger and I continue to paint them. The idea of a life-size tiger in the room with you is like whoa!
PAUL LASTER: How do you see your work in relation to John James Audubon?
WALTON FORD: As a child I would sit and flip through his book Birds of America and study it page-by-page. It was a window for me. I had his book on mammals, too. It had narratives about his hunting and crazy adventures, as well as his thoughts on the behavior of the animal—very anthropomorphic animal descriptions, such as this animal is cowardly or treacherous or brave or meek. Audubon was a pretty big deal for me when I was growing up. I’m a little tired of him now because there’s so much great natural history art that Americans don’t know about. They don’t realize that there were great Europeans doing the same thing. The tradition goes back to Albrecht Durer’s rabbit. And, if you really want to make an argument, you could say the tradition goes back to the cave paintings in Europe, where there were life-size animals on the cave walls.
PAUL LASTER: Your 1992 painting American Flamingo seems to reference his work while setting you on a new course by showing the bird being brutally shot by a hunter. Was this a point of departure for you?
WALTON FORD: That was the first time that I made a fake Audubon. It’s not a very good painting. It’s a fairly obvious appropriation and alteration. It’s like what James Franco just did with Cindy Sherman. It’s not the greatest idea. People like the piece because it’s a flamingo and it’s pink, but not because it’s a good picture. It did get me into riffing on existing natural history imagery and that’s something that I still do. But I would never make that direct of a pastiche now.
PAUL LASTER: Shortly after making that piece was when you spent six months in India, because your wife got a Fulbright to work on a project there. How did your time there impact your art?
WALTON FORD: It was a pretty big deal. At that point I had only made baby steps toward making these Audubon rip-offs. When I went to India, I found I had never been to a place I understood less. I ended up doing paintings about that subject matter, where there are Indian birds and Western birds engaged in moments of confusion. The birdlife and wildlife there was astounding. You look out the window and there’s a dead body floating in the Ganges like a mini island, with dead vultures feasting on it. ‘OK, I’ve never seen that before. That’s something new for me!’
PAUL LASTER: What was your first big break in the art world?
WALTON FORD: I want to make sure I get this right. Besides my mom sending me to RISD, the two biggest figures in my world early on would have to be Bill Arning, who was at White Columns at the time and one of the first people to notice my work. I literally walked in to White Columns, when it was on Spring Street, with paintings under my arm. Bill started sending people to my studio, which is how I met Irving Blum. Irving introduced me to Paul Kasmin, and it goes like that. And Marcia Tucker, from the New Museum, put me in a group show, when I was doing a different body of work than I’m doing now, and it got reviewed in the New York Times. Then she started bringing collectors to the studio and they started buying works, which was very helpful. Those were my two early breaks. Then when Paul started putting the work up on the wall, when his gallery was down on Broome Street, people started to see my work. Peter Schjeldahl wrote about my first show at the gallery in the Village Voice. Those were early breaks, but they came a decade apart.
PAUL LASTER: When did you start to come into your own?
WALTON FORD: It sounds crazy, but really only in the last few years. There are works from ten years back that I think still hold up, but I most prefer what I’m doing now. It seems more nuanced and more mature. My hand was super-precocious and my eye was uncanny when I was young.
PAUL LASTER: Do you work from photographs or from imagination? What are your sources?
WALTON FORD: Every possible thing that can help me is used. I’ve never taken a photographed and transcribed it in any way, shape, or form—I don’t do that at all. I know a lot about animal anatomy. I can pretty much draw any animal freehand from memory. I start out with my sketchbook, doing rough sketches of animals in different situations based on reading that I do. Once I have a dynamic sketch I refine it by adding research The first trip is to the Museum of Natural History, if I’m here in New York. I continue to draw from a specimen, which gives me a lot of information about fur, especially if it’s an unfamiliar animal.
I do, of course, Google the animal to get as many images of it as I can find. I look at artistic sources that are of interest to me, such as the ways in which this animal has been previously represented. I have a huge natural history library and plaster casts.
I have all kinds of reference material. I have skulls, but if I don’t have the right skull there’s a really cool database where you can digitally find almost any animal skull.
PAUL LASTER: How important is literature to your pursuit?
WALTON FORD: I don’t even have a pursuit without it. The whole project is basically this cultural history of animals. It’s animals in the human imagination. It’s animals interpreted by people, observed by people, or captured by people, and animals attempting to be tamed by people. Not so much domestic animals, but wild animals. I’m interested in animals that choose not to be around people. Domestic animals actually make that choice. Pigeons want to be in cities because it’s a better place for them—better than the cliffs along the oceans, where they evolved.
Domestic animals chose us, but we often choose really unlikely wild animals as companions or as inspiration or as symbols for creative activity. It’s a fascinating subject. I don’t see it running out. If I were a writer I would write about it—people’s interactions with animals throughout the centuries, people who kept monkeys as pets, people who kept menageries, people who wrote about animals, people who hunted them…
PAUL LASTER: You talked about looking at art history for how animals are depicted, do you also look at art history for compositional ideas?
WALTON FORD: Yeah, but I looked more when I was a student than I do now. I would go to museums and draw. It was pre-internet and I felt like I needed to get this stuff down on paper. It wasn’t like something I could summon when I felt like it, which I can now.
PAUL LASTER: The foxed look of the paper and the titles and descriptions in Latin, French, German and Spanish make your works look like field notes from an ancient explorer. What’s the stage that you are trying to set here?
WALTON FORD: It’s the excitement of the original document. I love going into old archives, where you get to pull out the actual thing that you’ve been seeing in reproduction for so long. I’ve just recently been doing that at the Museum of Natural History. There’s the actual beat-up, aged artifact. I’m a geek around this stuff. I go over the moon for this old stuff. I guess that I wanted some of that archival feel in my own work.
PAUL LASTER: Is there a focus on endangered and extinct species in your work?
WALTON FORD: There’s a lot of that. It’s an interesting subject. I can’t really condense my subject any more than that. I’m interested in animal and human interactions and that’s a big part of it, at least nowadays.
PAUL LASTER: How do you think man’s thoughts about wildlife have changed in the past 100 years?
WALTON FORD: If anything, we’ve gotten a hell of a lot more hypocritical, at least in the Western world. The hypocrisy is probably bigger than it’s ever been when it comes to how we deal with animals. We’re basically perpetrating this enormous mass extinction that has no precedent other than when a fucking asteroid hit the planet. Yet, at least in the kind of cultural milieu that I run around in, there are many people that never personally killed an animal for food—they wouldn’t dream of doing so. There’s a lot of love for nature programs.
There’s a double standard going on that didn’t probably exist, at least among Westerners a hundred years ago, when you just killed the chicken and put it on the table. You see hipsters in Brooklyn going to the celebrity butcher guy with a mustache and back-to-the-land-kids wearing suspenders and killing their own food. I saw that in the Berkshires. It’s a super complex relationship.
PAUL LASTER: Are your creatures meta-phors for men?
WALTON FORD: Sometimes, and some-times they’re just animals. I have two new paintings that I’ve done from the animal’s point of view. Of course, they are really from my point of view, so they’re a bit layered. But I want my POV to be from the animal, if that’s at all possible. There’s this story about a mandrill that lived in London and he drank porter and smoked a pipe. He was invited by King George IV to dine at Windsor Castle. I tried to imagine what that day would have been like for him. I wrote narrative about it on the drawing from his point of view. And there’s a big snake picture that I just finished that’s based on a Roman text. It’s a 60-foot snake that never existed, but is described in an ancient text as living in Turkey. It would rise up and lure birds into its mouth, by some form of magical breath. It never really existed, but I wanted to make it exist. It’s no longer just words in a dusty Roman text, but something that now exists in a painting.