Walton Ford is an American artist, born 1960 in Larchmont, New York. His work is known to feature animals depicted in a style that mimics nature illustrations by the likes of John James Audubon and Karl Bodmer. Ford often aims to tell stories about human interaction with nature through his work, using animals to convey messages about industrialism, colonialism and other relevant topics that relate to environmental concerns. His work brought a whole new perspective to modern art, with a certain sense of realism being at the center of what he does.
Early Life and Education
Ford grew up in Westchester County. His parents, both originally from the South, moved to New York before his birth.
Ford has said that his mother and older brother have both played a vital role in helping him become a painter. After his parents got divorced when he was eleven, Ford found himself on a downhill slope in life, barely even making it through school. But Ford spent his days painting, and he loved to create works of art that were always characterized by a reoccurring theme of animals. He and his older brother, Flick, spent hours every day painting and drawing pictures of different animals in the room they shared.
In order to encourage Ford in his studies, his mother, who was raising four children by herself at the time, saved money and arranged to send Ford to Rhode Island School of Design for a summer session program. While there, he found himself greatly inspired by his peers, and soon realised that he wanted to attend RISD after graduating high school. He was advised to complete high school and put together a portfolio with the work he had created that summer.
When Ford first went to RISD, he was studying film making. But after attending a seniors honor program in Italy, he was strongly influenced by Giotto’s work, especially by the Life of St. Francis fresco cycle, which he described as being much like comic strips. The narrative of this work, is what made Ford realise that he wanted to be an artist, creating stories on large scale paintings. Unfortunately, this wasn’t what was popular in New York at the time.
In 1982, Ford graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA.
According to Ford, one of the first people who noticed his work was Bill Arning, who he approached with some of his paintings. From there, he gained significant exposure as an artist and soon met various people who greatly influenced the early stages of his career.
As an established and much celebrated artist, Ford doesn’t lack any merit to reinforce his position in the art world. He has received various awards and honors over the span of his career and was the recipient of both a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowments for the Arts.
His work is also collected by many famous figures such as Leonardo DiCaprio. In May 2013, he painted Anthroposis, for an auction DiCaprio organised to raise money for the conservation endangered species. He was also asked to paint the cover art for The Rolling Stone’s 2012 album GRRR!, which was released to commemorate their 50th anniversary.
Apart from the renowned work he’s done for celebrities, some of Ford’s other paintings are also featured in various reputable collections, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Ford’s Art Work
Ford creates works using watercolors in order to resemble illustrations he saw in books of natural history while growing up. He has often done paintings in the style of John James Audobon, whose books Ford particularly enjoyed reading as a child, but has since grown bored of.
A love of nature is evident in Ford’s paintings as it’s a strong theme throughout all of Ford’s paintings. He focuses on creating images that are large, often live sized, so his works leave spectators feeling almost as if the actual creature were in the room. Animals that can regularly be seen in his work include tigers, primates and birds. The artist has said that going to India was a very enlightening time for him, stating that the variety of wildlife he saw there impacted his work. Meticulously true to reality, a single painting can take months to create. He’s also mentioned that he enjoys visiting the museum during his creative process so he can develop an appreciation for what the animals in his paintings look like.
His works often conceal hidden messages and he stays true to a theme of narrative in his paintings. For instance, in his painting, Trí Thông Minh, a large scale work depicting a tiger jumping free from ropes that had held him in bondage, Ford recounts a Vietnamese allegory telling a story of how the tiger got its stripes. Another one of Ford’s paintings, Rhyndacus, shows an abnormally large snake with colorful birds flying down his gullet, which Ford said represents himself swallowing all the beautiful things in his life.