Sculpting a bronze or welding a creation made from castoff metal scraps, this Wyoming artist takes his inspiration from ranching and cowboying, family, and Mother Nature.
Tom Ford pulled off his cowboy boots, stripped off his jeans, and tossed them onto the table in front of his dismayed professor. The assignment for the art class he was taking at Northwest Community College in Powell, Wyoming, was to sketch the displayed flower vase. “The professor wasn’t happy when I ignored the vase and drew my spurs. He told me, ‘Draw what’s on the table,’” says Ford. “He didn’t think me adding my britches was funny.”
Ford also had a habit of drawing horses instead of what was actually assigned. “Finally, the instructor said, ‘If you can’t bring it in here, you can’t draw it.’ The next day I had a horse standing in the classroom. Of course, I went to the dean’s office. College and I didn’t get along.”
Soon enough Ford left college in Powell to return to cowboying near Gillette at the Pickerel Land and Cattle Company. Back under wide-open skies, he sketched Wyoming cowboy life, looking to the great artists C.M. Russell and Frederic Remington for inspiration. But neither cowboying nor his nascent art paid well, and Ford had to hire on at a nearby coal mine to support his family. “I worked a shift every other week,” he says. “It allowed me time to cowboy and do my art.”
While he was juggling mining and cowboying, Ford managed to create the monumental bronze Pulling Leather, which depicts a larger-than-life bucking horse and cowboy. Today it stands outside Gillette’s CAM-PLEX Heritage Center, where you can plainly see that the bronc buster is wearing a replica pair of those same spurs Ford dug in with in his art class.
If Ford was uncompromising in college, it’s because he can’t help but see all his art through the prism of his Western lifestyle. “Ranching and cowboying — it’s about community and family. And you’re out there with God and Mother Nature.” When it comes to his art, these are his natural subjects.
It all came together for Ford a year later when he went to Casper College as an adult for an oil painting class. Initially he found the class’ emphasis on cubism far from his cowboy experience. “Then the more that I looked at it,” he says, “I saw Mother Nature in it. When you get up on a high ridge and the sun’s coming up, the rays highlight different levels of the plains. In cubism, the lights and darks are just like how light moves through nature.”
Light has become something of a preoccupation. In his early work, Ford fixated on the smallest detail, down to every single horse hair. These days, he strives to sculpt, paint, and draw loosely to allow light into his work.
Though Ford considers bronze sculpture his central passion (despite how time-consuming it is), lately he’s especially been enjoying welding castoff metal. Scrap pieces he finds behind his family’s machine shop might become buffalo, antelope, and horse sculptures. “I enjoy doing recycled art and metal work because I get a kick out of creating something a client wants,” Ford says. “If I can make someone crack a smile or remind them of a good memory with my art, I want to create it.”
For more information on Tom Ford, visit his website.