Alumni Spotlights

John Ward, ’80: An Artist’s Life

December 4, 2019 by Lisa McMahon

John Ward’s delight in having been able to live his dream for more than 30 years is evident when you talk to him. His stories are punctuated with laughter, and he still seems to be a little in awe of the fact that his career as an illustrator has been so successful and taken him on adventures he never expected.

Although he always loved art, the artist’s life was not the journey Ward started on when he came to Monteagle Ridge. His father, William, a member of Niagara University’s Class of 1947, wanted at least one of his seven children to attend his alma mater, so Niagara was an obvious choice when Ward was looking into colleges. His intended major, however, was not so obvious. It was only after taking a couple of criminal justice classes that he declared a major in the field with the intent of becoming a Secret Service agent.

When he graduated in 1980, however, President Jimmy Carter had imposed his third federal hiring freeze, so Ward took a job as an industrial firefighter and in security for an Alcoa Corporation plant in his hometown of Massena, N.Y., a job he held for just a couple of years.

“It was not meant for me,” he says. He recalled someone advising that if you want to be happy in your life, do what you do best and what you like most, so he “retired from that career at the ripe old age of about 24” and went back to school to become certified to teach art, which he did in the Saranac Lake Central School District for 30 years, until his retirement in 2015.

Ward often took his students on field trips to visit his former students, including the head designers at General Motors and Urban Outfitters, and producers for “Seinfeld” and MTV. One such trip offered him the opportunity to live another dream. While viewing a private collection of Norman Rockwell paintings in the White House, Ward was approached by a member of the Secret Service. The agent asked Ward to pretend to be an agent, himself, so that it appeared there was more of a presence around the 45 or so students who accompanied him.

“I got to be Secret Service by being an art teacher,” he says. “It was one of my great joys. I had no responsibilities--just look good in a black suit, just look like Secret Service.”

Although Ward loved teaching art, he also wanted to be a “serious” artist. His favorite artists, it turned out, were actually illustrators (Norman Rockwell among them), so he decided to pursue his master’s degree in illustration from Syracuse University.

“That kind of opened up a world to me that I didn’t know,” he says, noting that the program offered him the opportunity to travel the world to visit illustrators and taught him how to market his work. 

Ward did small jobs at first – logos for local businesses, a couple of paintings for a financial company in Syracuse. But when a colleague at the high school told him he couldn’t make money as an artist, he was motivated to pursue the vocation in earnest.

Ward started selling his illustrations to magazine and book publishers and has, to date, worked for 100 different publishers, including Sesame Street Parents, Family Circle magazine, the National Review, and Spectator magazine. He has designed images and book covers for Rush Limbaugh and Mary Higgins Clark, and his paintings have hung in the United Nations in New York City, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., in the entryway of the Pentagon, and in the U.S. embassy in Swaziland, Africa. He has painted portraits of former presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and former Vice President Al Gore, and athletes Zack Bogosian of the Buffalo Sabres, Jordan Poyer of the Buffalo Bills, and Jim Deshaies of the Houston Astros. He has also designed Christmas cards for the New York Knicks, the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, and U.S. Luge. His artistic talent extends far beyond paint and canvas, however; he has designed two high-end rustic homes and creates ice sculptures for the annual Saranac Lake Winter Carnival.

Among Ward’s favorites are the paintings he has done as the United States Coast Guard artist over the past 20 years, which capture the daily missions performed by the men and women on active duty and hang in Coast Guard bases around the world. It’s his way of giving back, he says. His association with the Coast Guard earned him an invitation, this past summer, to the Change of Command ceremony in Washington, D.C., where he rubbed elbows with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, admirals, generals, and people from all over the world. He is also the recipient of the Coast Guard’s prestigious Public Service Commendation award in recognition of his contributions.

Yet, he proudly notes that his greatest honor came just two years ago, when he was inducted into the Niagara University Rugby Hall of Fame.

“It means more to me than anything,” he says, adding that he was a member of the university’s first rugby team. “We used to play rugby all over the place. Those Niagara years meant so much to me, and my Niagara rugby guys. I loved my years at Niagara. My years there changed me forever.”

Today, Ward’s focus is primarily on portraits, capturing the special moments in his customers’ lives such as weddings and graduations, as well as memorializing beloved family members and pets. He also gives presentations about the world of illustration and “the crazy life” he’s led.

“If it wasn’t for art, I’d be a complete disaster,” he laughs, “because it’s the only thing I’m good at!”