Walton Ford and I met when we were both sixteen and at the Rhode Island School of Design summer program. He was one of those rare creatures who was born with phenomenal talent. The drawings he did at four and five would put most adult artists to shame. We eventually lost touch and only crossed each others’ paths decades later by which time he had emerged as one of the top painters in the NY fine art scene. He makes enormous (sometime twenty feet long) watercolors of animals. Each is life sized and breathtakingly accurate. They are clearly influenced by early naturalist/illustrators like John James Audubon and Carl Bagner and yet he has added political allegories to his work that make them very contemporary.
Of all of the people I know, Walton is the most “successful” as an artist. He is represented by one of Chelsea’s finest galleries, does a couple of shows a year, and will probably be able to spend the rest of his life living comfortably from his art. Though they have six-figure prices, his paintings are enormously marketable and every show is sold out before the opening. Despite all this success and talent, Walton still struggles with the politics of the art world and is fiercely competitive with those contemporary artists who are just ever so slightly better know than he is. He also resents the fact that his craftsmanship was slighted and ignored in the days when figurative painting was not what the market sought. As I talked to him I realized that the art world is basically just another industry, a bunch of stores selling stuff; dealers create and maintain the market and the artists themselves, regardless of their ability and vision, primarily luck into popularity.
I hung out with Walton at his upstate New York studio and we ran a tape recorder while he prepared a huge sheet of watercolor paper for an upcoming painting, turning the pristine paper into a mottled, browning relic that looked like it had fallen out of an 18th century folio of engravings.
Danny: So what role does journaling play in your work? I know you were very influenced by Audubon and by his work in the field. How does that sense of process and discovery go into your paintings?
Walton: I like to see Art as a tool. Audubon cut things out, pasting things together, scribbled notes to printer on it… The process of making was part of the work. The drawings weren’t the end result, the work was the final engravings so he allowed himself the freedom to be so cavalier with his work, not precious. I make my paintings look like they have that attitude, that feeling of unfinished ness, like it was done in the field. The writing focuses it, explains it.
I make 10-foot watercolors of tigers in which the stripes tell allegorical stories about Vietnam. Paintings so large they are experiential, like a diorama, filling your peripheral vision. I make them life size because, well, when you see a beaver, you think of it like the size of a woodchuck with a weird tail, then you see what it’s really like, it’s awesome, it’s totally startling, the size of a 50 gallon drum, it’s freaky and I like to that in my work, the fun of finding an animal that large and more grotesque than in your mind’s eye. When its life sized, when it’s extinct, it’s shocking. Flocks of millions of passenger pigeons that have never been painted before. It’s like a time machine too. To see things for real that can’t be seen anymore.
Danny: So what’s your attitude towards the fine art world? You have always made figurative paintings even when they were hardly in vogue. Isn’t it a little surprising that despite the accessibility of your work you have had such success?
Walton: I got a lot of very positive feedback on how I could draw and how I could see when I was young. I was a very precocious talent. My daughter, who’s a talented violinist won’t practice on that frantic, 18 hour a day level. It’s different in art than in music or sport. Art is a lot more forgiving you can be really good without working quite as hard. And there’s not that competitive thing battling for a small number of slots. But the drop out rate, the number of people who can’t handle, can’t go to the studio every day, is enormous. I was incredibly persistent and didn’t take no, I wasn’t terribly interested in being trendy. For many years it was not cool to do what I was doing. I had to not be discouraged by the fact that I was doing something that at the moment might not be hip. Now there’s a trend toward representational art, but so much of it strikes me as incredibly lazy and lacking in thought or depth. It’s just about irony and it’s hard to compare with the great portrait painters of the past, to Sergeant, for example. I feel like I don’t want to waste your time if you’re going to bother paying attention to what I’ve done, I want to at least have put in as much thought in doing it as the person looking at it. I didn’t want to stop even if others who I didn’t think were as capable were getting more success. And still something encouraging happened very year making it worth while if I looked as a long term thing.
I still have this feeling that I don’t quite belong. Those who get success much younger have a sense of entitlement I haven’t got. I have to try to develop that attitude and stop cringing, “Thank you for the attention.” My work is so accessible that for ages people made me think was stupid. I think it’s more important to make something that’s great art and is also popular, not just for other art professionals. It’s just a feeling that driven into you as soon as you come to New York, that being a populist isn’t interesting, creating narrative is stupid. Look at Goya, Daumier, DorÃ©,etc.
People are very suspicious of craftsmanship. But Mathew Barney and John Curren are craftsman that are considered successful, intelligent artists so it’s good for me, that benefits all artists who care about carefully making beautiful pictures. There’s no meaningful distinction between art and craft. Once you’ve sussed out what the idea for a picture will be, it’s all craft, it’s all about making your picture. You need technique.
Danny: Is it terribly hard to be a fine artist? To make it in that world?
Walton: The hardest part of being an artist is not getting noticed. I worked very, very hard on a show about ten years ago and I thought it was a very good show. It went up came down and no one wrote about it, no one bought anything, and I felt like I had done all this work for no reason. Being able to get over that was very hard but kept me around for when people started to admire my work. You want people to admire what you do. I don’t care if it’s vanity or greed or what the motivation was when I looked at a work of art. The work redeems it.
Danny: Yeah, but practically…how did you survive until you made it?
Walton: I was able to survive for years as an artist, living on grants and selling a few paintings and then my big show was a flop and I had to go to work for the first time for years, doing restoration carpentry, wood refinishing, and some illustrations work, book covers and things. Making museum exhibits, building scale models of ships. It wasn’t what I wanted to be doing but it made ends meet.
I resigned myself to the idea that it wasn’t going to go as well as it ended up going. I always had some people who liked my work but it’s delusions of grandeur for an artist like me to think that there were people who didn’t like my work. It was more that nobody knew it, like a restaurant with no customers. Perfectly nice pizza pie but no one comes in. That humility helped me get by.
Danny: Is it important to be an artist?
Walton: At the end of the day, the only thing that human beings have to feel proud about is what sort of art did that culture leave behind, what sort of music, food, creativity, writing, the objects they made. That’s the value and legacy that will endure.
In traditional societies, the making of things was tied to the survival of the group. They didn’t worry about justifying their motivations. They all knew they were doing it for the interest of the group. The rugs on the floor, the paintings on the wall.
Danny: So what’s changed? It sure doesn’t feel that way today.
Walton: People nowadays are made to feel self conscious about drawings, about singing, about being different. And professionals are to blame for mystifying the role of the artist to the point that people feel stupid if they don’t understand things. And there is no attempt to educate people as to why the things that they may not understand right away are worth understanding. And then there’s this tortured pathetic version of an artist. Ed Harris showing Jackson Pollock as an inarticulate bastard, Kurt Cobain blows his brains out.
All this stuff adds up and people don’t want to be involved in this kind of thinking or being or making stuff. They’re interested instead in Hollywood people who aren’t that interesting but who corporations make money out of.
Danny:So is it worth it? Would your recommend that people try to make a living as an artist?
Walton:The advantage I have over people who don’t do this for a living is that I get to do it to think about it all day, every day. I get to wake up each day and just think about making some thing cool.
Danny: That does sound cool.
You can see some example of Walton’s paintings and video clips of an interview from PBS here.