“If I hadn’t been an artist, I’d have been a cultural anthropologist,” says Paul Ford. His studio, a spacious building on his property outside Minden, houses some of the anthropological remnants that he collects and uses as art supplies. Drawers are filled with plastic cups of different colored sand and soil. His paintings, lately all titled “Endangered Spaces,” are framed with glued-down Wal-Mart bags.
Ford has written that he’s interested in making “a ‘pretty picture’ of a not-so-pretty circumstance.” Just as he mixes natural elements (sand and sticks) with materials from an art-supply store (clear acrylic medium, paint), he mixes observations about development encroaching on Nevada’s open spaces with bold, inviting compositions and, well, pretty pictures.
His images of the Carson Valley are more somber than celebratory, more conceptually and politically oriented than decorative. But Ford says he doesn’t want to hit people over the head with his message, and he carefully uses the visual vocabulary of painting and collage that viewers are comfortable with to avoid doing that. A typical piece includes a realistic rendering of a bare tree standing in Washoe Lake, a nod to the long-standing tradition of photographs and paintings that revere the landscape. The edges of the picture are shaped like a Monopoly house, spare but comfortingly iconic. Outside the picture, a grid of colors looks like a new kitchen-tile job.
By mixing all these metaphors, Ford avoids the judgmental one-liner that humans encroaching on nature is bad. In his artwork, as in real life, it’s not that simple. Population growth is inevitable. New housing is inevitable, and while it may mean less open space, it also means new advances in design and comfortable living. Some of the grids that Ford imposes on Washoe Valley landscapes reflect this by looking like displays of paint samples you’d see in a hardware store, designed to be graphically pleasing. Frames within frames and repeated motifs (the Monopoly house again) echo the ones used to give a favorable impression of a product in a magazine ad.
Even the Wal-Mart and Home Depot logos on the shopping bags that frame the paintings are coaxed into looking lively.
“If you layer enough transparent layers of logos, all of the sudden, you have this biomass of little wiggly things,” says Ford. “I see the plastic bags as an agar dish.”
Ford’s conceptual agar dishes, political complexities and all, will soon be distributed to six Nevada arts organizations and individuals in the form of Governor’s Arts Awards. Each year, the Nevada Arts Council singles out people and organizations who’ve contributed to the arts and presents them with not a medal or a plaque, but an original piece of art created just for the occasion. Ford, who received a Governor’s Arts Award himself in 2005 for arts and education just as he was retiring from a long career as Carson High art teacher, received this year’s commission to make the awards.
His “Endangered Spaces” pieces will go to arts administrator Jill Berryman and poet Gailmarie Pahmeier, both of Reno; Carson City music-programming organizer David Bugli; patron Jim Nichols of Verdi; and Great Basin Arts & Entertainment of Winnemucca. From Las Vegas, the recipients are The Rainbow Company Youth Theatre, Nevada Ballet Theatre and the folk-arts organization Mexico Vivo.