AMNA NAWAZ: Tonight’s Brief But Spectacular
features painter Walton Ford, whose work examines
our relationship to animals in the wild, who,
as he puts it, would rather be left alone.
This episode is part of our ongoing arts and
culture series, Canvas.
WALTON FORD, Painter: I make very large watercolors.
Half the time you’re at the zoo, you’re saying,
oh, man, those things are a lot weirder-looking
than I thought, or that’s a lot bigger than
I thought it was, or those are smaller than
I remembered them.
So I put them right in your face.
And when you go to the show, you really do
Everybody gets a little overwhelmed when they’re
faced with one of these things.
Growing up in the suburbs, I felt like everything
I had a fantasy about being immersed in the
And going to the Museum of Natural History,
I would lose myself in those dioramas.
And I would bring a sketchbook, even when
I was a little kid, and draw the animals in
the museum dioramas and just lose myself in
That’s the first stuff that I did.
That’s the stuff that came out from inside
That was my — that was what was there.
Then I went to art school.
It didn’t feel cool.
It’s easy to have contempt for what you’re
really good at.
And what I was really good at was drawing
and painting in a rather traditional way,
and also thinking and relating to animals
in the natural world.
The art world had no place for somebody who
was making work like this.
After I got out of Rhode Island School of
Design, trying to be a sort of artist that
I wasn’t, and I returned to the stuff that
I did when I was a kid, that’s actually when
things started really going well for me.
I look at my work as a sort of meditation
on the sort of cultural history of our relationship
with animals, especially animals that would
rather be left alone.
Because my subject matter can be grim, the
best paintings that I make have a sort of
dark humor in them.
Sir Richard Burton, the African explorer,
kept a collection of monkeys.
He gave them all human roles, anthropomorphic
I deliberately altered the behavior of the
monkey to accommodate Richard Burton’s twisted
view of how he was training these monkeys
and learning their language.
And so those paintings could be as heavy or
as light as you want them to be, because they
are amusing to look at.
Well, I have a series of paintings I have
been more working on for many years about
a female black panther that escaped from the
Zurich Zoo in 1933.
She was loose in the Swiss countryside in
the dead of winter for, like, 10 weeks.
That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for.
I’m looking for stories that are so much better
than stuff that I could make up.
And then I’m making stuff up from that place.
My name is Walton Ford, and this is my Brief
But Spectacular take on the imagined animal.