The Art Enigma of Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford’s astonishing lucky streak reached a dramatic climax on 9 August 1974, when he became, by default, President of the United States of America. This had been a rapid ascent for Ford, who only 8 months previously had been the Republican Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. Just as the Watergate scandal was reaching a crescendo, with widespread calls for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced from office because of his own legal troubles. Convicted of tax evasion during his time as Governor of Maryland, Agnew remains only the second VP in US history to resign. Ford was picked as his replacement, while charges against the President were at a critical point. The following summer, in another historic moment, Nixon became the only US President in history to resign. Thus in quick succession, Ford held the vice presidency and presidency without being elected for either post – an unprecedented feat.

Leading the United States in the middle of the Cold War, Ford presided over instability at home and abroad, including severe economic hardship, a brief détente with Communist Europe, and the Fall of Saigon. While respected in some quarters, Ford is condemned by others for his support for foreign misadventures in Vietnam and Indonesia that caused the deaths of thousands. When he finally faced a presidential election, in 1976, Ford narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter. Ford’s 895-day presidency went into the record books as the shortest in American history for someone who did not die in office. But perhaps this shorter term had some benefit: until 2017, Ford held yet another record, as the longest-lived US president.

 It seems fitting that the multi record-breaking 38th US President became the subject of an art enigma, exactly 38 years after he took office. In April 2012, residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan – the city in which Ford was raised and is now buried – spotted a number of spray-painted stencil images of the former president on the side of the Gerald R. Ford Freeway. Their appearance quickly sparked a lively local debate about whether the paintings were art or vandalism. The Michigan Department of Transportation thought the latter, designating them vandalism and a dangerous distraction for drivers, and vowing to have them removed.

The discussion then led on to debate about Ford’s record in office, his legacy, and the value of political art. The artist had clearly researched the subject in detail, basing the stencils on carefully selecting photographic images of Ford from key moments in his presidency and occasionally including quotes from landmark speeches. The first of the Ford stencils featured the words “I am indebted to no man”, spoken by the new president immediately after he took the oath of office, to humbly acknowledge that he had not been chosen by the American people.

The debate escalated from words to action, as some commentators staged interventions to alter the images: with the words “war criminal” sprayed in red paint; with Ford’s face covered by the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask; and with a speech bubble containing the Grand Rapids motto “Motu Viget” (Latin for “strength in activity”).

 By May 2012, the first four paintings had been removed by a state cleaning crew. But the rogue artist soon returned, depicting Ford speaking at a podium, skiing and standing in a bathing suit and towel – the latter image appropriately appearing beside the Grand River and on the opposite bank from the graves of Ford and his wife, Betty.

Still the identity of the artist remained a mystery. Some hoped that the tag “SKBFF” next to some of the works would be a clue. In August 2012, MLive media group received an anonymous email, in which someone calling themselves Odd Job claimed to be the artist. This claimant dismissed SKBFF as an acronym for the “Society to Keep Betty Ford Forever”. In a subsequent email interview, in which Odd Job mostly wrote in riddles, they nonetheless provided some interesting context, claiming that “the images are about the community’s interaction with the memory of Gerald Ford”. The emailer also made some pertinent comments on the art vs. vandalism debate, welcoming the defacement because “really public art belongs to everyone. … I am pleased that someone interacted with it. … It is just part of the conversation. Art is brief; life is long.”

 However, the legitimacy of these claims were called into question when another emailer, signing themselves SKBFF, called Odd Job a fraud and seemingly proved the ownership of the paintings by sending images of the stencils used to create them.

The last of the Ford street paintings appeared in Grand Rapids that September, on the side of the building that was hosting the city’s annual ArtPrize. The image showed Gerald and Betty Ford celebrating his acceptance of the Republican party presidential nomination in 1976. The depiction of Ford’s short-lived success brought a similar reward for the creator, with the painting accepted as an entrant to the competition. On the ArtPrize website, the self-defined Unknown Graffiti Artist titled the work Vandalism and noted: “Recreating iconic images of Gerald Ford in Grand Rapids with stencils and spray paint raises some questions: Does painting popular images legitimize graffiti as an acceptable form of communication within community standards? Is this style of graffiti art or mere decoration?”

This artist’s statement was the last that was heard of the project. Publicly, the creator of the images and the intention behind them is still a mystery. Whether made by a single person or a collective; and whether an elaborate hoax, a guerrilla marketing stunt to mark Ford’s anniversary, or a multi-part conceptual artwork aimed at exploring the fine line between street art, graffiti and vandalism; nonetheless, it shone a light on the ongoing controversy about America’s Cold War record, the rights to commemoration, and the strange tale of perhaps the luckiest president in US history.

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