In Conversation with Painter and Writer, W. David Ward

By Samantha Rodin, Visual Arts Editor, visualarts@lavalab.ca

I was fortunate enough to grab a pint and chat with incredibly talented painter and writer, W. David Ward on a very rainy night in Stouffville, Ontario. Distilling our conversation was no easy task as we talked about everything from DIY renovations to the democratization of art and The Congress of Cultural Freedom. He candidly answered my questions about his early days as a working artist, his divergence into the world of literature, associated research and also shared advice for artists entering the art world today.

Samantha: Your first career path was not that of an artist. Can you share where you started and what prompted you to deviate from your original path and enter the “art world?”

David: My first real 'job' was that of 'futures floor trader' at the Toronto Stock Exchange, an occupation that might have become a career, had it not been for 'Black Monday' (Oct 19, 1987).  To make a long story short: In one morning I gave back most of the profits I'd accumulated over the past few years, and I decided it was time to make the transition I'd been longing to make for some time. At this point in time, the wildlife/nature art movement was allowing many independent artists to make very comfortable livings outside the official art establishment – a world that was something of a mystery to me. I had actually been painting for a number of years prior, and had even sold a handful of paintings, but making this move still felt like a complete leap of faith.

'Aesthetic Nerves Tremble...' 10" x 18" Acrylic on Canvas 2014

S: Technically, your paintings are astounding but on top of savvy brushwork, there are stories and nuances behind embedded in each piece that carry a much greater message. Can you speak to this further?

D: I am very much influenced by the art of the Romantics, particularly the painters of the Hudson River School. These painters, and all artists at this time (until the Impressionists burst onto the scene), were realists, and this spoke to me; partly because I admired the skill involved, and partly because this approach embodied a philosophy I embrace. Painting, for these artists, was a vehicle to improve the world around them, and they were active in both social and environmental movements. In fact, it was two of the later members of the group that brought about the founding of the American parks system. Yellowstone and The Grand Canyon are among their greatest achievements, as Moran Point, on the canyon's south rim, testifies. Until 'Art for Art's sake,' which spawned the Esthetes in England and the Impressionists in France, changing philosophical ideas had not yet been reflected in the visual arts and paintings; despite the growing subjectivity evident in the work of these artist, their images still represented the outer, objective world.

S: How have your travels influenced your work?

D: Being somewhere else, someplace away from the distractions and routine of the everyday, always fires the creative energies, and that energy can be turned to whatever project is at hand. But it isn't just a case creating literal images.  Despite the 'rational,' 'objective' nature of realism, the 'Romantic' paintings  I'm drawn to are  powerfully emotional, and they grabbed the viewer's attention while communicating ideas through allegory, myth and symbolism. Travel has infused my own work with this Romantic perspective; the legends of Celtic Britain (where I grew up) and the stories and myths of the North American West and Northwest coast (were I began my career as an artists) are recurrent themes.

But representational work is often frowned on today, as are literal explanations. As art has shifted ever more toward the subjective, relativistic and introspective, the role of the artist has become secondary to the experience of the viewer; and as art has become more 'removed' from objective reality – abstract – the responsibility of interpretation has fallen to the curator and art critic. The battle between, objective and subjective, reason and emotions, realism and abstraction, is only a surface development, however, a visual representation of the philosophical battle that has been playing out since Rousseau's rejection of materialism and Enlightenment ideals. Similarly, social theorist Theodor Adorno tells us, culture has become an 'anti-enlightenment' movement.


'Quiescence' 16" x 24" Acrylic on Canvas 2013

S: You have somewhat recently expanded your practice to include literary work. Most noted is your recent book, Time Enough, 'A tale of money, financial intrigue and art world chicanery, this is also, inescapably, a story about the 'little folk,' a Lhiannan Shee witch, and an artist's muse...' Though, you are in the midst of working on a second book project which explores conspiracies predominantly imbedded in American art history. You say that the term, ‘conspiracy theory’ is often used to immediately discredit, rather than to provoke further research.  This is incredibly intriguing and I’m sure many people would love a glimpse into your research and how your new book navigates this murky history.

D: Writing has increasingly become an adjunct to my painting. I enjoy the process of writing of course (which is similar to painting in some ways), but I also wanted to tell a story that could not be adequately told in images alone.

My first book, about the Isle of Man mainly, reveals something of the ups and downs of life as working artist, but it also introduces the idea that another history exists, alongside the along side the 'official' version of things, which is seldom discussed. In 'The Game of Life' excerpt from this book (an anecdote of your own, Sam) I highlight some of the more subtle signs that a process which began in the late forties is unfolding as predicted: (1) Art was turned into entertainment, and (2) independent artists (any artist not conforming to the current trends) would be marginalized, then ignored, then...perhaps worse (they often use words such as 'eliminate' and 'liquidate.') Numerous social theorists wrote about the impact the 'Culture Industry' would have on art and society, but what is most disturbing is the fact that this is a means of control – an industry, not as we understand the word, but a political tool. The 'Culture Industry', as envisioned by Adorno (and as we know it today), was launched by means of a massive arts organization called The Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CCF was spun out of the U.S. Department of Psychological Warfare, secretly funded, in part, by the CIA. While promoting American culture to the world it also introduced an entirely new, and very sophisticated, form of propaganda. This is the very stuff of 'conspiracy theory,' except for one thing – the sheer volume of information that has come to light in recent years.  Please see the list below for further reading.

S: How has all of this impacted your visual art practice?

D: As mentioned in the excerpt above, I'll continue much as I always have, doing what I've always done. I'm more concerned, at this point in my career, about the next generation of artists.

S: Can you share any words of wisdom for artists entering this system today?

D: Do what you love, because you love to do it. Being an artist is a vocation, no longer a career (as we are informed). Though I'm hopeful, if the untold history of art becomes more widely known, 'artist' might once again be reinstated as a job description in the 'Game of Life.'


Suggested Reading (roughly in order of importance):

The Impact Of Science On Society, Bertrand Russell, 1952. (now available online)
Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, Francis Stonor Saunders, 1999.
The Culture Industry, Theodor Adorno, (a collection of earlier essays first published in 1971)
The Philosophy Of Modern Music, Theodor Adorno, 1947
Dialectic Of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944 (available online - See chapter 4: 'The Culture Industry as Mass Deception')
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin, 1936 (available Online)
One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Herbert Marcuse, 1964  (available on line)

Learn more about David’s work at www.wdavidward.com. You can also sign up to his mailing list for updates.


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