Euphrates, 2020, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 60 × 119.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Tom Powel.
This interview is part of Theory + Practice, a series exploring the intersection of culture and social justice, and is made possible, in part, with support from the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.
The invitation from BOMB Magazine came out of the blue. Their editor Benjamin Samuel wanted me—a garden-variety historian—to interview the painter Walton Ford. I had never heard of Walton or his work, and the notion of going into a virtual room with a complete stranger from a vastly different field for a free-flowing exchange struck me as suspicious or even potentially disastrous. I feared lack of connection and awkward silences. Benjamin reassured me that the interview would be conversational in nature; he told me that Walton had read A Land So Strange, my book about the last four survivors of a disastrous Spanish expedition to Florida in the 1520s, and that our respective works shared themes about the natural world and colonialism. In hindsight, I should never have hesitated. It was hugely encouraging to learn that painters and historians have similar obsessions, fears, and hopes, and that working with colors and canvas to explore the human condition is not terribly different from examining old letters and books and trying to make sense of it all over a word processor.
Andrés Reséndez As the son of a marine biologist and as a historian, I am blown away by the anatomical precision of the animals in your work. How do you go about finding your subject—does the history come first or the image?
Walton Ford Usually, the history and reading come first. I get interested in a particular region or animal. For example, I decided to make a show in Los Angeles about California, so I started to research different animals there. I had books about the California grizzly bear, which was hunted during the Spanish colonial era and is now extinct. So, I’m reading all this Spanish colonial literature—things about the missions, things about the trade in leather hides—and finding out all this stuff surrounding the grizzlies.
One of the paintings for the California show is called La Madre (2017). It shows a female California grizzly coming out of a cave; she’s a sow protecting her young, very dangerous. She’s King Kong-sized, in my mind the sort of baleful, ghostly spirit of all the slaughtered grizzlies. In the background of the painting is a mission with smoke, and you see a group of caballeros on horseback, chasing and roping younger grizzlies, which I found out was a sport in colonial California. It’s insane to think they considered that a fun thing to do in your off time. My giant Madre bear has tattered ropes all over her, like Moby Dick. She’s been roped many times but never captured, never subdued. Her spirit is undaunted. These are sort of fantastic metaphors that come out of concrete history. I read primary sources when possible. And then I come up with something that is not contained in the primary source, something that comes out of a hypnogogic dream place. And that is the image. At least that’s the goal.
AR I imagined that.
There were many grizzlies in early California because the local Spanish population raised cattle for the tallow and often dumped the carcasses, driving a boom in the bear population.
You seem to have a great delight in words. The quotes or passages that appear in your paintings, and the situations you choose, I find very engaging. I mean, there’s a lot of boring history out there, but you seem to be able to pick the really exciting, interesting, curious, or bizarre morsels. How do you do that?
WF I do believe that I take a more literary approach to making art than many other artists do. While I was at the Rhode Island School of Design, I also made friends up at Brown. One of my closest friends there was Jeff Eugenides. He would suggest books for me to read and tell me what he was excited about. When I was a kid, comic books were a big influence, and so were movies. I initially studied film at RISD because I wanted to tell stories. I turned out to be an untalented film student, so I continued to paint instead.
The juicy bits that I find in history, I think are simply because of my subject, which is how humans interact with non-domestic animals, how animals live in the human imagination, how humans use animals as metaphors for their own insecurities.
Killy, 2019, six-plate aquatint etching with dry point, hard ground, spit bite, 29.5 × 22.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery. Photo by Wingate Studio.
AR Plants and animals have long been protagonists in human affairs. They determine how fast human populations expand and where we choose to live; overhunting and overfishing them can lead to economic booms and busts. And we become infatuated with some of them.
WF I did an entire show about Barbary lions, which are the most magnificent lions; they lived in what is now Morocco. With their gigantic manes and huge bellies of hair, they became our archetypical lion from the Roman era on. European peoples obsessively stalked this lion from the moment they laid eyes on it. In the Roman amphitheaters, gladiators and prisoners fought with these lions. We made the lion into a symbol of nobility and might, like in medieval heraldry. We never quit using the lion—to their great detriment. The Barbary lion is now extinct in the wild and has only a little bit of genetic
material lingering here and there.
AR Now that you’ve talked about the historical aspect, let me go to the biological and environmental parts of your work. I relate very much to your paintings because my own father was an ichthyologist—a specialist on fish. He would catch the fish, put them under the microscope, count the scales in order to identify the species, and then he would have an artist illustrate them to accompany his scientific articles. Your work, for me, is very reminiscent of that type of illustration. I imagine that, growing up, you might have had a similar experience, concerned with the natural world.
WF Yeah, but it was not so scientific. My father was an avid trout fisherman. One of the reliable ways to get positive attention from my sometimes-difficult father was to draw brook trout for him. You know, the sort of ducks over a marsh type of picture. (laughter) This kind of sportsman art that I grew up with later mixed with the taxonomic type of drawings that you’re talking about. My family valued the elegant sportsman—fly fishermen or my uncle hunting duck with dogs, retrievers that were trained to get the duck and bring it back. Because my family was originally Southern, they valued this sort of manorial hunting tradition, and part of that was to be a good amateur naturalist. We had many natural history books in the house, like the Peterson Field Guides. And those were my first teachers.
When I was ten, I knew the names of great natural history artists like Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Edward Lear, who also wrote The Owl and the Pussy-Cat. I was very interested in Charles R. Knight, who reconstructed prehistoric beasts. His reconstructions ended up in King Kong. So, I was a nerd and I felt great pride in being able to identify birds, or animal tracks in the snow in our suburban area.
La Madre, 2017, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, mounted on aluminum panel, 108 × 144 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Tom Powel.
AR Whereabouts did you grow up?
WF In Westchester County, New York. And when I was a teenager in the Hudson Valley, there were some little patches of woods here and there, and places to swim and fish. But my father left when I was eleven and my mom had four kids in school. We were in a very affluent part of suburban New York without any money at all. I didn’t have things that a lot of other kids had. We didn’t go on skiing trips; we didn’t get on airplanes and go places, so I explored and did what I could do in the local woods. I hitchhiked up to the White Mountains and went fishing. That was how I got by, and it didn’t cost anything. (laughter)
AR What were you drawing and painting during that time?
WF Even early on, I was making false Audubons, for my own pleasure. They were all fucked up. I would take a particular plate from the Audubon portfolio and amplify it in some weird way. Audubon painted a sparrow hawk with a sparrow. But I made a painting with a sparrow hawk sitting on top of a huge pile of sparrows because this was how Audubon went about shooting birds. He was insatiable. He shot birds off the deck of ships. People say, “Oh, he shot birds because he was studying them.” No! He shot them without collecting them. He talks about raking them up into big piles on the beach and counting them, saying, “We had a great day, we shot 500 birds today.” This idea of him as a conservationist is bullshit; it’s something we put on him. He was just thinking like any frontiersman.
AR Yes, our ideas of conservation have evolved a lot since Audubon in the late nineteenth century.
You mentioned California, and the very impressive lions of North Africa. Flipping through some of your paintings, I sense that you are interested in a dialogue between East and West. I am writing a book about the very first expedition that went from the Americas to Asia and back in the middle of the sixteenth century. I find many echoes of that history in your paintings. How did the Asian part of your repertoire come to be?
WF The Portuguese and Spanish presence there.
AR Yeah. Magellan and his men were the first to go from Europe to Asia by way of the Americas during the famous circumnavigation voyage that was completed in 1522. The few men who returned to Europe had to do it the long way, by rounding India and Africa. It would take several tries before the Spanish living in the Americas were able to go across the Pacific and also get back through the Pacific.
I am intensely interested in these exchanges between East and West. California was part of the return voyage—every year, these galleons went from Acapulco to the Philippines and then returned via the North Pacific along the coast of California. Some of the people in California that you mentioned having fun with the grizzlies, and their ancestors, had access to Chinese pottery and silks or Indian cotton fabrics, et cetera.
WF Well, that’s exactly the stuff I’m fascinated with. Because in these moments of exploration and trade, not only artifacts and goods are exploding on the scene but animals as well. I made a painting titled The Loss of the Lisbon Rhinoceros (2008). In the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese got this Indian rhinoceros, put it on a ship, and brought it to Europe. It was unloaded in Lisbon and displayed for a bit. Somebody made a small drawing of it. Then the rhinoceros was put back on the ship and sent to Pope Leo as a gift. Leo already had an elephant, Hanno. Anyhow, the ship with the rhinoceros on board sunk in the Mediterranean. Albrecht Dürer had gotten ahold of the sketch and a description of the animal and made a fanciful print of it. I did a painting based on Dürer’s image. Dürer had heard that the Indian rhino appeared to be armor-plated. His interpretation was to look at lobsters and crustaceans—exoskeletons—and create a rhinoceros that had carapaces. It’s ironic that the animal drowned and then emerges as this immortalized image, the only rhinoceros image people in Europe have for the next 300 years. It looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
AR A cross between a lobster and a rhinoceros.
WF The moment that this animal becomes art history is the moment it dies, as it’s sinking beneath the waves. So that’s the painting I made, the moment of immortality for this animal.
What I’m trying to say is that at the first moment of transcontinental exposures and interactions, animals came along with the silks and spices and all the rest. They became traded in the same way—and yet they’re beings. They’re not cultural objects. They’re beings with internal lives, their own ideas for the future, or whatever the hell that rhinoceros was experiencing on the deck of that ship.
Rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer, drawing, 1515.
AR You also lived in Asia for a while, correct?
WF In 1995, my wife got a fellowship to study tantric art in India. We had a one-year-old child, but we said, “What the hell; we’ll go.” It was a traveling fellowship for six months, so we traveled all over India, living in guesthouses. We then settled in Varanasi and really studied the place. My daughter’s first words were in Hindi—she had playmates along the Ganges on the ghats.
During the first three months, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I would lose my temper. I would become impatient, harried. You know, people are coming up all the time: What is your good name? How much does that watch cost? Where are you staying? I was like, Please leave me alone. I thought I was going to be invisible and take National Geographic photographs in my mind. I didn’t realize that the minute I showed up in a small Indian village, everybody would be crowding around us. Most people were very kind and giving, others were trying to sell me something, and there was rarely hostility. But total confusion on my part. I was so unenlightened, so unable to manage, and so foolish in many of my interactions that I just became completely humbled.
Then, by the last three months, giving in to the whole flow of it, I had a wonderful time. I no longer wanted to change India. (laughter) I was like, there’s a billion people here and they’ve been here for thousands of years. They are the only people I can think of on this planet who have an ancient, continuous, complex, urban culture that hasn’t been broken completely. Nobody wears a toga in Rome, there are no Pharaohs left in Egypt, but in India, they’re doing puja on a ghat in a way that the Buddha would recognize. So I was like, I’ve got something to learn here.
The Loss of the Lisbon Rhinoceros, 2008, watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper, in three panels, total: 98.25 × 148.25 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin Gallery.
AR One of the things that I’ve become quite fascinated by in India is that it is one of the two places where coconuts were domesticated. Coconuts originated around India. Their other place of origin is the Pacific, around Southeast Asia, and yet these Pacific coconuts show up on the American continent. At least by 1515 when the Spanish conquistadores—
WF Wow. The same time this rhino was on the move, actually!
AR Yeah. (laughter) So how do we interpret that? How come the first conquistadores are already running into Asian coconuts on the Pacific coast of Panama? One theory is that they were transported by Polynesians a couple of centuries earlier. Coconuts were like the Swiss Army knife of Pacific colonization. I mean, from coconuts you get water, flesh, alcohol, you can make utensils, thatch for houses, timber, et cetera. I read a chronicle about the Philippines—where coconuts have been around for 20,000 years—that describes an entire ship made of coconuts, including the sails. The cargo of rugs was also made out of coconuts, and the provisions for the crew were coconuts. One tree made the entire ship, the cargo, and the provisions.
Anyway, while you’re more focused on animals and plants, the natural world of India, or Asia more broadly, has a way of diffusing and showing up in other parts of the world.
South America is another interest of yours, right?
WF Yes, but I’ve never been there. I sometimes paint pictures of places I haven’t traveled to, and many of those have to do with misapprehension, armchair knowledge, and getting it wrong; a type of arrogance of the Westerner.
One obsession I had over the last couple of years was making many pictures of a female black panther who escaped from the Zürich Zoo in the 1930s. She had been put in a cage with a male, and the next day she was injured, so they suspected that the cats had gotten into some aggression with each other. So, they put her in a different cage, but she found a narrow vent, squeezed through it, and was gone. This was in October, and throughout the winter, they didn’t know where she was. She is a tropical cat, and this was the snow-covered Alps in the dead of winter! Finally, at the end of December a farmer found her under a barn and shot her for food. It was during the Depression, and right before the Second World War. I made paintings that broke down the panther’s first week, second week, third week, and so on. I tried to imagine what she was doing to survive. They didn’t find dead livestock, but she was sighted everywhere in Europe: people in Spain saw her, in France; she was everywhere. She was in the newspapers and people came to the zoo just to look at the empty cage.
WF I got this story from a zookeeper’s manual called Wild Animals in Captivity by a guy called Heini Hediger. He was the zookeeper in Zürich after the war. This is the kind of story I’m looking for, right? More than likely, the tropical cat came from India, but it could also come from Africa. We don’t know, and melanistic changes happen in jaguars as well.
There’s this whole cultural displacement narrative you could apply to the escaped cat. And then the sort of #MeToo aspect, where she’s getting away from this abusive male. If you anthropomorphize this cat, the story becomes really rich. So I started painting her from all different points of view. I painted one where I imagined a child walking to school through a snowstorm, knowing the cat was out there somewhere. What would that vision be? Sometimes our programmed fear of wild things overwhelms us. In other instances I painted the cat from her own point of view. Because they never found a track, in many of the pictures I had her floating above the snow, making her into a magical spirit. And thinking of the farmer who cooked and ate her, I made pictures of campfires and had her climb the smoke to get out of this realm of human bullshit. She’s leaving on the smoke. I’m interested in a sort of magical realism.
AR You often dwell on our sad tendency to anthropomorphize animals. I’m wondering if you have a sliding scale of the most abused and the least abused animals.
WF The point of the project, which is so engaging, is to shift the point of view. Just like you shift the camera angle in film and allow for different protagonists’ perspectives. My idea is that this is a giant project that I’m working on, and that the point of view is sometimes the animal’s, sometimes the anthropomorphizing human’s, or sometimes a complete dream, a sort of hypnagogic message I got.
Robert Thurman, the Buddhist scholar, said to me that my ego had no participation in the work I was making, that this was an incarnation I was in, where the animals have stories that they need to tell and were telling them through me. He said that when he looks in the eyes of the animals that I painted, he knows that he’s being communicated to in a way that had nothing to do with an artist’s intention. And I just have to give over to this.
So I made quite a few paintings that were absolutely trying to honor what Thurman said. There’s one of a gorilla brought over as an infant in the Graf Zeppelin from the Belgian Congo in 1929. This meant that her family was killed for sure because there’s no real way to capture a baby gorilla without killing the mother and father. She ended up living many, many years in the United States. I painted a picture of her riding over in a first-class cabin on the zeppelin, and I wrote text that was trying to channel her. She says things like, “I no longer feel like biting. The people here have flat faces, the color of tongues.” She’s observing. “They offer food to me, much of it soft and sweet, and watch me while I eat it.” Just these things that she’s seeing, and she has this flat delivery of a traumatized child soldier. Like somebody who has been through so much at such a young age that she’s just going along, like, I’m gonna live. I’m breathing. That’s it. I’m not investing in this… But she does remember going through the forest with her mother. I was moved by this project—it was something that was given to me by Robert Thurman’s POV instead of my own.
AR Point of view is a very powerful way to look at the world.
WF I know that you are also after the kind of history that I like: you are looking for the thing that people haven’t noticed, the overlooked minutia that leads to some huge discovery. Susie, the Graf Zeppelin gorilla, lived to be about forty in the Cincinnati Zoo. That’s it—a few sentences in some magazine article I read, you know? But I’m like, What does that mean? Jesus, what a journey! What was her life like? This is the beginning of a huge story for me.
The Graf Zeppelin, 2014, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 41 × 59.75 inches. Courtesy of the artist and and Kasmin Gallery. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein.
Flucht, 2018, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 60.5 × 83.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel. Photo by Tom Powel.
AR It’s amazing how we tend to compress and reduce an entire life to a single moment or episode and completely erase everything else.
You have this universe that you’re working in, and, I mean, it is endless—animals, plants, and humans, forever and ever, around the world. And you’ve laid out for us a couple of approaches to this. I’m curious if you have a sense of whether there are other approaches you’ll be discovering as you go along, or do you already see some of them? How has your own experience within this universe evolved over the years?
WF Yeah, it’s evolved a lot. Recently, I got interested in this regional thing. I had a show in St. Moritz, Switzerland, with my black panther paintings. While in the exhibit, you saw this black panther moving through the snowy Swiss mountains in my paintings. But when you looked out the gallery window, there were the Swiss mountains covered with snow. What was outside was inside. I did the same with the show in California—in my paintings are these lurid sunsets and then you look out the window, and there’s a lurid sunset. And all the palm trees… There were even wildfires happening during the show. So that’s a recent development for me to have my shows about a particular place scheduled in that particular place.
AR Grounding everything in a particular place and set of people is usually a very good approach.
WF I’m working with Max Hetzler and Gagosian, big galleries, and also museums. I’ll do a show at the Morgan Library. I worked in the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris, which is housed in a beautiful old building in the Marais. It’s full of antique guns and paintings about the noble pursuit of hunting with hounds and horses, and the chase, this kind of thing. All tied to the aristocratic hunting tradition. So, I made a show subverting this—a hunt gone wrong.
In the eighteenth century, aristocrats tried to hunt for this animal that didn’t even exist, it was called the Beast of Gévaudan. There were some wolf attacks in the mountains in the south of France. When the flocks would get attacked by wolves, some of the casualties were shepherdesses and it became sensationalized in the press. We’re talking about right before the French Revolution. Somebody reported that a beast had been killing these young women, and there were prints of the victims with their breasts falling out of their blouses, being attacked by a monstrous black shaggy beast that was somewhere between a hyena and a wolf. It was enormous, like ten feet tall, in the drawings.
I decided that the beast was real, because the fear was real. The beast outlived the aristocrats and the peasants and everybody else in the story. My show included a sexy peasant girl, an aristocrat with a gun, and the Beast—and all their interactions. Things went badly for the hunter. At one point, the girl allies herself with the Beast; they both have green glowing eyes. And that’s before the Revolution, you know. Like, she’s gonna kill the aristocrat, too. At one point, the aristocrat is having sex with her while the beast is jumping out of the forest to get them both. The roles are shifting; the power is shifting. We hung my paintings in with the older artifacts, so they could communicate with each other, which was the point. This show worked really well and I decided I would do more of that kind of thing.
Woche Zehn, 2018, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 22.75 × 30 inches. Images courtesy of Vito Schnabel. Photos by Tom Powell.
Woche Drei, 2018, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 22.75 × 30 inches.
Woche Eins, 2018, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, 22.75 × 30 inches.
AR What about the pandemic we live in? I wonder if that will have any impact on your approach.
WF I’m definitely getting a lot of work done in quarantine. (laughter) Generally, I don’t like responding to current events as much as to history. History comments on current events in its own way. I do realize there’s escapism in this for me. As a kid, I used to love to watch King Kong and get lost in the jungle and see Tyrannosauruses and other prehistoric animals. If I could get in a time machine, it wouldn’t be to see the future but to see the past. The pandemic is too in my face right now.
I don’t have anything to say about it.
AR Well, the kinds of questions that we ask from the past are guided by the stuff that is happening in the present. So my guess is that after the fires in California, the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and the epidemics everywhere, we will be especially keen on learning about the natural world, environmental history, the role of fires in the past, and so on. I mean, the past is so vast that we need to focus on something, and so even if you are not reacting to the present per se, you will be affected by the present in any case.
WF You’re right. I did a painting called La Brea (2016). And it shows the animals that were sunk in the La Brea Tar Pits in—
AR Los Angeles.
WF Yeah. I came up with a sort of horror movie scenario where they rise—their spirits covered with tar—and attack contemporary Los Angeles. Saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, and all of these animals, reappearing like a bad horror film. I painted a kind of epic painting, in a similar format as the Charles Knight reconstructions of ancient LA, with the animals getting trapped in the tar pits. My friend Rick Ridgeway, an environmentalist and mountaineer, saw an allegory in the painting about the futility of using fossil fuels. He was like, “They are made of tar, fossil fuel, rising out in revenge, to destroy the world.” There’s very strong evidence that this was the first mass extinction brought on by people, that this megafauna was flourishing in North America until humans arrived over the land bridge. As soon as people show up, you find skeletons with—
WF Yes—spearpoints in them. So, we’re pretty sure that our actions destroyed these animals. Rick called it my environmental Guernica (laughter). I just feel a sense of dread seeing tar seeping up from the ground. You feel the ground trembling. I’ve always felt uneasy in LA for this reason. So I can’t strictly say that I don’t respond to current events… There’s a reason why I’m reading the things I’m reading. Like with your book—when you came across references to the enslavement of Native Americans rather than West Africans, you knew that this was a really important story to tell.
Studio view of La Brea, 2016, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper, in three panels, total: 60.5 × 35.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery. Photo by Christopher Burke.
AR You’re right. And yes, the megafauna of the Americas disappeared because of the actions of humans moving into this previously unpopulated continent and also because of climate change, another theme from the present that resonates strongly with us and guides what we want to know about the past. Are there artists from the past you particularly look up to in terms of storytelling?
WF You know, the big moment for me as a student, when I realized I wanted to paint narrative pictures, was seeing Giotto’s frescoes of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.
AR Now that you are a successful painter with lots of demands on your time, I wonder how you balance your need to work with the need to go back to the natural wellspring, so to speak, to keep the flame alive?
WF I’ve structured my life in such a way that I spend as much time as I can in the studio. I don’t say yes to very many things, and I sort of dropped out of most activities having to do with the art world. Of course, now there aren’t any because of the pandemic. With me, it’s like I stare at the picture for hours, then get up and paint for hours. Then stare at the picture for hours and then get up and paint for hours. Not the most interesting life. And very solitary.
As far as going into nature, I spent a couple of months in Maine this summer on an island. I’m very fortunate that, because I can sell my pictures, I have the means to leave and go somewhere beautiful for a while and just hike in the woods and swim and recharge. Where I was living this past summer, there are bald eagles everywhere, porpoises, seals, and huge schools of fish that make you think of the descriptions from the past when they talked about walking across the backs of the fish. This part of Maine is still like that.
I’m sixty years old and it feels good to just go to the studio. Delacroix said, If you’re really going to be a savage in your studio, you have to have your meals served on time. He believed in a bourgeois existence for the artist, to give him the freedom to not be bourgeois in his head. It’s important to remove the obstacles between me and the work, if possible. A long time ago I read an interview with Gabriel García Márquez, where he described his day. And I was so envious, because I was still a poor carpenter at the time, having to work full-time and having only the weekends to paint. He said, “I get up early in the morning, and everyone knows not to bother me until lunch. I write until one o’clock and when I come out my wife and friends are there and we all sit around the table and we eat and drink. Then we take a nap, and in the afternoon, I work a little more.” Or you read about Nabokov living on the top floor of a hotel in Switzerland and having nothing in the way of the work, you know? Not having the minutiae of everyday life take over. Nabokov just put them on his wife, Vera. And with Márquez, it sounded like the same. Somebody’s making lunch.
AR Yeah, exactly.
WF Artistic freedom has its costs. I always think I’m going to lose everything, and I’m like, Oh, shit, I’m too old to be a carpenter now. I don’t know why, but I can default to anxiety so fast.
AR I think it’s aging. It’s hard to imagine becoming something else at a certain point.
WF You put all the chips on that one square. You don’t have another game.