and mindscapes: the artistry of John Walker
These are good days for John Walker. These are days when his canvases
are places of refuge and relief, when work in the studio is purposeful,
and when inspiration is a daily companion, not a quick flash in the dark.
At 62, Walker is a painter in his prime, more eager than ever, and more
acclaimed. Born in Birmingham, England, he is one of the leading painters
of his generation. He is also, in his eighth year at the School for the
Arts, a sought-after mentor in the graduate painting program. Coming off
a major show in New York earlier this year, which left critics remarking
on his continual innovation, he inspires young painters with his energy
One sign of his comfort in the studio these days is his decision to showcase,
in a recent exhibition, two very different sides of his artistic persona.
The exhibition, titled Time and Tides, at Knoedler & Company in New
York, was divided between his war paintings, which he calls "recollections,"
and a series of landscapes of coastal Maine.
Bearing witness to World War I
The war paintings are an open-ended conversation with his father, who
as a young man saw brutal action in World War I. In those days, entire
neighborhoods were sent to war together, so a town might lose a generation
of young men in a single battle. Walker's own extended family lost 11
men at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His father was injured in that
battle and sent home to recover before rejoining the action, and Walker's
grandmother would sit her son in a chair in front of their house so that
neighbors could come by to ask about their own sons and nephews. These
paintings, Walker has said, are inspired by his father's recollections
of his experiences -- both at the front and at home, trying somehow to
shield his neighbors from the horrors that he had witnessed.
In many of his most recent works in that genre, Walker has painted the
text of poems written by Wilfred Owen and David Jones, British poets who
fought in the same battles. He has also used the text of a poem written
for him by his BU colleague Rosanna Warren, a UNI professor, the Emma
Ann MacLachlan Metcalf Professor in the Humanities, and a CAS professor
of English and modern foreign languages and literatures who teaches in
the Creative Writing Program. One of the main icons of these works is
a figure attired in a World War I uniform whose head is a sheep's skull.
Standing in for the artist's father, the figure is a somber witness to
the inhumanity of the battlefield. There are other figures -- stunted,
wrapped in bandages, maimed in battle -- who also bear witness to the
words. These are haunting paintings, large and commanding. They seem at
once to bemoan a tragedy and create opportunity for a powerful rejection
of war, leading perhaps to a catharsis.
From a little cove in Maine
The landscapes are often as turbulent as the war paintings. They are
abstract, heavy pictures that capture, again and again, a tidal pool that
Walker discovered near his home in Seal Point, Maine. The colors churn,
and each painting reveals the tidal pool in a different light, a new mood.
The images are repositories of emotion, sometimes pain, and the flat,
hourglass-shaped tidal pool exerts a compelling power.
Critic Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Observer last February,
calls these landscapes Walker's best work to date, an opinion shared by
other reviewers. Walker himself was reluctant to unveil the pictures,
though, fearing they weren't serious enough. "After going out into
the landscape on a daily basis and just really enjoying it," he says,
"I'd bring these paintings back and hang them not in my studio but
in a separate building, because I didn't want to have this activity known
to the paintings in the studio!" It wasn't until the early '90s that
another painter saw the works and advised Walker to show them, "to
stop worrying about this split personality. So I've started showing them,
and they seem to be taking more and more of my time."
His subject, he says, is "one small piece of a landscape where I
feel comfortable. It took me years to assimilate it, to work out what
I could paint. I didn't want to paint what everybody else saw. I didn't
want to paint views. I wanted to see something in a way that was unique.
I didn't know what that would be. And what it turned out to be was this
one little cove. I guess it was a place where I could hide.
"I take the students up there at least twice a year, and they just
disappear into that landscape, then reappear with wonderful treasures.
No matter where these students come from, what their educational background
is, what their skill level is, they're absolutely humbled by the experience
of starting out painting at seven in the morning and going until seven
at night. Most of them have never actually stood on their feet in front
of a painting for that amount of time. They learn so much about themselves,
how to observe, what to select out of that observation."
Teacher and critic
Walker wants his students to pursue and explore their own artistic visions,
and that makes him an intelligent and eloquent critic of their work, they
say. Mick Drolet (SFA'01) explains that when he started the program, he
"was making paintings that were sort of expressionistic, which might
seem along the lines of what John's painting is. The strange thing is
that in studying under him, I actually developed in a way where I was
getting tighter and cleaner and all these adjectives that you wouldn't
necessarily associate with his own work. I think that speaks a lot about
what kind of teacher he is, that he allowed me to be myself so much that
I could actually grow away from his visual aesthetic."
Walker had inspiring teachers of his own who instilled in him "some
sort of the idea of a social contract," he says with a smile. "I've
had periods where I've taught intensely, and then felt thoroughly fatigued
and left to go back to my studio. But always, when nice things start to
happen again -- acknowledgment from the art world, for example -- I've
felt guilty, that I should be giving something back. So that's what I've
been doing most of my life, going back and forth between teaching and
painting." And at the moment, it seems there's no need for compromise
between the two.