Make no mistake, in America you can do anything and become anything you want, even it it’s illegal. All you have to do is work at it.
However, if your dreams don’t fit easily into the pre-cut molds society offers --- i.e., housekeeper, Boeing exec or truck driver --- there will be some lean and hard times. The thing is, during the difficult times most of us compromise our original goals. Rather than fight to overcome roadblocks, we learn to conform to the standard social rules – and it takes so much of our creative energy to conform, there’s little left for other pursuits. But if you hang in there and refuse to compromise, eventually you’ll reach your goals. There are many successful people who’ll attest to this. Frank Sinatra comes immediately to mind because he did it “his way.” Similarly, our president did pretty well for a black fellow out of Chicago’s South Side.
It always recharges my spirit when I run across someone who follows the road less travelled and succeeds. Such is the case with Ryan Henry Ward, a successful, 37-year-old, soft-spoken, quick-witted, teddy bear of an artist. He’d always been a bit out of step with everyone and everything around him, even during his early years in grade school. In high school he never had many friends and those he found were as alienated and rebellious as he was. Together, they formed a garage band called the Green Mountain Boys, in which Ryan played harmonica and sang. In his senior year he published a comic strip, “The Cheese Life,” on the rear cover of Omega Force Comics.
During the lean years, his work was rejected at every turn, especially by the Seattle art scene. Seattle galleries simply didn’t appreciate his untamed, free-floating imagination and the local art critics scoffed at his blue squid, polka-dotted walruses and a Sasquatch who wore sweat pants and ate nachos. In those hungry years, he was sleeping and working in his van, dependent on friends for a shower and living off deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from Buckley’s cafe in Belltown.
And there were some lost years, like the time he was stumbling around in a drunken stupor and dropped 17 hits of acid in the space of a few hours. That’s right, friends, 17 hits. Whoever heard of such a damn fool, crazy thing? And the results were equally as crazy because he spent the next several weeks in a mental hospital recovering from a severe bout with paranoia and delusions. Alas, he was lucky to come out of it.
He spent the next year or two traveling around India, Thailand and Southeast Asia, where he practiced Buddhist meditation, which helped him get his head together. He’s quite fond of the Buddhist philosophy, the Dalai Lama and the writings of Alan Watts. Similarly, he likes the ramblings of Jack Kerouac in “On The Road” and “Dharma Bums” and the Buddhist-inspired work of Hermann Hesse. He also enjoys the paranoid, irrelevant nonsense of Hunter Thompson. When I asked his about his favorite movies, the first film that popped in his mind was Cheech and Chong’s “Up In Smoke.”
Today, his canvases sell for $1,000, give or take a couple of nickels, and his murals bring between $1,500 and $2,000. In the last four or five years, he’s painted 127 murals on building exteriors, school interiors (especially grade schools), garages and parking lots all over Seattle. No lesser celebrity then Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought one of his canvases.
Ward prefers simple, Minimalistic art, like the work of Stedmen, who did the illustrations in Hunter Thompson’s books and Rolling Stone articles, and Shel Silverstein cartoons, yet still has a deep respect and admiration for more celebrated artists like Picasso, Pollack and the Impressionists. He’s learned a lot about the commercial aspects of art from Andy Warhol. Ward has no desire to innovate or be identified with any new school of art, like pop art or surreal art. Yet ironically, by doing what he likes, the results have been quite original.
And, like Sinatra, he did it his way. Excuse me, while I snap to attention and salute.