I always knew the gorilla had a secret. For the better part of 50 years, first with my parents, then with Cub Scouts, sixth-grade classes, and girlfriends, some of whom understood and some of whom didn't, I came to see the gorilla, frozen in mid–chest beat in his glass case at the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. So much like us, yet not us, the secret was in the silverback's eyes, tender and knowing, harboring some vast, hidden narrative of hurt. I always wanted the gorilla to tell me his story, but how could he, stuck inside a diorama on Central Park West for the past 70 years? But things change. Secrets are revealed, or at least versions of them. Such was the case a few days ago when I visited the gorilla along with the artist Walton Ford.
Walton (as everyone calls him), who grew up a bit nerdy in the Hudson Valley capturing black snakes in his mother's pillow cases and surreptitiously stashing them in his closet, and who this month will display his most recent flock of fabulously ornate, exquisitely precise, wildly idiosyncratic watercolors depicting the state of the natural world at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, has also spent a lifetime visiting the gorilla. Years ago, before he began painting his often ironic, often hair-raising menagerie of possessed black leopards stalked by ignorant villagers, stumbling quaggas with giant dangling dicks, peacocks with their tails on fire, and tree branches breaking under the weight of so many soon-to-be-extinct passenger pigeons that, as he puts it, "the fecundity is almost disgusting," Walton, now 42, made ends meet as a wood refinisher at some of the classier uptown apartment houses, including the Dakota. It was cool to work in the same building where John Lennon both lived and died. But for Walton, the best part was the proximity to his beloved museum, where he went, in his typically obsessive fashion, every lunch hour. It was then that the artist learned the gorilla's secret.
"Well, he's dead," Walton says as we stand in front of the mutually admired simian. "People don't get that. These animals are dead. That they're not just these remarkably lifelike likenesses. They're dead, as in they used to be alive until they were killed."
With that, Walton, who rarely needs an invitation to do all the talking -- "If I'm wearing you out, just tell me" -- tells the story of Carl Akeley, who died in 1926. Explorer, hunter, conservationist, sculptor, photographer, and known as the "father of modern taxidermy," Akeley was one of several nineteenth-century-style colonial adventurer–robber baron–gentleman naturalists such as Sir Richard Burton, who had 40 monkeys sit at his dinner table so he might learn their language, and John Audubon, with whom Walton Ford maintains an undying love-hate relationship.
"Akeley was the museum's great white hunter," Walton relates. "His safari expeditions brought in most of these animals. His taxidermy technique was revolutionary. Before, they'd just stuff the animals like pillows. But Akeley was a genius. He'd shoot the animals and skin them. Then he'd incorporate their skeletons into these perfect sculptures. With the skin back on, they really looked alive. He's the inventor of these dioramas, which are the most beautiful in the world. Nothing comes close. The vegetation and lighting is great, just great. You will not find any landscape painting in New York better than these backgrounds.
"Somewhere along the line, Akeley decided to become a conservationist. He started the first gorilla preserve in the world in the Virunga range near Rwanda. Except when he went back, he got dysentery and died. How good is that? I mean, there's this famous picture of him with a leopard he killed with his bare hands. Then he decides he wants to be a good nonviolent guy, returns to the scene of the crime so to speak, and dies of the shits.
"He was buried in the same area as this gorilla diorama. Years later, Dian Fossey found Akeley's grave, and it had been robbed. It had been dug up. Human bones were around."
These are the sort of stories Walton likes, the kind that inform the often sly environmental passion plays at work in his pictures. Indeed, in the 1998 watercolor Sanctuary, which is included in the new book of his work, Tigers of Wrath, Horses of Instruction (Harry N. Abrams), there is our old friend the silverback, liberated at last from his glassed-in tomb. His face impassive, eyes not quite so melancholy, the gorilla perches on a sinuous branch, cradling a human skull, a skull which in the Walton Ford version once belonged to Carl Akeley.
"You know," the painter says, gleefully delivering the punch line. "It's like, he collected them, and they collected him."
Amid Ford's lush kill-and-be-killed channeling of natural selection, the story of Akeley's gorilla rates pretty much as a happy ending. Bleaker scenarios abound, black comedy aspects notwithstanding. In Walton's world, all tempting fruits are attached to unseen snares, tigers are bedeviled by bees, and great auks march like lemmings into flames, never knowing (or maybe they do) that they are about to be hunted into oblivion. But this doesn't mean that Walton Ford would be happy to be taken as a PETA member, or a snooty George Page–narrated World Wildlife Fund moralist.
"No, man," he says when asked if he is a vegetarian. "If it flies, it dies. I'm not a Ted Nugent red-meat guy, but I'm in there chomping." More interested in "the representation" of animals than in the actual animals themselves (he doesn't visit the Bronx Zoo because "they're always sleeping -- I can't do anything with that"), Walton rates the museum as his major inspiration. But he can't relate to the whale hanging from the ceiling.
"Blue whales are a drag. They're big but boring," the artist says dismissively. "What do they eat, krill? I cannot paint a krill eater. The thing doesn't have any fucking teeth. I like things that bite. A sperm whale, Moby-Dick, that's my kind of subject. A bad-ass."