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Man and Beasts

Painter Walton Ford's vivid and fantastical watercolors explore the conundrums of human nature through the imagery of the animal kingdom.

"Walton Ford." The name sounds fictional. It's the kind of name, I imagine, that an early-20th-century American novelist might have invented for some kind of super-character, a cross between an Appalachian backwoodsman, a captain of industry, and a manly English poet.

This reverie comes early in my visit to the studio of the real Walton Ford, a painter and printmaker who is a boisterous, literate, hard-charging character not unlike my made-up protagonist. But on this frosty fall night in the Berkshires, the most apparent of Ford's traits is his own hyper imagination.

Walton Ford is an anachronism in today's art world: a voluble naturalist painter surrounded by gaggles of sullen, disaffected ironists, a painter of narrative navigating the waters of conceptual ennui. But those differences are working for him these days. His large watercolors are often presold to committed Fordophiles for prices between $14,000 and $60,000. Last season's Nila, a 22-panel, 12-by-18-foot tour de force depicting an enormous Indian bull elephant in full musth, has recently sold to an anonymous buyer for $225,000. That yearlong project now finished, Ford has embarked on a series of six brilliantly colored and painstakingly designed prints of exotic birds, which at several thousand dollars are considerably less expensive than his paintings but relinquish nothing in terms of image quality. The Whitney Museum of American Art purchased a set last year.

Nearly every Walton Ford painting is of an animal, and his latest finished work, he says, depicts a mandrill. The huge watercolor canvas left the studio for the artist's New York gallery a few days before our meeting, but it's no matter: I have barely to ask for a description before Ford's eyes are gleaming with the Story of the Mandrill.

The Austrian-born Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, it seems, also painted a mandrill, in London in 1926. Ford reads from his account: " 'The director of the London Zoo was the eminent scientist Julian Huxley. He granted me permission to paint in the zoo outside normal visiting hours. At night in the monkey house I painted a big solitary mandrill who profoundly detested me, although I always brought him a banana in order to make myself agreeable.' "

Then Ford takes off.

"So I loved this idea that Kokoschka thought the mandrill had any feeling about him at all," he says, "that it hated him, and then I was thinking about the mandrill and I was thinking maybe he did hate Kokoschka and maybe he had really good reason. So I thought, How could he? Well, Kokoschka was one of those people who broke from the salon, and I thought maybe this mandrill sided with those more academic-minded guys who believed in this sort of ideal of beauty. And I thought, How could he have learned about this? So I made up this whole scenario in my head that when he was on his way from Africa, he got loose—OK, because I remembered something from my journals. When I was in Italy as an art student, I was in Naples, briefly, and went to the waterfront. I saw a baboon in a cage from Africa. And a mandrill's a type of baboon.

"So I remembered that, and I thought well, maybe the monkey got loose and saw, like, Pompeii, and beautiful sculptures, and great ancient art. So that's what the painting's called, The Grand Tour, and it shows a mandrill clinging to a very beautiful naked female statue and being pulled by a rope. He's gotten loose and they're pulling him back into his cage to send him up to London, where he could be painted by Kokoschka. Kokoschka was right: The mandrill looked at the painting and he was like, 'That's so horrible!' He'd seen Pompeiian paintings, sculptures, all this amazing stuff. And he was just disgusted with what Kokoschka was doing. All I did was I drew this image of him being pulled off of this classical sculpture, with Pompeii in the background—there's great Vesuvio smoking and all the ruins—and I put this quote in, from Kokoschka. You just have to figure it out."

I see.

This kind of crazy, fascinating narrative is an integral part of all of Ford's work. That excitement and depth of feeling are what have made his large watercolors some of the most sought-after paintings on the scene today. A meticulous and an extraordinarily facile painter, Ford uses his technique to lure the viewer in with beautiful, arresting images of real power. Once you're there, however, committed to examining up close his life-size Asian tigers, Indian kingfishers, European starlings, Chilean condors, and African okapi, you've also signed on, perhaps unwittingly, to the roller-coaster ride of decoding a voluminous amount of political and cultural information that the artist has culled from ceaseless reading and research and stuffed into his painted allegories. "I've succeeded in roping you in," Ford says, "and all the layers of meaning that are in there are what make the images arresting—but not necessarily decipherable."

The tide, of course, wasn't always high for Ford. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1982, he and a couple of friends landed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, becoming some of the earliest artist pioneers of what is now a beyond-trendy neighborhood. He developed his naturalistic style early, and soon began to pour his narrative talents (strengthened at RISD by a major in filmmaking) into his painting. But the art-market boom of the eighties would find its focus elsewhere, in the likes of Basquiat and Schnabel, so Ford took odd jobs in carpentry, Sheetrock hanging, metalworking, and the like to get by. And he wrote grant applications. "We were grant-writing fools," he says proudly, making reference to his wife, Julie Jones Ford, also an artist (whom he met at RISD). Those efforts eventually paid off, with fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the NEA, and the Guggenheim Foundation for Walton and a Fulbright scholarship for Julie. Today, the 40-year-old painter lives with his wife and their two young daughters, Lillian and Camellia, in Southfield, Massachusetts, ten miles from his studio, in Great Barrington.

This storyteller's early work was very much bound up in his own family history. Although Ford grew up in Westchester, New York, his parents "are both from Georgia, and my dad's family is from Tennessee," he says. "In my family we set great stock in being sort of an amateur naturalist, knowing your birds, knowing your fish. And I did a bit of hunting, so I'm interested in that kind of sportsman-slash-naturalist thing. That's very big in the South among certain Southern gentlemen." Ancestors on both sides of his family lived on plantations and were slave owners. "So I made pieces about slaves that my great-great-grandmother, a woman named Emily Donelson Walton, described in a slim volume she wrote in her nineties about growing up on a plantation," Ford says. "Those topics haunted me—I mean it was important to do that work just for my own kind of head-clearing."

He then moved on to exploring the lives and careers of historical figures that he "lionized as a kid." The first "victim," as he calls it, was John James Audubon. Ford could draw very well at a young age, due not in small part to his hours spent poring over the dramatic, vital color plates in Audubon's The Birds of America and The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. The ornithologist's obsession and meticulous draftsmanship inspired Ford to paint works that simultaneously cast light on the master's ruthless slaughter of animals and celebrate his eccentric artistic genius. In the watercolor American Flamingo (1992), for example, Ford's hot-pink bird is just as contorted as a famous one of Audubon's (who often used foreshortening and compression to fit his subjects onto his page), but this specimen has had its legs shot out from under it by a sharpshooter in the distance and is in death throes, spurting blood. This is not your grandmother's Audubon.

But it's the facet that Ford finds most compelling. "When Audubon went to paint the golden eagle," he says didactically, as if to indicate another entertaining sermon coming on, "he got a living specimen, and he couldn't figure out how to kill it. He didn't want to harm the plumage or make it suffer, he said, too much, so he put it in a closet with a fire of charcoal burning and he tried to smoke it to death. And when that didn't work he put sulfur on the flames and tried to smoke it to death with fumes of sulfur. And for three or four days he left it in this closet, and when he came back it was still just staring at him. So he took a long steel pin, or wire actually, and he sharpened it, and drove it into the animal's heart, which killed it instantly. And as he then drew the eagle he was struck by a violent fever and almost died. It took him fourteen days to finish drawing this bird, which, I was thinking, by the end of the fourteenth day must have been rotten, really rank. So all that imagery sunk into my head: Oh my God, he's trying to suffocate birds with smoke and sulfur, driving pins into their hearts, drawing them for fourteen days, and then falling into some dreadful fever himself—it's not the Audubon that you're thinking about with 'the Audubon Society.' It's just not cute. And I'd rather read about that Audubon, that flipped-out guy who's trying to gas eagles."

Other larger-than-life characters get the same scrutiny. The Forsaken (1999), for instance, involves the exploits of the legendary British explorer Sir Richard Burton. In it a sad-looking, brilliantly colored golden Indian langur sits on a tree branch, clutching a delicate pink fan and what may be love letters. It's at once comical, poignant, and beautiful—but what on earth is going on? It turns out that while he was a soldier of the Raj, in India, Burton kept and studied scores of monkeys, trying to learn their language. Each monkey had a name, such as "the doctor," "the chaplain," or "the aide-de-camp"; one tiny, very pretty monkey he called his "wife."

"So when he left this experiment," Ford explains, "Burton left behind all these monkeys and, of course, broke the heart of his 'wife,' so she's forsaken. It's about colonialism and this sort of bereft feeling. There's a funny duality going on among the people of India, who feel that their heart was broken, in a way, by England. There's some feeling of being forsaken by the West."

As he begins to close up shop for the night, Ford says that his next piece might spring from a tattered, yellowing five-year-old news clipping he unpins from the wall. The story concerns a series of vicious killings in northern India that officials blamed on packs of wolves but that terror-stricken villagers insisted were committed by werewolves. Ford finds a quotation from a young girl, describing one of the attacks: " 'It came across the grass on all four paws, like this,' said Sita Devi, 10, the sister of the boy killed by a wolf in Banbirpur on August 16, as she moved forward in a crouch from a cluster of villagers gathered by a well. She told her story with tears in her eyes, to anxious murmurs from the crowd. 'As it grabbed Anand, it rose onto two legs until it was tall as a man,' she said. 'Then it threw him over its shoulder. It was wearing a black coat, and a helmet and goggles.' There you go," Ford says, looking up from the paper. "This is the kind of stuff I live for."

Walton Ford's watercolors and prints are available at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, in New York City. 212-563-4474; fax 212-563-4494.