Paul Ford’s work as an artist and educator has taken him to gorgeous locales in Florence, Italy and Edinburgh, Scotland. But much of his artwork has trashy beginnings.
As an environmental artist, Ford, 71, often incorporates debris into his paintings and sculptures, adding unique textures while making statements about the Earth’s “poor diet” and its need for change.
Decades ago he studied the concept of anthropocentrism, a philosophy that considers humans’ outsize impact on the planet. “I was fascinated with it, and this was 50 years ago,” he said.
It isn’t surprising, then, to discover that Ford has incorporated discarded plastic bags into his artwork, cleverly using the non-biodegradable material to showcase not only his talents as an artist but his concerns for the environment.
He cites statistics about the billions of tons of plastic produced since the 1950s, with millions of tons of hydrocarbons yearly.
“It’s truly time for our planet to go on a diet. It’s going out of balance,” Ford said. “It’s really a part of who we are.”
A relative newcomer to Sonoma, after spending 28 years teaching art at Carson High School in Carson City, Nevada, Ford dedicated 10 years to a series of paintings incorporating layers of plastic bags he found littering the state.
The award-winning artist amassed countless bags in a rainbow of colors, placing select bits and pieces into landscapes and abstracts of places like Half Dome in Yosemite and Sand Harbor at Lake Tahoe.
Many works were combined with “hundreds” of paints he ground with mortar and pestle from natural soils he and his wife, Gail, gathered from surface dirt and natural fibers on hikes around the Great Basin.
Combined with his huge stash of plastic bags, the many soil colors provided the artist with inspiration and opportunity.
“The plastic bag colors and print became my palette, used in conjunction with the soil,” Ford said. “I had a full palette.”
He also used collected grasses in Native American basketry, coiling stitches to frame his artwork, done on wood rather than canvas.
In later pieces, Ford used acrylic paints with his natural materials, multiple layers adding interest and dimension.
Some paintings have subtle sparks of black magna type crystals, yet another way to bring natural textures and hues into Ford’s work.
The pieces illustrate a lifelong interest in art — and a public-school education that gave Ford a foundation in the discipline. He recalls being 8 or 9 when a teacher held up a painting smock and asked who might be interested in art. Ford immediately raised his hand.
“I wore it all year,” he said. “Unlimited finger paints.”
By the time Ford served two years in Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic with the Marine Corps, he was passing time and pleasing soldiers by drawing portraits of their girlfriends, replicating the features he saw in soldiers’ photographs from home.
Ford also was a lifeguard at Vietnam’s China Beach, a military vacation site, patrolling both for sea snakes and overly intoxicated soldiers.
“It was a tough psychological time,” he said. “It was a very difficult time for everyone.” Art helped him through. “Art was my therapy in Vietnam.”