Leonardo da Vinci, who lived and worked during the Italian Renaissance, is probably best known for his painting of the Mona Lisa. But Leonardo wasn't just an artist. His talents were amazingly diverse. You name it, the man could do it. And the same thing seems to apply to contemporary artist Ford Beckman.
Skilled golfer, surfer, painter, menswear designer and businessman - all these descriptions fit Beckman, a modern Renaissance man. And there's more, much more, he'd like to add to his resume."I feel like I've just scratched the surface," he says. "There are so many things I want to do. The possibilities are limitless!"
Beckman, who has an art studio in Manhattan and another at his home in New Canaan, Conn., exudes energy and enthusiasm. It's late in the day when we arrive to interview him. Shadows already are wrapping themselves around the congested New York streets. But he's on the corner waiting to greet us as fresh and eager to talk about his work as if it were 10 in the morning.
Lauren Hutton, the famous fashion model, lives in the same old building where Beckman works. "She gives the place a lot of class," he says with a grin, unlocking the door.
The hall is dark and dusty. The stairs creak - a perfect garret for an innovative and unconventional artist whose stark, minimalistic paintings - most of them nearly as big as a wall - are making impressive inroads with collectors and critics.
Beckman interprets a world of deep, intense feelings on majestic hunks of wood or pieces of canvas. His art work, featuring bold stripes, squares and blocks, decorates the sparsely furnished studio. Some of it, glistening with shellac, is ready to crate and ship to galleries.
"I use this space primarily for storage now," he explains. "Most of my paintings-in-progress are out in Connecticut, and that's where I do the majority of my fashion design projects, too."
The artist's method of creative expression is powerful, abstract, strangely unsettling. Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci, who saw the world in more realistic art terms, would undoubtedly be amazed at the direction this young man is taking. Amazed and intrigued.
Until about the 1940s, Beckman says, most artists worked in a decorative mode, leaning toward conventional portraiture and easily recognizable subject matter. Today, inspired by such important innovators as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, the predominant mood has changed to abstract art that explores the inner as well as outer landscape.
A whole new school and generation of artists has sprung up, he notes, including the well-known Julian Schnabel. These new forces in the art world are stripping unessential elements away and probing deeper and deeper in search of fundamental meanings. And he considers himself to be a part of the artistic quest.
Beckman's work has been featured at the Craig Cornelius Gallery in New York, and exhibited with several other leading dealers. Paintings already have been sold to numerous connoisseurs of the modern minimalistic movement, and the artist is looking forward to further exhibits in this country and in Europe.
"I'm not well known yet," he says frankly. "But I think - I sincerely hope - it's starting to happen. I love to paint; art really is my life."
Although Beckman declares that art's his life, he hasn't been waiting around to be discovered; he hasn't been starving in a garret. The young artist has been busily carving out a niche in fashion design, and most experts in the field of menswear consider him to be one of the industry's fastest rising stars.
"I loved art from the time I was a kid," explains Beckman, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, and reared in Jacksonville, Fla. "But the apparel industry and merchandising also fascinated me, and I had to be practical - like everyone else I needed to make a little money to buy groceries and pay the rent. So, when I turned 19, I dropped out of Oral Roberts University, where I was studying art on a golf scholarship, and opened Clancy's, an apparel specialty store in Tulsa, Okla."
Beckman and the apparel business hit it off immediately. And it wasn't long before the young entrepreneur was exploring the possibilities of designing clothes as well as selling them.
His first big break came when a major manufacturer of outerwear heard about his ambitions and artistic talents and gave him a chance to create rubberized foul weather gear.
By 1981, Beckman had closed his store and moved to New York, where he was licensed by one of Europe's oldest and most prestigious knitwear firms, CoxMoore of Nottingham, to produce a Ford Beckman sweater line for America and Europe. Response to this first collection was remarkably positive and led to a rapid-fire series of design opportunities.
Norman Shirtmakers licensed him to fashion their men's and women's collections as well as a line under his own label that earned the Cutty Sark Menswear Award nomination for Most Promising U.S. Designer. Wemco hired him to design ties, and he also assumed responsibility for that company's Resilio sport line. During the same period the artist created a bright new fashion image for Ballantyne's cashmere American collection and signed a licensing agreement with Lakeland Manufacturing for a full line of outerwear.
"From the very beginning, I've considered myself a free-lance designer," Beckman says. "I've worked for companies and divisions that specialize in different apparel products, and it has given me some wonderful experience. It has been a real fashion education."
The fashion education expanded recently under a contract with Crowther and Company, a leading British textile conglomerate. With Crowther's backing, the artist designed his fall collection, the Work of Ford Beckman. The menswear line provides a complete apparel portrait - tailored clothing, sportswear, dress shirts and knitwear.
A critic reviewing the collection would probably note that the silhouettes in the line are comfortable, although not particualrly innovative. Where Beckman really shines is in the areas of fabrication and color. A soft gray flannel used in the line provides a perfect example. At first glance, you think you're dealing with a solid shade. But closer examination reveals that the material is a mixture of a variety of subtle and sophisticated colors, including mulberry, plum and moss green.
Shirts often feature pockets done in a contrasting bright shade. Sweaters frequently feature colorful elbow patches. There are bold color-block combinations of pink, black and yellow in the collection, and two-color collars - panels of purple and aqua - strike an unusual note. Oxford cloth shirts come in unexpected shades like black, plum and forest green, while rugby styles have an equally interesting palette.
Patterns include subdued houndstooth checks and brash and bold tartans.
"I have fun - I enjoy making a bold statement," says Beckman, who's convinced that men today are eager for more color and more eye-catching clothes in their wardrobes. Sure, he concedes, there was a time when males were hesitant to express themselves with fashion. But, in his opinion, that era is over and a bright new period in menswear is dawning. What's more, stresses the artist, color and pattern probably will play an even more prominent role in the future.
As for his own future, Beckman, ever the Renaissance man, is eager to enter new design areas as well as keep up with his painting and menswear careers. Among other things, he'd like to try his hand at home furnishings and housewares, and he'd like to do women's and children's clothing.
Still another goal involves doing window displays for big stores in New York City - displays that would feature clothes juxtaposed against art.
"Walking along the street and window shopping is one of the things I enjoy most about Manhattan," he says. "Why not turn those windows at Macy's and Bloomingdale's into an art gallery? There are so many talented artists in New York and elsewhere, display people could change the windows every night from now on and never run out of fresh ideas."