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    By Dylon Jones and Mary Chellis Nelson

    A lot of kids draw in class. Chimel Ford was no exception. As a high-schooler at Pleasure Ridge Park, Ford would set out his paints and create works based on the chip bags and candy wrappers he’d save from lunch. The bright colors and logos of brands like Laffy Taffy and Doritos have always sparked his pop-art style, which also draws inspiration from artists like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “I’ve never looked at a box of Fruity Pebbles and thought, That’s beautiful, but (Ford’s work) I want on my wall,” says Ethan Osman, the lead site coordinator at StudioWorks in the Highlands, which shows and sells art by adults with developmental disabilities.

    Chimel Ford, this year's KDF poster artist.

    Music is also a source of creative energy for Ford. Osman says he had been trying to get Ford to take his own photographs to work from, so the two walked down Bardstown Road with a camera one day and a Louis Armstrong song was pouring out of one of the shops. With no visual to work from, Ford knew he had to paint Armstrong. That led to a music series, including a painting of a scene from a recent Jay-Z and Beyoncé video that shows the couple in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris.

    When organizers at the Kentucky Derby Festival learned of the 29-year-old’s work through a previous KDF poster artist, they knew they wanted Ford for the 2019 poster. With the festival’s guidelines — no racehorses, no jockeys, nothing resembling Churchill Downs (KDF is not affiliated with the Derby itself) — Ford went to work, Googling images of favorite KDF event staples: balloons, the Thunder Over Louisville air show, Pegasus Parade. The festival gave a little creative direction, but that wasn’t quite working. Then Ford took a weekend to come up with his own ideas. “Monday morning, he came in and dumped all these sketches, and we were like, ‘What? Did you sleep?’ It was incredible,” Osman says. Ford, who has been going to StudioWorks a couple days a week since 2010, came to the studio all day every day for two weeks to finesse the poster. A white and gray Pegasus pops like a decorative glass window against bright blocks of color, with thick brushstrokes emanating from the Pegasus body. The style has drawn comparisons to the expressionistic first poster, from 1981, by famed artist Peter Max. StudioWorks will show Ford’s sketches and preliminary versions of the poster, as well as the original work and other recent pieces of his, April 26 through May 15. Ford will sign posters, with proceeds benefitting the studio.

    For Ford, who is autistic, the recognition has sparked his career and given him the chance to be a role model for others, as he says he never had a role model to look up to. Ford says his initial reaction to learning that KDF wanted him as the poster artist was, simply, “Wow.” “I was like, ‘I would like to take the challenge,’” Ford says.

    This originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Flying Colors." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar,

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