This interview is part of Theory + Practice, a series exploring the intersection of culture and social justice, and is made possible, in part, with support from the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.
The invitation from BOMB Magazine came out of the blue. Their editor Benjamin Samuel wanted me—a garden-variety historian—to interview the painter Walton Ford. I had never heard of Walton or his work, and the notion of going into a virtual room with a complete stranger from a vastly different field for a free-flowing exchange struck me as suspicious or even potentially disastrous. I feared lack of connection and awkward silences. Benjamin reassured me that the interview would be conversational in nature; he told me that Walton had read A Land So Strange, my book about the last four survivors of a disastrous Spanish expedition to Florida in the 1520s, and that our respective works shared themes about the natural world and colonialism. In hindsight, I should never have hesitated. It was hugely encouraging to learn that painters and historians have similar obsessions, fears, and hopes, and that working with colors and canvas to explore the human condition is not terribly different from examining old letters and books and trying to make sense of it all over a word processor.