When you think “portrait artist” and the likes of Leonardo da Vinci (“The Mona Lisa”) or Rembrandt (“Self Portrait”) surface, you’re way off base. If you think Vincent Van Gogh (“Self-portrait in Straw Hat”), you’re getting closer. If you think Gustav Klimt (“Portrait of Adele Block Bauer”) you’re staying on track. But when you say “portrait painting” in the context of Seacoast (New Hampshire/Maine) artist Amy Ford, you need to capture an artistic expression more like Chuck Close (pixelated collages) or Picasso (Cubism and fragmentation). And yet, Amy Ford is none of these. She exudes her own poetic essence via her canvases and boards.
Ford’s formal training began in the studio of Italian artist, Silvestro Pistolesi, where he instilled the classical Italian sensibilities and discipline so apparent in his work, and early on reflected in Ford’s work. And while Ford immersed herself in the finest of details (“We’d sometimes spend an entire week on the study of one tiny detail”), she was inspired to pursue her own more expressive, emotion-driven creative voice.
And that she did.
Eventually studying with Rick Fox, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, she had a breakthrough and Ford’s large-scale figurative work exploded. She doesn’t merely present the figure into a body of work that focuses on the inner life of her subjects, she infuses her perception of what reveals the uniqueness of the subject, our shared humanity.
So, don’t ask Amy Ford to please do your portrait unless you’re courageous enough to deal with the outcome. It may not be what you expect. The final rendering captures the spirit of the person being painted, and a lot of who the artist is.
Ford grew up in Ontario, Canada in a dysfunctional family. She and her older brother Randy were very close. They formed a bond to weather the storms wrought upon them by abusive parents. They were each other’s anchors. A little over a year ago, Ford lost her brother to cancer. It colored her whole world. Literally. Her grief is expressed through color and texture.
We talked about grief. I lost my husband nearly six years ago, and though the sharp edges dull, the love never does. Ford is in the early grief stages of the loss of Randy, and that often includes a lot of pain and anger. And yet, we both admitted that the beauty of the pain is that eventually gratitude kicks in. “How immensely lucky I am to have had this amazing ally in my life all those years,” she said. Yes, it is indeed all worth it.
I believe life is art, and art is life. In Ford’s case, it is her passion and expression. Take for example, her piece “Superspreader,” a collage of her son and a couple of friends enjoying themselves over spring break. Not a traditional portrait — rather she embedded them in their surroundings. She highlights the human experiences of joy, reflection, spontaneity. The work is an expression of Covid-related living. Some things in life we aren’t allowed to choose. So, we must choose what’s right or the best way to deal with consequences. She explodes the work with bold and unexpected colors, and equally rich textures. And yet, you can still “read” the subjects.
This is how Ford lives her artistic life. In snippets. She’ll see a color. Or texture. Or verse. And it informs her choices. She likes to take photos and capture a moment in time. And often they become a springboard for a painting.
In her statement about the show, she explained, “People come, and people go. They come to us as newborns, therapists, classmates and lovers. They leave us by getting on the school bus, taking their last breath, or not responding to our texts. We want to hold on to some and we want to let others go. Often, we don’t get to choose. Every relationship leaves its mark. All through life, these marks reverberate in moments of recognition and remembering.
“These marks are transformed into mark-making in my work. A bold line may evoke the vitality of youth or the pain of rebuke. A meandering drip may represent the impermanence of life or the longing for home. Exaggerated, bold colors may convey intense emotion, confess an obsession, or suggest a complex relationship. Often, there are no easy answers.
“‘In Relationship’ asks you to expand your perception and meditate on the marks that we all carry.”
Working in mixed media, Ford is often unconventional in her execution. In her piece, “Gossamer Thread,” a monochromatic self-portrait, she found herself in an uncontrollable frenzy where she resorted to loading baby Tylenol syringes full of paint to express what she was after as she flung paint on the large board, Pollack-style. The expression perfectly captured the chaos and pain she was feeling as she confronted the grief over the loss of her much-beloved brother.
This exhibition is large. Literally and painterly. Huge canvases hang on the supporting timbers of this historic 1802 barn, replete with the faint odor of bat dung. The works complement the ambiance of the wide floor boards, uneven surfaces, and expansiveness. The venue is large as are the works of art. Ford’s outsized boards — some as large as 60” x 60” or even 87” x 42” — have space to let you absorb. And feast upon the richness of the colors, the unusual color combinations, and just the robustness of life she expresses.
I truly loved so many of them. But perhaps my favorite is “It’s Complicated.” You must know the back story to fully appreciate it. It captures a quiet, unexpected moment of Ford’s husband with a small pet bunny on his shoulder. Ford’s description of him was humorous. He’s pragmatic, precise, a number’s guy. And tells it like it is. Their small daughter begged for a bunny and his reaction was, “I need to go on record as not supporting this idea. I won’t care for it. I don’t think it’s a good idea.” And yet as time goes on, the bunny and the man form a relationship. And Ford captures that tenderness. A snippet in time.
Other pieces of Ford’s resonate with emotion. “Keeping It Interesting” exudes rich unexpected colors, but mostly you relate to the mood. How can you relate to a figure that has a red and blue face, and is splattered with purple and minty green? You can. You can tell me a lot about this person. Despite the nonconformist execution.
Part of the richness of this exhibition — beyond gallery director Catherine McLaughlin-Hills assessment that “I think Amy is a deeply gifted artist, fearless and true to her own process,” is Ford’s work titles. So very sumptuous. And add the story behind them, and you’ll need to control the swooning. Titles such as “Dreams That Cannot Die,” “Smitten,” “Red Sweater, Old Soul,” “If We Wore Our Wounds” and “Queenmaker.” Great fodder for poetry writing.
To enrich your life on a deeper level, attending this exhibition is encouraged.
Running simultaneously, gallery curator/director Catherine McLaughlin-Hills has hung numerous large pieces from her Oaxacan, MX collection from when she had her gallery in Portsmouth. A fire adjacent to her gallery displaced her several years ago and she’s subsequently opened this venue in Durham.
The numerous pieces were created by three Oaxacan, MX artists HL Santiago Martinez, Esteban Urbieta and Eloy Perez.
(“Amy Ford: In Relationship” is on view from September 9 through 19 at the McLaughlin-Hills Barn Gallery, Durham, New Hampshire, with parking at Emery Farm. 135 Piscataqua Road. The gallery will be open daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. An exhibition preview will be held on Thursday and Friday, September 9 and 10, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. and an opening reception with live music and hors d’oeurvres on Saturday, September 11, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. A gallery open house will be held on September 16, 17 and 18 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Also on view will be and Oaxacan, MX art from McLauglin-Hills Barn Gallery collection. For more information, visit mhbarngallery.com.)