While America pines for a reassuringly solid, kind, paternal figure — a Fred Rogers, Ward Cleaver or Cliff Huxtable — in the face of so many inadequate role models, Atlanta artist Larry Walker has been quietly filling that role on the city’s art scene.
In his remarkably productive and influential 35 years in Atlanta, Walker, 82, winner of a 2016 Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities, veteran of more than 200 exhibitions, whose work is in the collections of the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Los Angeles County Museum and the High Museum, has served as an unofficial mentor for generations of painters, sculptors and illustrators. Many of them have turned into accomplished artists in their own right, not the least of them his own daughter, art superstar Kara Walker, who says she never questioned the importance of art growing up, first in California and then Georgia in the Walker home.
”Larry has a strong belief in art as a worthy intellectual and spiritual pursuit, and as a student I realized that this was a unique position for a parent to take given that it prioritizes the heart and mind, but not the idea of their child having a future income,” she says.
“I never had the thought, ‘How will I make a living making art?’ Because that was never the point of it; art is a calling. I think much of the time the arts are regarded with suspicion, as a luxury only for the rich or well off, but it was nearly a creed in my home that the pursuit of art is beneficial to every individual soul and by extension to society at large.”
Wearing a necktie and sweater vest and speaking in a soothing, low-key voice, Walker looked every bit the idealized paterfamilias as he spoke at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA) last month. Addressing a standing-room only crowd of collectors, artists and former colleagues and students, Walker walked his audience through the first installment of a two-part exhibition, “Larry Walker Retrospective: The Early Years,” on view through July 31. The second installment, “The Later Years,” opens Aug. 11 and will include work from 2005 until the present.
Walker described his formative years in Harlem where he moved from the small middle Georgia town of Franklin in 1936 with his mother and 10 siblings after his father’s death.
“Those were wonderful years. They were important years because everything I did got reflected in my artwork,” he says of stocking shelves at the local A&P on the weekends and attending the High School of Music & Art in New York City where he discovered he wanted to be an artist.
Walker traces his iconic mixed-media “Wall Series” to his early years in NYC, so different from what he has described as the “dirt and sand and dust all around” of Franklin. Like a slice of an urban building transferred to the gallery, the works feature graffiti, bricks, movie posters, newspapers, magazines, advertisements all cohering into a palimpsest recalling the whirl and diversity of city life.
A life of influence
Though Walker spent his lecture describing the many artists who influenced him, from Cezanne and Edward Hopper to Wayne Thiebaud and Larry Rivers, Atlantans can see traces of Walker’s own work in a host of younger Atlanta artists, including Radcliffe Bailey, Yanique Norman and William Downs. Walker’s identity in Atlanta looms large as a guide who, as director of the School of Art and Design at Georgia State University and long after he retired in 2000, has supported and nurtured several generations of artists.
Joe Peragine, recently named GSU’s new director of the Welch School of Art and Design, first met Walker when he was a graduate student at the school.
“He really goes out and seeks opportunities to help young artists,” says Peragine. “When there was a minority in our classes or in the school, he made a real effort to be their mentor. He would go and find them and encourage them and listen to them in a way that only he could.”
MOCA GA director Annette Cone-Skelton, who helped Walker organize the retrospective, agreed.
“In the role as educator he is unsurpassed as a guiding influence to young artists — mentoring them every step of the way,” she says.
Kara Walker recalls a specific and harrowing occasion when her father demonstrated support of her own fledgling art career.
“I dare say my father’s willingness to borrow a flatbed truck to drive me and my 9-foot-wide paintings to an exhibition in Asheville, North Carolina, in a storm, when I was 22, was one of those great moments, a combination of fatherly protectiveness and comic precariousness,” she says. “The paintings threatened to blow away on multiple occasions, there were many stops and attempts to secure the work. It was a long and panicky trip on windy mountain roads.”
From student to teacher
Walker’s desire to support young artists at every level of their career came out of practical, hard won experience. While attending Detroit’s Wayne State University as an undergrad, Walker discovered the thrill of working with new materials. He rushed to his teacher, spilling over with excitement about the watercolors he had been working with.
“So what?” the teacher told Walker, instantly crushing his enthusiasm.
“And I said to myself, if I ever get into that situation, I don’t ever think I would take someone’s enthusiasm that’s that obvious and turn it off” says Walker.
Walker’s desire to coach didn’t necessarily come naturally. Losing his father early on meant that Walker had no male role model of his own.
In fact, when he started a family, which also includes daughter Dana and son Larry Jr., he says, “I discovered I needed to learn how to be a father.” Walker approaches most things with the thoughtful consideration and research of a true academic, and he approached the dad arts much the same way, enrolling his son in a YMCA Indian Guides program for fathers and sons, so he could observe other fathers’ parenting styles.
Walker always knew that a combination of art-making and teaching was the best way to make a living as an artist, support his family, and have some control over his destiny. He received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art education and drawing and painting from Wayne State University. After teaching art in Detroit public schools for six years, he packed up his young family for California where the lush, rolling landscape and endless sky often stood in opposition to the lanky, mysterious, faceless figures Walker painted, lost in that vastness.
He taught for 19 years and chaired the art department for seven at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, introducing African-American artists for the first time into the curriculum, an initiative he continued at GSU where he relocated in 1983.
Teaching at GSU for 17 years, 11 of those years as director of the School of Art and Design, Walker helped shape the city’s art scene in ways large and small. Walker became a bridge between Atlanta’s often divided communities, says artist Kevin Cole. “He is the only artist in this city that can bring artists, both black and white, together. When he had his retrospective at City Gallery East (in 2001), it was the first time I saw so many black and white artists, students and collectors together for a one-man exhibition. I was told there were about 400 people there.”
Eye on the future
For now, Walker continues to deal with the rigors of any octogenarian: he ticks off a list of medical conditions, daily medications and the merry-go-round of doctor and dentist visits he and Gwen, his wife of 60 years, make. But he continues to mentor young artists.
And he’s still working.
The toxic contemporary political environment has been seeping into the new work he’s creating in his Lilburn basement studio in preparation for his second installment at MOCA GA. And strange new creatures have begun to visit him, fresh inspiration for his “Wall Series.”
“I call them wall spirits. They made themselves present in the process of working: some are people, some are birds, other animals, some are other creatures. Some are fun. Some are menacing.”
He opens the sketchbook he carries with him everywhere, to show me those strange apparitions, bleeding into the landscape. Delicate sketches show eerie, humanoid figures emerging from the landscape, like the faces chiseled into Mt. Rushmore.
Walker has given much of himself, of his time and of his talents. But the city and its creative community has fed him, too. It has given him the inspiration of younger artists who rekindle his own excitement for his chosen discipline. It’s the joy that any parent feels, watching the spirit you ignited in your children, return 10-fold.