Studio Visit: J. Michael Ford

Images: Maggie Shannon

June 26 2016

The work of Chicago based artist J. Michael Ford manages to be intriguing in it’s simplicity without being familiar. The serpentine sculptures that populate the walls of his studio are comprised rigid elements wrought in seemingly effortless forms, looking not unlike line drawings that escaped the page. We paid a visit to his studio to chat a bit more about his past, his future, and his inspirations. 

Hometown: Malvern, PA

Current Location: Chicago, IL

How do you take your coffee?
It obviously depends on the season. Right now, it’s iced with almond milk, although I’m partial to making pour-overs at home. I’m a vegetarian who tries to limit their dairy intake, so it’s always almond milk, or any other dairy substitute available. 

What are you Sunday rituals?
I have to remember. Honestly, I do the same thing on Sundays as I do on Tuesdays. I’m sure many artists would agree that their work is their play and their play is their work. So free time is sort of a luxury. That being said I’m definitely a morning person, so I’m up relatively early drinking coffee, writing emails and yes, looking at my phone.

 So, how is your day going so far?
Just fine. I had a recent incident with an attempted break in to my apartment, so I’m staying in a temporary housing situation until the matter gets resolved. It’s been hard dealing with feelings of violation that are associated with being a victim of a crime. I can say I am trying to make the best of it, checking in with myself and assessing what’s there, understanding the nature of unexpected change. Needless to say, it’s been an emotional time.

I’d like to start back at the beginning, can you tell us a bit about where you were born and where you grew up?
I grew up in a town called Malvern in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was born not too far from there. My parents are musicians, my father is a composer and my mother a singer. My father bought a home in ’88 near Ensoniq, an electronic keyboard company that he contributed samples and demos for the technology they were developing at the time. Soon after, the company ‘went under’ during a recession in the early 90’s, so circumstance kept us there. It was strange being raised in a relatively corporate environment. The town is full of companies that surround the main line to Philadelphia, so it became a natural place for corporate or business families to settle. My entire family is creative, and although this was the only place we lived growing up, my siblings and I felt slightly displaced. I went to public school and found community the only way I could really, through sports and later through trips to the city.

What were you like as a kid?
I think I was emotionally mature at young age. It’s funny to say, but I have always been, more or less, in touch with my feelings. In the 4th grade, I was the one who would bring a box of chocolates to a crush on Valentine’s Day, which absolutely mortified them. 

Do you remember the first piece of art or visual culture that you felt truly attached to?
Well, my mother’s side of the family is huge, and they all possess wild creative powers individually. We would have these really great parties with music, drawing, singing, heated conversations and so on. There would be over twenty people at our house during these parties and I think it affected my ideas about culture as it was developed in real time, with real people and could manifest effortlessly.

To me the challenge was how to pursue this outside of my home environment, and in suburbia it kinda felt impossible. I would go to the mall, which became a micro-city I could walk through and feel independent. I’m thinking Spencer’s Gifts, Nirvana, and Airwalks to name a few. All of these things were certainly consumer goods, but they represented so much more culturally and symbolically. I can also say that MTV had a profound effect on me, it established another space outside any urban environment. As a young teenager, it felt like a real place. 

The work you are currently making feels very playful, youthful in spirit. Is there a direct influence or is it more of a loose interpretation?
I think the forms thrive on their simplicity. That’s a big part of it. I find that the seemingly effortless nature of the forms speak to an innocence associated with play, where a state of not being fixed overrides any feelings derived from a resolved process or understood experience. I think about an openness in regards to the body, much in the same way children are in touch and comfortable with themselves. Ultimately, I try to bring out what is innately human in these works, and what can be expressed with this openness.

Speaking about your current work, can you tell us a bit about how you got into making these pieces?

Looking back, particularly with the early work I made in undergrad at Pratt, I was struggling with how to support or give structure to soft/fiber based materials. I was using a lot of yarn, attaching them to found forms, paper or plastic bags, cardboard, or remnants of construction sites. The application of any material involved my hand, but the principle of the readymade gave physical structure to the forms. It was through this that I began developing my own forms and aesthetic language. The pipe became a solution, one that could both express and facilitate its own logic. These pieces evolved over the course of grad school at SAIC. I considered these from the vantage point of drawing, or drawing in space. What started to creep in far exceeded the formal. Parts of my life began to emerge, and I began to pursue impulses and sensations that felt intangible or hidden. These works became expressions of identity, and metaphors for human connection. I am interested in how the considerations of my actual desires can be performed, questioned and transformed into objects. 

Are there particular artists or works you look to for inspiration?
I’ve been spending a great deal of time at the Art Institute of Chicago’s New Contemporary Collection. I’ve been thinking a lot about Felix Gonzalez-Torres lately, in how simply and powerfully they extend complex emotions of loss. Their pieces are present in the trace of their absence, and as viewers we somehow understand this, and relate. My partner, Yani Aviles inspires me daily, as her art practice far exceeds the confines of the studio bringing it into the realm of healing. For a while we have been exploring Myers-Briggs personality types, as well as astrology. These give insight to the interrelations amongst people and serve as a loose platform for how one interacts with the world.

What’s next for you?
I’m in a group show curated by Brian Leahy at Hume Gallery in Chicago in the next couple of weeks. I am also planning a trip to Berlin later this summer with my partner. Then back to Chicago where I will be participating in EXPO Chicago in September, and later a residency at Vermont Studio Center. Having recently finished my MFA, I’m continuing this work in the studio, and having conversations with a more intimate group of people. I think school has a way of speeding things up, and where that is really amazing, I find myself now craving time to slow down and reflect. I’d like to take this energy back into the studio, to chill out a bit and make things on their own time. 

Maggie Shannon is a photographer based in Brooklyn.