Ford’s watercolor animals hold secrets

Painters aren’t exactly known for their extroversion or pleasant temperaments, but unlike, say, Van Gogh, Walton Ford’s talk was as smooth as the lines on his watercolor works. The gifted raconteur kept the audience enraptured with the stories behind his inspiration for the vivid animals found in his prints and paintings during his lecture, the second in the Class of 1960’s Art Scholars Lecture series, “Art in 4 Dimensions.”

Majoring in filmmaking at Rhode Island School of Design, Ford’s work has been featured at The Whitney Museum, The Brooklyn Museum, the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York and Michael Cohn Gallery in Los Angeles, among many others.

Known as “Audubon on Viagra” – which refers to James John Audubon, a 19th century painter who completed over 400 life-size paintings of birds – Ford has moved above and beyond this comparison by painting life-size tigers and elephants and including hidden elements in his works.

Using canvases as large as 18 feet by 12 feet high, Ford uses watercolor, a medium typically saved for the small and delicate. The subjects he paints are similar to those in a natural-science magazine or a British colonial booklet: animals of all kinds, some even extinct, caught in a moment of action.
“Almost all of my ideas for paintings come from books,” Ford said. “I look at it as a cultural history of our relationship with animals over time.”

But these paintings are not typical natural history museum stock. Embedded in each of his works is a clever satire, a piece of political commentary or a historic event. Completed in 2005, “Bird Lime” depicts parakeets that appear to be stuck to the branches of a tree with a stagnant owl nearby, but the relation between the two isn’t immediately clear.

“It’s from a 19th century boys’ guide to trapping animals and birds,” Ford explained. “Bird lime is a very sticky glue that people put on the branches of trees. When the birds land, they get stuck – It’s something that every kid in America would have been able to identify.”

Another work features a cunning red parrot perched safely while multiple traps in the background are waiting to be triggered.

“It was called the Cuban Red Macaw, which I thought – that’s too funny. It was communist. Macaws live to be like 80 years old, so I thought, it’s like Fidel,” Ford said. “The story that unfolds in the text that’s on this piece is both about the kind of cloak and dagger things that natural history people were doing to try to get the skin of a Cuban Red Macaw – and it’s also interwoven with text from CIA plots to try and kill Castro.”

Ford isn’t always out to hide political messages within his work. One of his series of paintings deals with people’s pet monkeys.

“Sir Richard Burton said he kept 40 or 60 monkeys in his barracks. He said he learned the monkey language but it was unfortunately lost in a fire,” Ford explained. “It’s the idea of those people like Richard Burton that used all the senses to become these sort of super 19th century geniuses that were experts at everything.” Even after being told the story, this vision wasn’t clear to me in his painting of the romping monkeys at the dinner table.

Ford showed what it means to play it big in the art world. A growing popularity has reinforced his persistence that allows him to take as long as ten months on a single work. Although ten months can be a long time for the galleries that anxiously await his paintings, Ford’s success keeps them hanging onto his every bird.