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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.”

Creativity has been a constant in his life. At one time, Ford and his mother ran a ceramics and leather goods shop, with Ford making pottery and sandals, his mother creating leather garments.

Several of Ford’s ceramics and sculptural pieces are on display in his art- and light-filled home in a senior community southwest of Sonoma city limits. One piece was made specifically for his wife — a bluebird representing the friendship she shares with a dozen women who were Bluebirds together in the Camp Fire Girls program during their youth in the East Bay.

Another piece was molded from a plastic container that originally held a grocery-store rotisserie chicken. A series of artworks utilize recycled bakery pie plates.

“He can make anything,” said Gail Ford, noting her husband’s ability to see beyond an object’s intended purpose. Her husband acknowledges he’s always had an “inquisitive and inventive” nature.

Most of the artist’s works call attention to his deep concern for the environment. Those efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

He currently is part of a two-month exhibit with Reno photographer Scott Hinton that closes Aug. 18, “Environmental Perspectives,” in the OXS Gallery at the Nevada Arts Council in Carson City. It’s one of dozens of exhibitions that have showcased Ford’s work; in 2010, he was featured at a Smithsonian affiliate in Maryland in “GREEN: Art with the Earth in Mind.”

While Ford appreciates every showcase for his work, being nominated — and selected — for the Biennale Internazionale dell’Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy, in 2003 was a special honor.

Reportedly the largest exhibition of contemporary art in the world, the Biennale is part of a United Nations effort recognizing artistic contributions throughout the world.

Ford’s numerous honors and awards include Best of Show in the Recycled Art Show at Western Nevada College. He also was selected for the (Nevada) Governor’s Art Award for Excellence in Art Education.

Ford spent a year in the late 1980s teaching painting and art history in Edinburgh, Scotland, as a Fulbright scholar selected for the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program. He treasures the memory. “It was fabulous. Every part of the experience in Scotland was incredible,” Ford said.

He’s also taught art at the community college level, and served as an art therapist at a correctional facility in Carson City.

Ford’s community projects and activities are vast, as is his exhibition record. What he hopes most is that people see a message in his art.

“I chose to come out of retirement and again use art as my pen to express myself for what I perceive as the greater good,” Ford notes in his “Environment and Me” artist’s statement.

“I hope people come away with the thought we are part of the planet — not just part of the problem, but the solution,” he said.

The environment is at risk, he cautions, with global warming accelerating “at an alarming pace,” yet “the environmental progress that has been made during the last five decades is being challenged.”

He is hopeful the “brilliance of our youth will solve the problems of their parents.”

Ford especially enjoys serving as a volunteer guide at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, where he discusses art with visitors from around the world. Each one, locally and from different points across the globe, can be a part of the environmental solutions he cares so deeply about.

“We have to work together as a planet to do it,” Ford said. “It’s a shared responsibility.”

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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