Woodcarver Ray Ford has been making art in a Venice garage for 61 years

Story by Kathy Leonardo
Photos by Ted Soqui

Growing up on a dusty sharecropper farm in northwest Texas during the Great Depression, Ray Ford didn’t have many toys. When he turned 5, Ford’s grandfather gave him a pocketknife so he could carve his own from scraps of wood.

Like so many others who had fled the ravages of the Dust Bowl before him, Ford headed west to California at age 20, where he worked for Douglas Aircraft, danced to big band music in the old Aragon Ballroom on Lick Pier, and walked in the shadow of the oil rigs that still ruled Venice Beach.

After Ford returned from military service in Korea, he and his wife bought a house six blocks east of the Venice Canals for $12,670 in 1956, during President Eisenhower’s first term. In 1973, Ford lost his job to a disruptive new technology — computers — and became an artist full-time, carving and turning and burning wood in the same one-car garage where he continues to work at age 89.

On Saturday, Ford will display and sell his unique wood sculptures at the L.A. Marler Gallery in Santa Monica. Each piece is one-of-a-kind, made by hand in Venice.

Ford’s workshop (“Ray’s Playhouse,” according to a sign above the door) is tight quarters — jam-packed with wood, lacquer, saws, buffers, customized workstations and dozens of hand tools, many of which he fashioned himself.

“I was raised like that,” says Ford. “When you needed something, you made it. You did not think about buying a tool, you just made it.”

Ford has sculpted many different objects from wood and even hand-made leather wallets for a brief stint, but in the 1970s and ’80s he fed his family by sculpting countless wooden birds, mostly stylized replicas of California quail and hummingbirds. For each bird, he’d lay out a pattern on wood and cut out a rough shape with a band-saw, then use a grinder and various sandpapers to refine the shape and smooth the surface. Next he applied layer after layer of lacquer, with sanding and buffing between coats until each piece gleamed. To fill as many gallery orders as possible, he sped up the process by inventing a rotisserie to rotate the birds to prevent drips while the lacquer dried.

These days Ford’s focused on decorative wooden vases and bowls, often with leaf patterns, spending his time at the lathe or experimenting with burning and bleaching to create varied effects.

“‘Whatever works’ is my motto,” he says.

Although Ford has painted landscapes and toyed with whittling faces onto golf balls, in the end it’s always back to the woodpile.

“I like leather and wood,” he says. “Natural things.”

Ray Ford practices burning a new leaf pattern onto wood and uses a homemade tool to shape raw wood in his turning lathe  inside his Venice workshop. Each piece he creates is unique, his patterns derived from using a variety of hand tools and techniques.

Argonaut: You started carving when you were 5?

Ray Ford: I grew up on a farm in Farwell, Texas, during the Depression and the Dustbowl years. I remember those dark clouds just rolling in. Different from a sandstorm. If you covered your mouth with a wet cloth, it wouldn’t take long for it to be covered with mud. … We were up early and had to do lots of chores. I was driving a tractor at age 11.

Well, we were pretty poor. I remember one Christmas my brother and I got one coloring book each and a 25-cent baseball we had to share, and it wasn’t very good. We did not have toys to play with, so I started making my own: slingshots, bows-and-arrows, and stilts
to walk on.

Why did you choose California?

I came to California on Aug. 6, 1948. It was the first time I saw the ocean. The phrase “Go West Young Man” was in my head. … I came for adventure. I had heard so much about Hollywood and the beaches at Venice and Santa Monica.

My cousin Sam and I came to Santa Monica and got a job at Douglas in 1949. I loved it. Santa Monica is my kind of town. I worked for Douglas for 25 years — became lead man in the hand-forming shop, then moved on to office work.

Why did you stop working for Douglas?

They laid me off. The computer took our jobs at Douglas in 1973. They took all our records and dumped the whole thing we’d been working on for 20 years. Felt a little like we’d wasted all that time. … That was when I decided I had to find another job or follow my dream of being a full-time artist.

I did various odd jobs, all having to do with wood carving … then I decided to carve stylized birds and they started selling. The stores and galleries kept asking for more birds, but they insisted that I keep them looking alike. I would change the wood so it felt like I was doing something different. I made roadrunners and cardinals, but my biggest sellers were the quail and the humming birds. I must have made 3,000 humming birds. I supported my family with those birds.

Do you still make birds?

No, now I do wood turnings. I make bowls, plates, vases, wine glasses … but they are not functional, they are sculptures. I design each piece to be unique. My bowls are made to look at — you should treat them the same way you would treat a grand piano.

Do you name your works?

No, but my wife named several of them. She had her favorites and claimed them for herself. I could not sell them. Now that she is gone, I suppose I can. … When I’m feeling good, I work a few hours every day, mostly for enjoyment. It takes my mind off losing Janet.

Where did you meet your wife?

We met at the Santa Monica Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier. Spade Cooley was playing. They were a big band with a country flair. I used to go out stag to meet girls, both there and at the Aragon Ballroom on the Lick Pier. I saw a nice girl sitting on a bench and approached her, but before I asked her to dance, I saw the beautiful girl sitting next to her and asked her instead. The first girl I approached was Janet’s cousin, and she never let me live it down.

What was Venice like back then?

It was really run down when we bought here, which is why it was reasonably priced. Everyone, including my mother-in-law, told me “Don’t buy in Venice.” I heard rumors there might be a marina coming in nearby, so that made me feel better about buying down here. Maybe it would increase in value.

We used to go down Lincoln Boulevard south of Washington and buy our milk at a dairy. There was an open area with cows down there. The cows would graze up against the railroad. You can still see the old tracks crossing Lincoln by the 90 Freeway.

One thing that stood out to me was you could look up and see the snowcapped mountains [to the northeast]. Now there are so many trees and tall buildings you don’t get to see anything.

What do you think you’ll do to celebrate your 90th birthday in August?

The same thing I’ve always done: Create more art.

Ray Ford displays and sells his work from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 24, at L.A. Marler Gallery, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Visit hrayford.com to contact the artist.