Giving Thanks: David Ford’s I Love Indians

I struggle with patriotism. Growing up, Independence Day was a conflicting sea of perceived warmongering and Bruce Springsteen. Then came 9/11 and the outpouring of patriotic merchandise that compounded my mixed feelings, and that day closed just in time for Thanksgiving and the melancholy surrounding a day dedicated to our pilgrim ancestors who, despite their mostly unfortunate relationship with America’s indigenous peoples, made our existence possible. It’s not easy to fess up to an inherent discomfort with the culture you were born and raised in. In fact, if “these colors don’t run” then my assertion is akin to at least mild treason. The truth is I’ve always wanted to be a patriot, but it has seemed impossible to accomplish this sentiment without acknowledging Honey Baked Ham and denying words like nuclear family. Consequently, I forgot about tall-grass prairies, sod houses and head cheese. I neglected the patchwork quilts, the dandelion greens and the buffalo. I forgot about ol’America. Artist David Ford (NAP #71, #89, #107) refreshed my memory. Earlier this summer, still buzzing on hot dogs and pie from the Fourth, I met Ford in his studio, perched above his snack shop in the Crossroads Arts District of Kansas City. That’s right, in addition to establishing himself as a successful, self-taught artist, Ford has crafted one of the most noteworthy creative hubs in KC with YJs, his eclectic snackerie slinging coffee, American fare, and art conversation on the daily. Indeed, with an intense studio practice, a successful small business, and a well-travelled spirit, Ford may be the epitome of the American dream. – Halcombe Miller, Kansas City Contributor

David Ford | I Love Indians, 2011, Acrylic on Canvas, 36” x 48”

Ford’s studio was a melting pot of intrigue. From the collection of mannequin heads gathered on a table; to the large, ornate canvases dangling from the walls; to his gentle-giant of a dog Romeo, the space exuded a controlled chaos that treated my eyes like a lady, but tempted my cognition like a broad. As we began conversing about culture and how this serves as muse to his studio practice I noticed, beneath the twisted fabric tied around his forehead, that his visage hearkens back to the romantic images of our early settlers: rugged, capable and endearing. But, unlike his early counterparts, and despite his myriad projects and globetrotting, Ford doesn’t seem overwhelmed by life. We casually discussed the insular nature of art culture, the vogue of otherness, and eventually approached the place we call home: ‘Merica. Predetermined American social conventions don’t always allow for frank discussions of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going culturally, but Ford is unafraid. He is keenly aware of cultural tensions and he is honest. Really honest.  A self proclaimed patriot, Ford doesn’t apologize for who he is, or where he is from, as he plucks up bits of culture from all over the globe. (Is it ironic that someone who so effortlessly refers to himself as a patriot is also so keen on cultural exploration? Or does it make perfect sense?) With this unabashed spirit,  Ford acknowledges the layers of uncouth stereotyping and generalizing that go into accessing the limitless topic of culture, but instead of running away from the inherently coarse dialogue he wraps his arms around it. And squeezes.

In his 2012 exhibition I Like African Chicken (The Dolphin Gallery, Kansas City) Ford beat patrons to the punch by committing the first cultural faux pas: African chicken accomplishes about the same specificity as American pie, but this was a calculated decision. In suit with his soft-performance art pieces wherein he uses actors and non-artists as “an elaborate framing device” for displayed works, Ford felt that by defying social conventions he provided viewers with a “clean visage” that freed up the necessary brain space to truly experience the work. Once the wall of political correctness crumbled patrons were able to fearlessly explore their own cultural ideologies. A painting from that show titled I Love Indians was particularly striking to me because, in an instant, Ford provided me with cathartic permission to acknowledge my Americanness and the big ol’ mess of history that comes with the territory.

I Love Indians is arresting given its large dimensions and the sheer amount of negative space: save light washes of color and rapid flourishes, the action is relegated to the bottom right corner. Indeed, the eyes embark on a darting dance before they begin contextualizing the piece at large, but, once settled, the eye locks on the primary subjects: two buffalo colliding head-to-head in an intense splash of color. The two buffalo are fleshed out in dark, rustic hues that dominate the mostly white surface, but the scene is punctuated by a golden yellow that looks and feels like a harvest moon, or the ombre orange-yellow leaves of autumn. This contrast of stark darkness and sparse warmth whips and swirls the corner of the canvas into an emotional brew. The action, topped only with airy vacancy, makes the heart ache as dreamy childhood images of cowboys and Indians wax and wane.

The dense, haughty buffalo soften as their paint-saturated bodies give way to gravity, and their tale-tell humps begin to drip like agave nectar. Inherent to the juicy lines trickling beneath the grassland roamers is a sense of real-time formation -- or destruction. The brush strokes and subtle gestures surrounding the collision highlight notions of birth, but the potential converse pops into view when the three-dimensional element of the piece is unexpectedly discovered. Punctuating the collision is a tether attached to the neck of the left oriented buffalo, and, at a distance, this tether appears to be a simple black line trailing away from the buffalo’s neck. Indeed, the drama of the piece is intensified when viewers realize a black chain has been mounted directly to the piece. The end of the leash-like form bleeds into the canvas and the last bit of chain dangles, ending abruptly, leaving us to wonder if the buffalo has escaped and slams its body in celebration, or if the noble creature is on the verge of capture; where does freedom end and imprisonment begin? Ford admits the imagery of the chain gives “immediate heaviness to the piece,” but this seems apt given the historical roots that brought him to the surface.

Ford commented that, regarding his process, “by the time [he] gets to the surface the decisions are already made.” In this case he decided to explore his connection to what he refers to as “the old prairie people” and early American culture, specifically the Leavenworth, Kansas based regiment of Buffalo Soldiers who fought American Indian tribes. While there is some dispute over the exact derivation of the term Buffalo Soldier it is speculated the American Indian’s deemed the Black soldiers as such due to the likeness of their curly hair to the buffalo coat. In aching accuracy Ford was quick to note that “the buffalo roamed freely while slaves were in chains.” This is a difficult American truth to swallow.  True to Ford’s fearless voice he communicates this truth with paint as the conduit, but he doesn’t rely purely on the visual; beneath the imagery is a line of text that reads i love indians. Utilizing the same harvest yellow he did to highlight the buffalo, the text has a certain childlike quality: the statement is forthright and exuberant, and the writing itself exudes the carefree immediacy of childhood. Ford acknowledges that “the statement itself is uncouth,” but he defies the social convention intentionally. His generalization of culture and denial of proper capitalization took my mind to a new place; I found myself accepting the historical truth backing the beauty of Ford’s work and suddenly the moniker “American” didn’t feel so foreign anymore.

Ultimately, Ford wanted the piece to be “fairly open ended” and he succeeded: while the subject-matter certainly walks a line between offense and regrettable history, the piece is also stunning. Ford made the first move toward a dialogue I’ve been avoiding and craving all in the same breath because he is interested in “art that comes from culture, not culture that comes from art.” Instead of ignoring, fretting, or tip-toeing around culture Ford forces us all to examine why we blindly follow social conventions; why we choose to color our American pasts with darkness when there was also beauty. Early America, much like today, was rife with injustice and conflict -- Ford shows us darkness coupled with the yellow of dandelions and prosperous farmers feeding our ancestors; he asks us to acknowledge history while vowing never to forget open skies and vast fields. Let’s remember the old prairie people. Let’s remember the cast-iron and calico. Let’s be American.

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David Ford is an interdisciplinary artist working experimentally with timely subject matter. His exploration of beauty and philosophy through cultural interface has gained recent attention in Whitehot Magazine and New American Paintings.

Halcombe Miller is a writer based in Kansas City where she coordinates exhibitions at the Greenlease Gallery and scours Midwestern flea markets for ceramic animal figurines.

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