Sticks and stones and bits of volcanic cones: That’s what Jill Lena Ford’s art is made of. But to absorb thepowerfulforce of her multi-faceted work, one must look deeper than the earthly materials that adorn her canvases. Her colorful and ornate abstracts are meant to convey the people and places she has bonded withduring her travels around the globe to ancient enclaves of spirituality and cradles of human civilization.
Whether in the dusty streets of Morocco or verdant hills of the Philippines, Ford intuitively collects materials that evoke the country and its people, but which always come from the Earth. She uses remnants of our planet – shells, twigs, pebbles, sand, feathers and flowers – to honor the beauty of nature that surrounds all of us. The items not only have a connection to the land from whence they came, but when arranged in symbolic patterns atop layers of paint on a canvas, they also tell a story about that place and its culture.
“Everything on the planet has anenergy and a light,” said the artist from her home in Hawaii. “I'm not only painting with shells and sand and flowers, but with the light that they have, too.”
And that light shines from her three-dimensional works that evoke harmony, balance and the interconnection of all life on Earth. The artist says it’s important to her that viewers of her work experience a sense of joy and serenity, but she also hopes they relate with her work on a spiritual level.
Ford’s Organic Works Are ‘Alive’
A trained painter who studied art and psychology at Northern Arizona University before continuing her education to earn a MFA in art education, Ford cannot be pigeonholed as an artist. She coined her own term to describe her self-styled idiom, calling it “organic mixed media.”
“I guess I was just tired of trying to explain what I did,” she said matter-of-factly. “My paintings are truly alive. I felt the term ‘organic’ helped people understand a little bit more that it is alive.”
As a painter, she admires masters such as Gustav Klimt and Vincent Van Gogh, but it is contemporary British artist Andy Goldsworthy who has had the most influence on her mixed media projects. Like Ford, Goldsworthy works with natural elements; he creates site-specific sculptures using such things as flowers, icicles, pinecones and mud.
But perhaps Ford’s biggest influence has been her father. She credits Ray Ford, a retired US Airways employ, with instilling a sense of adventure and love of travel in her at an early age. She was born in Pittsburgh in 1978 and when she was growing up, her family was always bound for some new destination, she remembers. But it wasn’t until she saw the majestic redwood trees of California in 2000 that she was inspired to do more than just paint an image of what she saw. She created her first mixed media piece based on her journey to the primeval forest and her work has continued to evolve since then with each new place she visits. To date she has given artistic expression to her experiences in Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Morocco and Belize, as well as Hawaii, where she has lived on the island of Kauai since 2011.
Destinations Chosen for Their Culture and Natural Beauty
“The places I travel are pretty tribal places,” Ford said, describing how she selects her destinations. “I definitely like to see countries that are less developed and more traditional in their culture. I have an idea of the places I want to go and it just feels right to go to certain places. But a lot of it is the culture and natural beauty there.”
India is one country that’s beckoning; meanwhile, in 2012, Ford will embark on a new journey to Nepal and Tibet to take in the Himalayas and open her spirit further to the doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism. On her ambitious itinerary is a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, one of the most sacred places on earth, attracting devout followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Bon and Ayyavazhi.
"I will find inspiration in my own pilgrimage to this mountain…in the journey itself. It will be a difficult one, crossing rugged terrain in cold weather, taking possibly over a week to complete," the artist opined. "But it will be an awe-inspiring adventure and an opportunity to view some of the most magical scenery on the entire planet...The art works created from this portion of my trip will be powerfully infused with the pure and raw energy of the Universe, radiating from the natural materials that I will use to create them and the mythical wisdom that I will learn along the way."
Eco-Friendly Paints Are Part of the Process
Because she creates many works on site, as well as in her studio once she returns from her artistic safaris, Ford has learned how to best travel with her materials. She uses water mixable oils, which are friendly to the environment because they don’t require toxic solvents for thinning or cleanup; and her acrylics are made from recycled paints.
She begins by priming her canvas with multiple layers of metallics, oils, glazes and acrylics until she achieves the desired hue she envisions, often transitioning from one shade of a color to another as she plays with themes of fire and water. Once the painting is completed, she applies the natural materials that she gathers from various locales: beaches, fields, mountains, even cities. While she is often presented with objects as gifts from people she meets on her travels, she usually collectsitems herself, making sure first that she has permission and being careful not to harm the environment in her harvest.
“The location is what goes into my work so I want to portray that and do it as well as I can,” she said. “I have a feeling in me when I'm out collecting. It's definitely a spiritual and emotional thing as well as the aesthetic.”
Objects Arranged in Patterns That Reflect People and Places
Collecting, washing and drying the natural materials is a process in itself to ensure that they will endure once she places them on the canvas, which often induces a meditative or trance-like state. Using repetition of objects in patterns evocative of the country she is visiting, she strives for balance, fluidity and movement in her compositions.
“I use a lot of spirals,” she said, acknowledging a reference to Hinduism. “The meaning behind the spiral is kind of this life force -- the energy of all life, the flow -- and it's infinity, it's forever going not only inward but also outward with infinite connections to the outer world.”
Collectors of her work tend to see the bigger picture and the artist’s desire to bridge people and cultures through her creations. With each new journey, her work continues to evolve.
I think the interconnection, the common threads that run through all living things, that's a very big motivation for me when I travel and when I do my work,” she said. “There's never going to be a dull moment in my art. I have this never ending flow I've tapped into and it's just unstoppable.”