At the studio of Walton Ford, big paintings and a virtual kingdom of wild animals

Walton Ford is a painter of animals. Don’t take that to mean he’ll do a portrait of your pet; instead, Ford puts his brushes strictly in the service of critically endangered species–essential wildlife starved, brutalized and demonized by people. Some subjects, like most primates or tigers, are on the brink of extinction, thanks to the decimation of natural habitats that human progress–or greed–has wrought. Yet, says Ford, “I don’t make paintings about animals in nature, but in the human imagination.”

Take Trí Thông Minh, the magnificent tiger he created for exhibition by the Paul Kasmin Gallery at the current Frieze New York art fair. Like all of Ford’s paintings, it’s a monumental watercolor rendered in exquisite detail. Named for the flawed hero of a Vietnamese allegory that imagines how tigers got their stripes, the five-by-ten foot painting shows a ferocious beast breaking free of restrictive ropes in a teeth-baring, agonized leap, plumes of smoke flying from its amber coat.

"I don’t make paintings about animals in nature, but in the human imagination."

In the story, a purely golden-hued tiger emerges from a forest to see a farmer plowing his field, mercilessly beating his ox. The tiger can’t understand why the ox would let such a puny creature abuse him. “You don’t understand,” the ox tells him. “He has a weapon.” The tiger demands to know what it is. “It’s his keen intelligence,” says the ox. Curious, the tiger asks the man to produce the weapon. “I left it at home,” the man says. “Go get it,” the tiger replies. The man agrees to do so, but only if the tiger allows the farmer to tie him to a tree, so the tiger can’t eat the ox. Instead of leaving, the farmer builds a fire around the tiger. “That’s my keen intelligence,” the man says. “How do you like it?” The tiger breaks free and runs back to the forest, forever branded by the blackened ropes.

“I love that the animal gets his beauty from the stripes,” Ford says, “but the way he earns them is awful and painful. That could be autobiographical,” he adds. “It’s not really about tigers at all.”

Walton Ford

In some ways, Ford–a 52-year-old, self-proclaimed clotheshorse–is a naturalist who works in the manner of a James Audubon with malarial fever, an artist whose images reveal the darkest side of his character, like a Dorian Gray. “Animals have big boners in my pictures,” Ford says. “They kill each other for no reason. They act out the fantasies of their keepers.”

As a precocious child growing up in Larchmont, New York, Ford was always drawing the snakes, turtles and rats he brought home. As a teenager, he drew illustrations for the local newspaper. By the time he went to the Rhode Island School of Design, however, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were the rising stars of contemporary art, and being “a natural history geek” was hopelessly uncool.

It still is, Ford says, but he no longer worries about that. Collectors compete to take home new works from his Tribeca studio, and they aren’t just natural history buffs. Last year, the Rolling Stones commissioned him to create the loose-lipped, scarlet-tongued gorilla that became the logo for Grrr!, the deluxe edition of the band’s greatest hits.

"Animals have big boners in my pictures. They kill each other for no reason. They act out the fantasies of their keepers."

Another advocate is Leonardo DiCaprio, for whom protecting the planet is a major cause. For The 11th Hour, the sale of 33 artworks to be auctioned by Christie’s on Monday night for the benefit of DiCaprio’s foundation, Ford spent a solid month painting Anthroponosis, a term he defines as “the process by which human beings infect animals with a disease.” In this case, it’s lust.

The image shows a doleful orangutan stalking a bombshell of a nude woman walking through a jungle with two baby orangutans in tow. Ford based the woman on Birute Galdakis, the Jane Goodall of the orangutan world. His picture also plays with 19th-century paintings of sexualized gorillas carrying off women to rape them–a notion that led to King Kong.

Galdakis once claimed that one of the orangutans in her Indonesian orphanage molested her cook. “The idea behind the original King Kong was more like Lolita,” Ford says. “The monster is like Humbert Humbert, a sexual predator who is in love with Lolita the same way that King Kong is in love with Faye Wray. It’s sad, really, and horrifying. So all of my paintings of animals are activated by a human presence. The tiger is covered with ropes. A human being put them there. He didn’t get them in nature.”