The idea of “outsider” artwork has a lot of strange definitions associated with it, none of which ever fit it with any stability or comfort, vacillating between “art by the formally untrained” to “art by the mentally infirm” and incorporating a diverse range of artists that includes the average Joe-never-went-to-art-school and stretches all the way over to five-year-olds, profoundly autistic folks and elephants.
Michael Lee Ford never went to school for art, but instead found himself in a position where art naturally and organically entered his life. He’s a man of intelligence and he’s passionate about what he does. His art has appeal, skill and charm, even without knowing his situation—but there’s something that makes Ford’s work even more exceptional. I spoke with him via post. On the reverse side of the first page of his letter was a denial form for a copy of Maxim, citing the fact that one page discussed the production of alcohol:
"Yes, I am an artist here serving time at the Telford Unit in New Boston, TX, [...] the “Terrible Telford.” It is not a nice place. [On] April 12, it [was] 20 flat years I have been in prison for a robbery I was involved in back in 1989. [Note: address has changed—please see below.]"
The fact that Ford is imprisoned isn’t a gimmick used to make his art more appealing, though it does grant it a fascinating context. After reading The Isolated Art of Michael Lee Ford, which contained page after page of complex drawings, I became a bit absorbed. They’re the kind of drawings that may appear minimal or meandering at first, yet evolve into clear streams of consciousness, humor, sadness and, ultimately, a vibrant expression about the freedom that art can provide the artist—even if he’s locked in solitary.
Isolated Art mentioned an obscure documentary about Ford’s sculptural works that I was unable to hunt down, but now that I’d seen his drawings, I really wanted to know the rest of the picture. In an interesting turn of events, author Mike Drake had sent Ford a copy of a review I’d written about the book, along with the fact that I offhandedly mentioned that I’d really dig a Batman drawing from him. I was pretty surprised when a box arrived in the mail a few days later, containing an 8” sculpture of a gargoyle perching on a gold-toothed skull.
We started corresponding, at first about the realities and curiosities of prison life, and then, as artists, we started talking shop.
MLF: The state of Texas probably has the harshest laws in the US! In 1995, I was confined to ad seg [administrative segregation] which is a prison inside a prison for an attempted escape, and have been here in ad seg ever since. I am confined to a cell 23 hours of every day, seven days a week. It is a solitary cell, which is meant as punishment and is considered a punishment to most of the prisoners. Personally, I consider it a good thing! I highly value the personal space and the solitude of a single cell, especially as an artist.
Here in ad seg, we are not allowed to participate in any programs or activities like school, or religious services or workshops, or sports like basketball or handball. We have no physical contact with another person. None.
We are not allowed to see or watch any TV. We are allowed to buy and have a small AM/FM radio, and books and magazines, newspapers, etc., as long as there are no sexually explicit images. We are not allowed any magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse, girlie mags.
Splice Today: Were you always interested in art, or is art something that you discovered while in prison? Where did it begin for you?
MLF: Yes, I have always been fascinated by and with art! I enjoy creating my art and I enjoy seeing others’ artworks. I love art. I have always been a big comic book fan and Heavy Metal magazine is one of my all time favorites! Before I was sent to prison I was a welder by trade. I have been doodling and drawing for as far back as I can remember, even as a little kid—and I enjoyed painting, and have always been interested in sculpture, and played around and piddled with it a bit. But in 1995 when I was placed in ad seg, [I] found myself in solitary with nothing but time on my hands, I really got into sculpting. The first one I actually did was right after my mother passed away in 1996. I was not allowed to attend her funeral or burial so I sculpted a small bust of Jesus in honor of her, and I have been doing it ever since. Sculpting is like magic to me. No one taught me how to sculpt. I just developed it naturally, on my own.
ST: What are your chosen media? Do you have a preference?
MLF: I enjoy drawing and painting and always will, as long as I am able, but I enjoy sculpting the most. I think it is a gift from God. But drawing, painting and sculpting, it all pretty much flows naturally. I am always doodling and sketching and drawing. I’ll be listening to the radio and start drawing and draw for hours before I even realize it. All I have to do is pick up a pen or a pencil and have something to draw on.
But with sculpting, I have to set it up—prepare my material and get everything ready before I actually begin sculpting. Once I do begin work on a sculpture, I leave all my cares and worries behind and rise to a higher level of existence. I feel excited and joyful! And people seem to really like my sculptures! I truly do consider it as a special gift! And yes, it does make me feel good that I do something that other people enjoy and like!
The more I looked at Ford’s art, the more I was seeing similarities between his own stuff, built on decades of isolation and a very limited exposure to outside media, and the Pop Surrealist art movement. It was a kind of convergent evolution. While the seeds were planted decades ago, Ford has had fewer of the influences that have driven the pop surrealists, but we were all reaching similar conclusions. Some of his influences were not surprising.
ST: Your book of drawings and paintings brings to mind some of the more psychedelic, spiritual artwork from the 60s, and your sculptures definitely have a huge variety of subjects, from imps to jazzmen to clowns and hobos. Do you have any artistic influences, or does it mostly come from inside of you?
MLF: Yes, I am definitely influenced by other artists! Robert Williams, Simon Bisley, Von Dutch, Moebius and Druillet, and many others who I love and admire. I am inspired by their work, although my art looks nothing like theirs. I have my own style, I think, and I do enjoy psychedelic/spirit type art also. I’ll happen to see a photo as I flip through a magazine and just some little something—the way someone holds their head, or a look in the eye, or a certain pose, the way the sun slants across the field in the mornings or late afternoon [or] evenings, the play of light and shadow stirs something inside of me, until it rises up and spills out in the form of my art! Light is very important! I am influenced and inspired in my art by everything I see and hear. Good, bad, things I love and also things I hate. I’m inspired by life, the air I breathe!
Although here in prison, in ad seg, I get most of my inspiration and ideas from magazines. I find “fashion” magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue inspiring for my art. Other than the magazines and books I go through, all I see and hear here, my surroundings here [are] stark bare, steel bars, gray walls—a harsh, desolate place, and sometimes a very scary, extremely dangerous place. But I can leave it all behind when I turn my attention inward and rise above it all. At least for a while with my artwork. My art takes me to another place, and sometimes it just all seems to dry up and I can’t do any artwork for weeks! Not even if I try. When that happens, I just put it all away for a while until it wells up inside me again—and it always does.
ST: You definitely seem prolific. How much art do you usually produce in a given month?
MLF: Every two or three years or so, we get a new warden, and that affects my art some too. Different wardens react differently to my artwork. Some are pleased by it and enjoy it. I have even done artwork for some of the past wardens here, while some pay me and my art no mind. And still, some wardens DO NOT LIKE IT AT ALL!
In 2005, we had a warden here who, when he found out that I was creating art works (especially my sculpts), and mailing them out, he blew his top! He was enraged! Seriously! He seemed to take it as a personal assault! He had the cell raided and confiscated—all my art, and all my art supplies. Pens and paints, illustration boards, half finished works, even my art magazines, and my portfolio for my art. They took everything to do with my art. Several sculptures I lost. [He] wrote me up for a major discipline case for establishing an unauthorized business inside. [They] dropped my line class, lost good time, and moved me to the “detention pod” on “F-pod”—and I stayed there for four months with nothing but the bare basics: soap, toothpaste, shampoo, blanket, and towel, that was it! No radio, no hot pot, no fan, nothing! No commissary privileges.
We are allowed (in ad seg) commissary privileges to buy a few things off the prison store every two weeks, such as stamps, writing materials, soap, shampoo, etc., coffee, soda pops, candy bars, cookies, chips, peanuts, and to have some electrical appliance—a hot pot, a fan, a radio, a night light, but not on F-pod! And the warden forbade me from sending any more of my sculptures out, which was quite a blow. It was my pastime and my only means of earning any funds. And so, for the next three years, I just drew and painted a little, and still did sculptures once in a while but couldn’t keep them or send them out. So, from 2005 until 2008, I had no funds. He really smashed on me!
I was restless and suffered a lot with depression. Then in 2006, someone gave me a few old books and one was a book written back in the 1960s by a man named Jess Stearn. The title of the book is Yoga, Youth and Reincarnation. It was just what I needed! From page one, I was fascinated with it. I started practicing the yoga exercises and was (and still am!) amazed at the difference it made in the way I felt! Gradually, I got more and more into it. Now I practice yoga and meditation almost every day. I highly recommend it. It’s great. But you have to be ready for it. I guess I was.
Then that warden left and was replaced by another one who is the present warden (everything happens for a reason). I wrote the new warden a letter explaining about my artwork, and how the last warden did me and made me stop for no good reason. And I asked him for permission to start sculpting and be allowed to mail them out. I did not have much hope but I had to try and ask anyway, and he gave me permission to start back! Just like that! I was so excited and happy I had tears in my eyes. So anyway, now I am happily sculpting once again!
[I asked Ford if creating art in a prison environment was cathartic in any way, or just a method to make time pass more rapidly.]
MLF: Yes, I most certainly do believe in the good vibes of creating art. Art does have a restorative, healing power! I believe art is very important and necessary for the soul and mind. It serves a purpose. It fills some deep need.
ST: Other than creating art, how to you spend your time in prison?
MLF: I read a lot, I write letters. I am allowed out of the cell for one hour each day for rec. I usually go. They take me to a little day room (a big cage)—it’s not a lot bigger than the cell. (The cell is 8’ x 12’). The “day room” is large enough to walk around a bit and stretch my legs. I walk around by myself for one hour. It’s very important to get out of the cell each day. Plus, I do yoga and meditate. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the wall and try to find the place between two thoughts.
ST: If people are interested in obtaining your artwork, how can they contact you? Here’s your opportunity to address an audience.
MLF: If you would like to have one of my sculptures, please write to me at:
Michael Lee Ford #534424
Estelle HS Unit
Huntsville, TX 77320-3322
I would be pleased to create one especially for you. You can tell me what you would like, or your favorite cartoon character, or favorite pet or person. Send a photo and I will do a sculpture of it. Each one of my pieces is original, one-of-a-kind works of art. The price of one of my sculptures depends on what you want, what you would like, and how much work and detail involved—but they are all reasonable and affordable.
And also, anyone who may be reading this who has an art gallery and who might be interested in representing some of my artworks, please do write to me!
In the year since this interview was conducted, Ford has been moved to a prerelease program and aims to pursue art outside of the confines of prison. Will a change in circumstances, and the subsequent change in palette and materials impact the way that he creates?
It’ll be an interesting transition to watch.