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Nature Boy


Sanctuary, a 1988 watercolor featuring the silverback ape and Carl Akeley's skull.  

Such bravado aside, Ford, who will happily rail against the global economy and cultural imperialism (one of his best Animal Farm allegory pictures, N.G.O. Wallahs, inspired by a six-month trip to India, shows a European starling handing out Hershey kisses to the local aviary while a carrion-eating marabou stork looks on in horror and disgust), thinks current environmental concerns, while unavoidable, are wrecking places like the Museum of Natural History.

"These kinds of museums are really nineteenth-century trophy rooms, displays of conquest. You know, this is what your tax dollars have brought back, the Rosetta Stone and these gorillas. You can't have that now, it's too horrible. But these new plastic biodiversity exhibits, there's no drama in them. They run counter to the idea on which the museum was founded."

Today, though, the museum is a side trip for Walton, who really came to town to deliver his elephant-bird painting for his Kasmin Gallery show. The largest single bird ever to walk the earth, the Aepyornis maximus, or elephant bird, a flightless native of Madagascar, was thought to have stood at least ten feet tall, weighed more than 1,000 pounds, and been capable of producing an egg containing two gallons of liquid. Walton has painted his elephant bird to scale, making it a bitch to get inside his Subaru station wagon to drive down from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he relocated six years ago after a member of the Spin Doctors moved into his Chambers Street loft building, which Ford, more the Captain Beefheart type, figured was a death blow to the coolness of the neighborhood.

The elephant bird took Walton, who will spend a week on a lion's mane or an elephant foot, three months, "pretty fast, for me." Not that there is much chance any avian morphologist will question Walton's deployment of the bird's tertial feathers. Ample fossil evidence exists, but the animal is thought to have become extinct in the seventeenth century. "It is one of those things never seen by a white man," says Walton, who doesn't mind watching King Kong over and over again. Despite all his mania for verisimilitude, Walton is also well aware of the elasticity extinction adds to the canvas. Since the animal has rarely been pictured, his elephant bird is likely to become the elephant bird.

NATURAL SELECTION: The subject of Ford's Elephant Bird (2002), stood over ten feet tall and died out in the seventeenth century -- "one of those things never seen by a white man," as Ford puts it.  

At the Kasmin Gallery, Walton unfurls the elephant bird, which has been rolled up like kitchen linoleum. And there it is, this massive, brown-breasted ostrich thing standing on a hillside, with the flinty diffidence of being the last of its breed. Below, on the beach, in a typical Ford addenda, pirates haul away the stolen riches of the island, never guessing they are being watched by such fabulous booty.

It is a stunning picture, and Paul Kasmin, a seemingly unflappable Britisher who first began drumming up the Walton Ford market five years ago, is enthused. Ford, however, seems a little troubled. Walton loves the bird -- mad-scientist-style, he loves all of his creatures -- but he thinks something is missing. Then it comes to him. "You know, it is one of the great bummers of natural selection that birds evolved to have no penises . . . Imagine the one I could have stuck on this guy."

"I've always had this sick turn of mind, in parts," Walton Ford says a few days later, sitting in his remarkably messy but suitably rustic studio on the second floor of an old lumberyard building on the other side of the railroad tracks from most of Great Barrington's prim little downtown. Picking through piles of Doritos wrappers, empty Poland Spring bottles, ripped Elvis Costello posters, and stacks of books like A Sporting Chance (techniques for hunting mountain lions with a crossbow are illustrated, along with several man-catching schemes), Walton has managed to locate several slides of his early work. "I drew animals from age, like, 3, but after I got out of school I did this," Walton says, examining an image of a young boy tied up in a chair, duct tape over his mouth, with several older, nasty-looking children (one of whom is Walton) looking on, the sort of foul Grant Wood cartoon riff that might have appeared on an early Alice Cooper album cover. "There were a lot of bullying pictures then. I was trying to get at what a bad kid I was. Why I flunked out everywhere. Nobody liked these pictures. When I showed them -- they were the first things I showed -- someone wrote in magic marker on the wall BAD START. I don't even know why I keep them around, except to remind me I've always had this business about captivity and control."

This is something that Walton, ever the compulsive space cadet (ask him why he holds his pencil with four crabbed fingers and he says, "Yeah, who knows what's up with that?"), allows he comes by "honestly." Even though he was born in Larchmont and grew up in Croton, the son of a Time-Life executive and a doting mom, both sides of his family are from the Deep South: "They go way back. They both owned slaves." With this, Walton picks out one of his old pictures, of a very scary old woman with wild, demanding eyes. "This is one of my great-great-great-grandmothers. Emily Donaldson Walton. On her plantation, a slave girl was born with six fingers on each hand. She wrote about it in her diary, which I found. She said: 'My mother cut off the extra fingers and buried them under the rose bush in her flower garden. The girl was given to me and I named her Queen Victoria, which I thought was a beautiful name for my little pickaninny.' " Walton was "kind of blown away" by this and made a wood-cutlike print called Six Fingers depicting the scene, which he printed up and glued to "every lamppost in downtown New York . . . I don't even know why, except that I wasn't getting anywhere in the art world and maybe I needed to expose this fucked-up thing in my family."

Things are, of course, different now, and Walton is rushing to finish two new pictures for his show at the Kasmin Gallery. One is of a golden eagle, inspired by a section in John Audubon's painting of the creature in A Synopsis of the Birds of North America. The canvas is empty now save for some line drawing and the spotty "foxing" Ford often uses to give his paintings the look of aged nineteenth-century field sketches. The idea, however, has been there for years, since Walton first read Audubon's Ornithological Biography. "Audubon as some Thoreau-like Johnny Appleseed of birds is really nuts," Walton says of his sometime bête noire. "He was a mean-spirited liar. He made enemies wherever he went. He was repulsed by Native Americans. He shot more birds than he ever painted . . . a total dick and not even that good an artist. Yet his work became the standard for how nature is shown. I try to address this dialectic."

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