Force of nature

Paul Ford uses nature’s own materials to represent the natural world

Ford gathers willows by the Carson River.

Ford gathers willows by the Carson River.

Photo by David Robert

A fraction of a mile down the road from his Minden home, where the Carson River flows underneath the highway, Paul Ford pulls his red pickup off the road and thumps it down a dirt slope. He climbs out—a man of average height, shaded prescription glasses, hair the color of silt—and slings a backpack over his shoulder.He ducks between the wires of a fence and makes his way to the banks of the river, where dog tracks and deer tracks pattern the mud. Willows shoot up from the ground, standing tall in their fiery New England orange, a color the desert has unexpectedly made its own. It’s late afternoon, gray and cold; snow could arrive any minute. And Ford, amid the wind and willows and sleepy river, has come to gather materials for a picture frame.

He bends down among the willows to point out a trio of the plants. Two stalks have been cut to stubs; the third remains intact.

“That’s Native Americans,” he says, explaining that basket makers of local tribes rarely destroy an entire copse. One plant inevitably will be left for posterity.

“I do that same rhythm,” he says. “I’m not invasive. I don’t dent the environment really hard. I tread lightly. I record the environment in the process of change.”

In another era of his artistic life, Ford might have come to the willows to carve out a blank space among them, crop-circle-like, and document the landscape alteration with a photograph, or he might have woven reeds into patterns and set them adrift on the river. Today, Ford will gather a bundle of the bright-orange willows, strip them of their bark, and weave them into frames for his landscape artworks.

“I was into temporary art,” he says. “Now I produce a commodity in a world of commodities. I live in a world that’s based on the barter system. I trade for dollars or for chickens, it doesn’t matter.”

It sounds defeatist, an artist’s indictment of his own medium. But years ago, when Ford made the switch from temporal art, art created in nature and then destroyed, to permanent works made from materials found in the Great Basin—sand, reeds, grasses, bark—he knew that what he was doing had never been done before in quite the same way. The resulting “commodities” are landscape paintings made entirely of these natural resources, works reminiscent of a Native American sand painting or a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala.

“I came [to Nevada] as a concept artist, doing photo-documentation of my own work. I kept exploring and trying to find a niche that would work for me. [My works] are an organic response to the environment. It’s my responsibility to this place called the Great Basin.”

Paul Ford shows how he uses fibers to frame his works.

Photo by David Robert

Ford’s work joins that of a number of regional artists this month at a Zimmerman Gallery show benefiting the Nevada Rock Art Foundation, a year-old nonprofit organization that helps document the rock art that exists within Nevada’s borders. Alanah Woody, executive director of the foundation, estimates that there are about 1,300 occurrences of rock art in the state, but only about 100 have been documented.

“A lot of the sites are close to urban areas,” she says, explaining that those sites sometimes fall prey to vandalism before they are properly recorded. “It gets worse and worse because of federal budget cuts, so there will be fewer and fewer archeologists responsible for taking care of these vast areas.”

Ford’s studio, a small cottage that sits behind his Cape Cod-style home, looks more like a geologist’s lab than an artist’s workspace. Inside, everything is bright and white. The counter is lined with dozens and dozens of jars filled with sands—dark sands, bright sands, fine sands. He pulls open the drawers and there’s more sand.

“It looks like a Muppet,” Ford says as he dips a stick with a magnetized end into one of the jars. The silky black sand clings to the top of the instrument, which comes out looking like it has a shaggy head of fur. The sand comes from Skunk Harbor.

“There was a couple sleeping on the beach,” Ford reminisces. “And here I came with this magnet. They didn’t know what I was doing.”

This blurring of science and art impressed Zimmerman Gallery owner Peter Zimmerman.

“I think that the main thing about his work is that it’s so organic,” Zimmerman says. “It’s like looking out a window out into a beautiful, natural thing, whether it be a lake or a mountain.”

Ford tries to use as many materials as possible from the sites he depicts. In creating the work, Ford first layers decomposed granite, then layer upon layer of sands from the site or from nearby areas onto a wood canvas. Then he binds the sand together with an acrylic bind. “I have a volcanic surface when I’m all done,” he jokes.

“It’s my own thing. Nobody does anything else quite like it. It’s not derivative of Tibetan sand painting and Native American sand painting.”

Got sand? Ford’s studio is stocked with sands of the Great Basin.

Photo by David Robert

But it is, Ford admits, drawn from the philosophies and experiences of both groups.

“I’ve been to powwows, talked to Native Americans, Tibetans. … Two thousand years of artistic practice with sand and soil, there’s a lot to be learned.”

Ford has observed that young Native Americans, those in the art classes he teaches at Carson High, pick up artistic concepts with ease, even if they have no art background.

“I’d say they are the most natural I’ve had in my classes—very intuitive, very natural. A natural sense of color that’s very earth related. The same would be true with Hispanics. Kind of like, white men can’t jump.”

Ford graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in sculpture and graphic design. He moved to Carson City 25 years ago and has taught art at Carson High since then, getting a master’s in curriculum and instruction from the University of Nevada, Reno, along the way.

“I still like it,” he says of teaching. “Although it’s harder and harder to keep up with the students. You never know how many teenage girl problems you have to deal with. Or boys.”

There on the banks of the Carson River, Ford ties the bundle of willows he has collected with green tape and heads back to his pickup.

“What I’m afraid of for this valley [is that] it stands in a really precarious position in terms of unchecked growth,” he says.

“When Kit Carson came through here, there were tens of thousands of ducks and geese and bears and elk … and it’s changed dramatically,” he continues, as if he remembers back 150 years instead of 25. “This was a bountiful spot. The only native fish in this stream, and I don’t even think it’s native, is the carp.”

Just before the fence, there’s a grouping of gaunt, leafless white trees sheathed in strips of plastic debris. The trees are delicate and white against the dark-gray sky. The plastic whips in the wind.

“It’s beautiful in its own way,” Ford says somewhat sadly as he looks on. “It’s the Nevada wind and refuse.”

Ford, with his bundle of willows, walks away from the trees, treading lightly through the mud.