Up one wall of Walton Ford's messy Manhattan studio stretches nine or so feet of a fantastical snake, his thick tail coiling along the banks of an Anatolian river, his jaw unhinged as a flock of delicate Turkish birds flutter down his gullet. Rhyndacus, the title of the nearly 10-by-5-foot painting, is inspired by an ancient Roman account of real and fabled creatures, On the Nature of Animals, and is one of several new works that Ford will present at a solo show at Paul Kasmin Gallery this month. The massive painting is remarkable not only for its scale and spectacle, but for what it reveals about Ford's life these past couple of years.
"I can't have enough. It's never enough. I swallow it all. Everything that's beautiful in my life is going down my throat," says Ford.
The serpent, the 54-year-old artist explains, reflects his struggles with addiction and his newfound sobriety—a state in contrast to the realm of his work over the past two decades. Part of the charisma of Ford's watercolors, which many compare to the illustrations of famed naturalist John James Audubon for their meticulous realism, is that unlike Audubon's, they are often debauched and violent. His beasts copulate, feast and kill. Each sprawling piece is based on text—a passage from George Orwell, an arcane field guide—and conceptualized through classical wildlife drawings. Ford's images are allegories of colonialism, conservation, or human nature, though humans rarely appear. The work, which commands up to $1 million per canvas, is both accessible and compelling, and Ford has found fans beyond the art world: The Rolling Stones commissioned him to create a logo for their 50th anniversary, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Daphne Guinness collect his work, which is also in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Before Ford got sober two years ago, he says, "I just was blowing stuff up. You can't really sustain relationships if you're acting like that. It was time to straighten up. You've had enough at some point. Thirty years of being a maniac." In short and chaotic order, he split from his wife of 23 years, the artist Julie Jones, with whom he has two daughters, and quickly married a book editor. Though that marriage ended within 10 months, it brought him back to New York City from rural Massachusetts, where he had lived since 1996.
"It finally felt like I'd had enough of the Berkshires. It never felt like home up there," he says, rubbing his chin. Ford has an impish face, and physical brawn courtesy of his artwork—the pieces, at a huge scale that's rare for watercolors, can take months to complete, and Ford often paints with his arm held high in the air for hours. His TriBeCa studio has double-height ceilings to accommodate the works.
Back in the city, he's removed from nature—"the worst part"—but everything else feels steadier. Ford doesn't flinch from talking about his proclivities, or how it runs in his family.
His parents both came from old Southern families (Ford says he's related to the plantation owners of the same name as those in 12 Years a Slave), artsy types who fled north to Larchmont, NY. "Heretics," Ford calls them. "I was lucky. I grew up in Westchester County with these Southern parents. The food was good—I had all the eccentricity and none of the repression."
"My dad was a wild, alcoholic, womanizing, brawling guy," Ford continues. "But for that generation, if you were funny enough, creative enough, interesting enough, it didn't matter." (His parents did divorce when Ford was 11.) The boozing was one part of the culture that shaped young Walton: Enfield Berry "Flicky" Ford, who died in 2003, was a Don Draper type, a Time Inc. creative executive whose crowd included cartoonists, comic book illustrators and artists.
For all of his flaws, Father Ford instilled the love of nature that fuels both of his sons—Walton's older brother, Flick, is an angler and naturalist artist. (Ford also has two sisters, Ashley and Emily.) In the summers, they portaged to a remote Canadian lake house. "It had no electricity, just Coleman lamps, a wood-burning stove. You had the whole lake to yourself. That was my dad's idea of heaven."
In art, though, Flick, six years Walton's senior, was his "first teacher," he says. The two would spend hours drawing critters in their shared bedroom. "It was always animals," says Ford of his artwork. His mother, who now lives on Cape Cod, recently sent Walton a package filled with his childhood efforts: colorful boa constrictors; sweet Beatrix Potter–esque rabbits; a narrative tableau featuring the family cat.
It was with his mother's encouragement that he attended a summer session at the Rhode Island School of Design, which led to his college education there. But after graduating in 1982 and moving to Brooklyn, he struggled to find his stride. Over the next decade, Ford made ends meet with carpentry work, painting landscapes in oil when he could—nothing that got him much buzz in an era that was all about neo-expressionists like Julian Schnabel.
When Jones, whom he had met at RISD and married after graduation, won a Fulbright for a six-month stint in India in 1994, Ford went along. He found that he took a liking to the local birds, which inspired the metaphorical wildlife watercolors that would become his focus.
"I remember when I first went to his studio," says Kasmin, who has been his dealer since 1996. "I could tell he was hugely ambitious but not doing what he wanted. He knew how good he was at the watercolors, and nobody had ever told him to do them large."
"His pictures are so subversive and yet so beautiful," says Guinness, whose art collection includes Chaumière de Dolmancé, an unsettling depiction of a captive monkey. "They've got an enormous amount of humor, and they are saying something, whether it's political or emotional or historical. The more I know Walton, the more fascinated I am."
In this latest show, two of the other new works are portraits of primates, the mammal Ford identifies with the most. ("I have a serious Curious George problem," he says.) One is Susie, a gorilla who was displayed at the Cincinnati Zoo in the early 20th century. The other is a mandrill named Happy Jerry, an object of amusement for King George IV, that "gouty playboy," as Ford calls him. Ford has yet to decide if he'll give Happy Jerry genitalia—many of his male animals are depicted showing off outsize sexual anatomy. "It's nice to have a penis," he says. "I think I'll probably do it because I can never resist."
A departure for Ford lies at the bottom of these portraits, where there are short, childlike narratives from the primates' points of view. "I was taken from my stone room very early this morning. I made them chase me a bit at first but finally I let them put the tight strap around my middle. They led me out on a chain past the other rooms," reads the text below Happy Jerry, who is depicted smoking a clay pipe, as he did in real life, on a chair at Windsor Castle.
Ford says his sobriety has made him "weirdly more compassionate," and these texts explore what his friend Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, recently told him: that Ford is a medium for his animal subjects.
"Walton is not painting so everybody will be a vegetarian—he's trying to wake people up. And he's a vehicle for that in his paintings. That's why they have such a power," says Thurman.
Ford doesn't attach a specific spirituality to his work, but he has begun to spread his compassion beyond the studio. He has contributed works to benefit the Natural Resources Defense Council and last year's 11th Hour auction at Christie's that raised $38 million for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is dedicated to ecological preservation. Ford plans to team up with the New York hotelier Eric Goode on turtle rescue; he thinks the reptiles "are cool, and not charismatic enough to get a lot of attention."
"Walton is working through this inventory of ideas," says Kasmin. "His paintings are surprisingly related to what goes on in his life. So you've had very black periods, you've had very lively periods."
His newest ideas include a graphic novel, based on the memoir of an animal handler in 1920s Manhattan. Ford is also working on Visions of Paleo Art: 1830-1980, an anthology of 19th- and 20th-century depictions of prehistoric life written by his girlfriend, 24-year-old art journalist Zoë Lescaze, to be published by Taschen.
All of these projects seem necessary to occupy his frenetically creative mind. "When you are one of us," meaning addicts, "you wake up with some pretty crazy shit in your head every day. Things like meditation or prayer are sophisticated psychological tools to keep you alive rather than dead. I don't want to end up like Jackson Pollock or Philip Seymour Hoffman." says Ford. And his art has reaped the benefits of his new way of life. "I see all kinds of helpful lessons that I never did. This is a good place to be."