Walton Ford has been depicting animals for as long as he can remember. Although immediately reminiscent of traditional natural history painting, Ford's images double as complex allegories, blending depictions of nature with historical events and sociopolitical commentary. Over the last twenty years, Ford has created more than one hundred paintings and prints with birds as the primary subject. Learn more about The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art.
Seventeenth century Madagascar was known to pirates, and pretty much not known to anyone else. So I thought, wow, maybe it was possible that they would have come in contact with each other, pirates and elephant birds. And the elephant bird painting that I did this sort of Madagascar painting, was just imagining that that kind of first contact would not have turned out well for the elephant bird.
That, you know, like most western sailors that were landing on islands, the animals on the islands were in great danger of becoming food. And I like to think of just speculative ideas about how you would try to immobilize it, something like that. So I thought, one of the things that you would have had, with at least some of the Spanish sailors, would have been skills with ropes and the ability to immobilize large things like bulls and cattle.
And the way you do that is by roping them around the horns or the head, and then typing up one of their legs, hobbling them, so that they couldn’t walk around without being led. They couldn’t just kick, kick, and carry on. It sort of just tames them instantly.
Walton Ford speaks about his work in the exhibition The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition examines mankind's relationship to birds and the natural world through the eyes of twelve major contemporary American artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Laurel Roth Hope, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech.
The idea of, sort of maybe, the occasional times he had, and throughout the 19th century you had a lot of people having almost a first encounter with an animal, a culture, or a piece of wilderness, that seemed so fascinating to me as a kid growing up in the suburbs where it felt like every inch was accounted for and property lines and, you know, the wild spaces I’d seek out were on the edges of golf courses and things so the idea of being someone like Audubon, like tracking in the Northeast and later in the West, with a gun, and, you know, discovering new bird species and all that, and drawing them and painting them, it seemed like some kind of heaven to a kid that grew up the way I did, at least for me it was.
So, it’s deeply ingrained into what I consider my DNA or something, and then when I went to art school and you’re exposed to ideas of… I mean I was at RISD at the sort of heyday at Brown up there, the was semiotics and all this kind of stuff being discussed and conceptual art, there was a lot of postmodernist theory floating around, and people trying to figure out how to make things that hadn’t, you know, out of the past, and you’d reach this sort of endgame of like, painting is dead, and all of those things were happening.
When I was at school, I completely put aside the fact that I had started out as a little kid drawing animals and birds. That was of very little interest to me when I was a student in the 80s, and then later in the 80s when I came to New York, and all of the work at that time that was coming out of people my age had to do with, well there was a lot. There was Keith Haring, Basquiat, there was graffiti art, the idea of everything was very urban and very cerebral, and very, well, mixed with this sort of punk feeling. You had to, you had to be, things were political. There was Barbara Kruger and all this kind of stuff.
So, where the things that really moved me into all of this, I had no clue. I just knew that I never ceased to sort of be drawn to the kinds of things I was drawn to. It’s a very common teenage boy kind of geeky pursuit I was interested in. There were things like extreme beats, and of course prehistoric animals, underground comics, science fiction, you know, R. Crumb mixed with Hieronymus Bosch mixed with illicit drug use and loud rock and roll. Where does that put you? If I was then to take this 19th century sensibility that really moved me and blend it with all of that sort of pop culture. King Kong was such a huge deal for me, the original 1932 King Kong.
Probably the physical institution that had the biggest impact on me in that way was the Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, because that you can stand in front of dioramas there are the level of art, the incredible craft, beautiful background paintings, incredible taxidermy that was really based on – it’s really like romantic animal sculpture with skin over it, it’s not in the least like stuffing upholstery or something. It was, they were great sculptures creating the taxidermy, there were great landscape painters, and great sculptures creating the foreground, great landscape painters painting the background.
It was sort of, that was pointing out that you can create artwork about the sort of natural experience and there was a sort of critical, I think it must have been the 80s or 90s, a critic called Donna Haraway. It was a feminist critic, and she wrote a book called “Primate Visions” and the first chapter had a big impact on a lot of people like me, and it was called “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” and it was about the Museum of Natural History as a kind of narrative for the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Carl Akeley and the men that created that museum. It’s quite true what it made you do is it made you realize that when you go to look at a diorama there, there was a narrative in that diorama, which had to do with a big central male and submissive female raising the children, and so then I just realized, wow, you can sort of take this scientific language and use it to tell your own stories.
This, all of this, is happening almost at a subconscious level to me. It’s not like I sat down and wrote a thesis in say, ’91, when I first made one of these paintings, I didn’t know where it was going to lead me, but the more that I made them, the more sense they made to me, and the more they helped me work out my stuff. Personal issues, and my issues with the world because I, you know, you come to New York, I came to New York as this sort of, like a lot of people in my generation as an angry young artist, you know? There’s David Wojnarowicz, and all those, it’s like we were all pissed off. There was the AIDS crisis, there was Reagan, there was all this stuff to be angry about. And I didn’t have a, a sort of, the visual language found me that made it possible for me to address everything that I was really interested in, and now it seems like almost anything that is bugging me, or I’ve been thinking about, or I’ve been reading about I can address in this way and so I haven’t gotten tired yet of the body of work I started, it seems like yesterday but was a long time ago. I’ve been at it now over twenty years and it doesn’t exhaust… I don’t… I’m not tired of doing it.
“Falling Bough” is a painting I made about the extinct passenger pigeon, and the passenger pigeon is now, the extinction of the last one, Martha, we’re in an anniversary year for that one in 2014. The last passenger pigeon named Martha, a female, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, in September, and she was quite old, she was in her 20s I think, at the time, and there wasn’t any mate for her. They made such a huge search across the country for a mate, and so she dropped off her perch, and she was frozen in a block of ice, and she was sent off to the Smithsonian and that’s one of the rare instances where we know about, we know when an extinction took place, as far as the date.
Most animals and birds that go extinct die somewhere out there, where we don’t know, and you know, they search, like we look for the ivory-billed woodpecker or the Tasmanian wolf, and the search kind of continues, and finally everyone throws up their hands in despair, but almost always there’s still going to be cryptic sightings for many decades. In this case there wasn’t any of that. But this bird was the most numerous bird, maybe one of the most numerous vertebrate animals on the planet, like they flew in flocks that could only be analogous to fish schools or something. There were billions upon billions of these birds, and when they flew overhead, they darkened the skies, they created weather, kind of, there was wind below their wings, the noise, you couldn’t hear yourself talk, you had to yell to be understood. People hunting them said they couldn’t even hear the firing of the guns around them from the noise of the pigeons. It was a tremendous roaring, almost like a weather system when these things came through in their flocks. They ate chestnuts and acorns and things of that nature, and the reason the flocks were so huge is that they could just cruise up and down the east coast and there was always nuts coming into season wherever they went, or wild rice in the fields of Carolina, or whatever it was, maize fields that the Indians had, they would find the food, they’d settle, they’d eat their fill and then they’d move on, and they could fly 60 miles an hour, so they moved fast.
Audubon actually figured out how fast they could fly by dissecting one that was in New York State, and finding rice in its crop that had to be from North Carolina that was the closest it could have been, and he figured out how old the rice was by how quickly pigeons could digest that rice, and then was able to determine that it couldn’t have been older by a few days, and the bird had to have been flying 60 miles an hour, which everyone suspected anyway, because they would just blow in this terrifying way. So they terrified early settlers, and they were extinct within 50 years. They were a huge source of protein that was just ready to get, and the whole, you know, we have a last name, Fowler, there are people who are professional bird hunters. And they would follow the flocks all across the country and they would just blast away or knock the young out of the nest, and those were squabs, good to eat, nets, building fires, just a million ways of stunning or killing.
The flocks were so thick that if you were standing in the right place with a pole, a long pole, you could just whip the pole around and knock them out of the sky. So it’s beyond belief what this was like, and it probably couldn’t have… this phenomenon couldn’t continue into the modern era more than likely. You can’t have jet travel with such a thing around. So my idea, since we had determined to destroy these flocks from the get-go, was that you sort of need to give yourself a way out, so I wanted to do a sort of “blame the victim” picture, where you, like the way they used to, or still defend rapists by saying “well she was asking for it” I wanted the birds to look like they were asking for it. So I created a really repulsive world of passenger pigeons.
The birds used to land in, for real, the birds would land so thick on branches in the forest that they could break under their weight. Large branches would break, and forests would often look devastated, like it was an ice storm after the birds left. So, I wanted to draw this, I mean want to paint the bough falling through space that had broken off the large tree covered with the weight of the passenger pigeons that It broke off so that you couldn’t even see the branch particularly or what it was, and on the branch you would see the passenger pigeons behaving in uniquely human ways that were repulsive in there, so there’d be gluttons, and there’d be rapists and murderers, and there’d be of the passenger pigeons. So I painted them all, it was like a ship of fools falling down through space, all of these horrible behaviors happening, and the end result being that they all deserve what they have coming, so it becomes a sort of metaphor of hubris, like the, you know. It’s the way people talk about the Titanic, like that kind of wealth is so just corrupt and this and that. And even the romanticized movie version of it is good riddance to that kind of thing, so you need to sort of…. But this was much more allied to the idea of blame the victim in this sense of like, of we demonize our enemies, we make them inhuman, we actually attribute the sins we’re most embarrassed of in ourselves to others so that we can destroy them, so that was the overall, that was the impulse behind making the picture.
When I first learned about the passenger pigeon, it was apparent to me immediately that everything about this story was something I was interested in, I mean, this is the kind of thing that I want to make my work about, and I still haven’t, I don’t think I’ve exhausted at all the possibilities within this sort of natural history of the passenger pigeon. It’s an incredible, I mean to me, when I first learned it, this idea that there were billions of birds blackening the sky and right up until the early 20th century, and that everybody in America in the 19th century would have known what passenger pigeon tastes like, and you know, it was like, it was like a can of tuna in its sort of ubiquitous nature. They barrel them up, and they salt them, and they send them to the market, and there were so many of them sometimes that they, rather than let them rot or even have to try and preserve them, they would just plow them into the fields as fertilizer.
Really, it was just mad, the slaughter and the waste of these things, and you know, we tend to focus on things like the dodo, or the buffalo, the bison, and that those stories are familiar to everybody to the point where they don’t make a very big impact. And they, the thing about a dodo, I mean, island biogeography, it’s like, we understand this idea that a small island with specimen that only lives on an island is really susceptible to the littlest thing, like a rat or a cat being introduced, but the idea that the entire east coast of America was so tremendously altered by the people who came here that it was a kind of unrecognizable world.
That was so fascinating to me, I wanted to know more about that world, and figure out how I felt about these changes and it’s not like we can, it’s not like we can or even should bring back the passenger pigeon. And you could, I guess they talk about doing some DNA trickery to bring one back, but as a specimen in a zoo it might be interesting, but there’s no way to get those flocks up and running again, and there’s no reason we’d want to live with such a thing. I mean it’s like California, where LA is, was really not – was almost, they called it infested with grizzly bears, and the idea of sharing California with grizzly bears is really kind of a terrifying idea. Not necessarily, I was like, maybe it’s fine that they’re up in British Columbia and Alaska, I mean, I don’t know. And I’m not totally for making it just as it was, but you want to think that there’s a home for things that… and we that we don’t drive everything to extinction.
The interesting thing to me, the whole California grizzly story, is another one that’s really fascinating because at first when the Spanish got there, the way that they lived made the population increase of grizzly bears because they had these great pits of slaughtered cattle, and they’d throw the carcasses into these ravines, and the bears would come and eat them, and each settlement had huge population explosions of bears, so we’d actually, it was like raccoons, so we can have this sort of impact that suddenly has a backlash. But in the case of the passenger pigeon, it was simply a case of a vast forest wilderness that could sustain these animals, and then the alteration of that due to hunting and clearing of those original forests, making it impossible to have them around, and they don’t fit into our modern way of living.
“Madagascar” is a painting I did about the elephant bird, Aepyornis I think is what you’d call it in Latin, but anyhow, it was the largest bird that ever lived, the most massive one. Moas were also really huge. But elephant birds were even bigger. There’s no existing stuffed specimen, there’s no skin or anything like that. There’s skeleton remains and eggs, remains of eggs and even whole, empty eggs. So their appearance is purely speculative.
There is one very cryptic written account that I came across where it, a Frenchman, it’s been a while since I read this, a French explorer I think, he was captured by the pirates at one point and killed, but in his journal it said something to the effect that there was a very, very large bird that lived on this island, you know? On Madagascar, and it lived on the interior, and he talked about it in the present tense, and this was in the 17th century, so on that slender description, and just the intriguing idea that elephant birds may have survived into modern times, I thought, well, what if they had? What kind of interactions would they have had with us?
And one of the interactions they might have had were with these pirates, because pirates used Madagascar as sort of a stop, you know, refueling place, kind of. They would land on the island and get things to eat, and water, and fruit, and all this kind of stuff, and then go out on their privateering missions and so that in the 17th century Madagascar was known to pirates and pretty much not known to anyone else outside of people that may have lived there. So there wasn’t any western knowledge about Madagascar outside of what the pirates knew, and so I thought, wow, maybe it’s possible that they would have come in contact with each other, pirates, and elephant birds, and the elephant bird painting that I did was just Madagascar painting was just imagining that kind of, that kind of first contact would not have turned out well for the elephant bird, that you know, like most western sailors that were landing on islands, the animals on the islands were in great danger of becoming food, or in some way, just hunted for sport or whatever the heck, so things didn’t go well for island animals in general during the age of exploration, and I didn’t imagine they’d go very well at all for an elephant bird with pirates.
And I like to think of like, just speculative ideas about how you would, how you would try to immobilize something like that, so I thought one of the things that you would have had with at least some of the Spanish sailors would have been skills with ropes, and the ability to immobilize large things like bulls and cattle, and the way you do that is by roping them around the horns or the head, and then tying up one of their legs, hobbling them so they couldn’t walk around without being led, it just couldn’t kick, kick and carry on. It just sort of tames them instantly to immobilize one of their legs, so I just thought, wow, okay, this is how they’ve sort of muzzled the thing, and they’ve got one of its legs tied up so it can’t kick any more, and it’s going to behave itself. So that was just a kind of fun, speculative painting to make.
There’s a description of Leonardo da Vinci about making speculative animals that look credible, and he says to always combine them with existing, you know, combine the parts of existing animals to create new monsters that look credible, so you know, in his advice to painters. So I always take Leonardo’s advice if I get it.