I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Part of the The Oral History Project series.
BOMB’s Oral History Project is a unique series of one-on-one interviews with New York-based African-American artists, curators, and cultural figures. It aims to shine a light on the lives and careers of distinguished practitioners across the arts, many of whom remain under-recognized. Since 2014, we have spoken with over a dozen artists including, Melvin Edwards, Wangechi Mutu, Edward Clark, and Stanley Whitney.
BOMB’s Oral Histories Project is funded by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the Bay and Paul Foundations, and the Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, with additional funding from the Dedalus Foundation and New York Community Trust, as well as AG Foundation and Toni L. Ross. BOMB’s Oral History Advisory Panel is Sanford Biggers, Thelma Golden, Kellie Jones, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Stanley Whitney, and Jack Whitten.
Larry Walker So do the kids at Columbia call you Prof?
Kara Walker They call me Kara like I’m their friendly, cool aunt. We can both introduce ourselves. I’m Kara Walker, and I’m talking with my dad who is—
KW And we are sitting in his studio/guest room and resource room in Lithonia just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Today’s date is November 29th, 2013.
LW This oral history is for BOMB Magazine.
KW How to begin? I have a few questions and notes for you. I think the gist of this is to get a sense of everything: What it is to be an artist; how you and I got to be doing the things that we’re doing, the similarities and differences. I’m actually kind of interested in the internal stuff in paintings.
LW The audience might also like to hear how you and I started. I remember, when you were very young, and I was teaching at the University of the Pacific in California, you had an interest in art. You would draw on sidewalks.
KW I would draw on the sidewalk outside our home, in Stockton. You gave me the tools to do that. You gave me really nice pastels, not just sidewalk chalk.
LW All children draw at some point in time, but you just continued. I’m wondering what you feel were factors in feeding your interest and feeding that enthusiasm to continue.
KW I think part of it was that you were also doing drawing and painting. There was always a studio in the garage where you worked on paintings when I was growing up. I have very early and very clear memories of sitting on your lap while you were working on drawings and schoolwork for the university. You held me and kept me around. There was a feeling of safety associated with making stuff and I got a good vibe from doing drawings. I think there was also something about materials being available. I have a memory of sitting in my room and trying to make a house of mat board from scraps of framing. (laughter) Part of it was availability and part of it was love and feeling that this was an okay thing. I didn’t realize until much later that pursuing art might be a fraught career choice for most people. It didn’t occur to me at all.
You taught children early on in your art-making career, didn’t you? You did some early childhood work in Detroit.
LW Yeah, I did. That was an interesting time back in the day.
KW What day was that?
LW I graduated with a bachelor of science in art education from Wayne State University (Detroit) in 1958. Upon graduating I landed a job with the Detroit public school system. My first teaching job was at an elementary school with 2100 students.
KW Oh my gosh!
LW I was one of two art teachers. Mr. Anthony, the other art teacher, had the third and fourth graders and I had the fifth and sixth graders. Kindergarten through second grade classes were self-contained, so the students stayed with their homeroom teachers. At that time in the Detroit system, third through sixth grade students were in their homeroom class for half the day and the other half of the day they traveled from class to class, for music, math, art, science, and physical education. I had the fifth and sixth graders for one to two periods per week. I had something like fourteen classes per week. One of the interesting challenges was how to maximize the amount of time for art. Because class periods were something like thirty-five to forty minutes per class, I had to come up with a scheme to minimize the amount of time spent on extra stuff like taking attendance and hall duty. I came up with an elaborate system to introduce the democratic process to get kids involved with voting and taking responsibility. We had class chairmen, table captains, and captains for each of the materials most frequently used. Students were nominated for positions and elections were held.
KW Materials like?
LW Crayons, scissors, paintbrushes, paint. Somebody was in charge of each. Almost the entire class had a job to do. Then we had practice sessions and I would time them. In order to pass out paper, the captain had to start at the paper cabinet and go to table one, then table two and so forth, in order. You didn’t pass out paper to each kid at that table. You gave a stack of paper to table one, then moved on to table two, etcetera. In the meantime, the next captain (i.e. paint, water, brushes) would follow at intervals, all starting with table one. Everybody was going in the same direction. Nobody ran into each other. We didn’t have any bumping. Captains had to perform quickly without running. I would time everybody … so many seconds to do this or so many to do that. I never really knew how long it took, obviously. I timed them rather loosely, but it worked to get materials and projects passed out and turned in as quickly as possible, which enabled us to spend most of the class time working on art concerns.
All projects were art-oriented, including events and holidays. Christmas, Thanksgiving, you name it. Christmas was a wonderful time to do paper sculpture. We could talk and learn about volume, and we could work with shapes. We could incorporate color and put these things together to make ornaments and things that sat on Christmas trees or hung from the ceilings, whatever. My five years of teaching in the elementary grades were good experiences…productive and challenging.
KW What year did you start doing that?
LW That would have been 1958. Same year I got married, same year I graduated from college.
KW But before you did that you were at Wayne State doing art, and what else were you studying?
LW I started in Fine Arts. After a period of time, I guess I was about twenty, I remember having a discussion with myself and questioning: Okay, guy what are you going to do when you graduate? Now that you know a little bit about this and a little bit about that, how are you gonna use it? I sat by myself, kind of like Little Jack Horner sitting in a corner. No parent around to tell me what to do about this. I didn’t talk to a counselor. I didn’t seek help about this. It was on me to figure it out.
I decided that whatever I did had to allow me to do what I wanted to do with my artwork. Whatever I did had to allow me to do something with people. I started going through a list of the art positions, things that I knew a little bit about. As I went down the list, what disappeared first were things like architecture, graphic design, and interior design—not because they were not viable and honorable positions, but because they involved having clients who would have specific needs or personal requirements. In such circumstances you owed it to the clients to produce something viable to meet their expectations. I decided that I wanted to do what I wanted to do without external expectations or pressures.
As I went further down the list, it got smaller and smaller. By the time I finished the list the only thing left on it was teaching. I thought about that for quite a while and concluded, Teaching, hmm. I can do what I want to do with my art and I could work with people. So I went to the Department Chair and I said, “I want to change my major from Fine Arts to Art Education.” He talked to me for quite a while, desperately trying to convince me not to do that. After realizing that I was really serious, he said, “Okay, if you must do this, I will go ahead and initiate the paperwork for you, but promise me one thing.” I said, “Sure. What’s that?” “Promise me you won’t let them fill you with too much methodology.” I said, “Not a problem at all. I can do what I want in the summers. I will have this kind of freedom and that.” He just smiled, because I think he realized that I clearly didn’t have any idea what methodology meant. (laughter)
He filled out the paperwork and I shifted over into the Art Education Department and got a whole new introduction to art and to children and the kind of expectations one could have from their work and of things you could bring to them as an art person. I bought into that whole-heartedly. It went well. I graduated and wound up with a teaching position at Pattengill Elementary School in Detroit. A couple years later, when I went back to school for my master’s degree at Wayne State University, I came to realize that the closer I got to completing the master’s degree, the further removed I felt from the elementary kids. I figured I needed another level so I applied for high school and colleges. I shifted into a high school, and that was okay, but within a year, a college opportunity showed up at the University of the Pacific (UOP) in Stockton, California. My wife Gwen and I packed up Dana, Larry Jr., and all we could manage and drove across country to California in 1964—for what was initially set up to be a one-to-two year temporary replacement for a faculty member on sabbatical leave…. As it turned out, our lives were wonderfully changed and enriched. We were at the University for nineteen successful years and increased the family in 1969 when you (Kara) joined us.
KW I’m doing this thing where I’m imagining the transition, but then there’s a question I have. How did you start making art in the first place? That seems like such a rare thing. There’s high school and then—
LW I guess I do have to go back a little further because there were very significant things that took place, probably during my childhood, that set the stage for creativity or the need for visual expression. I am the youngest of eleven children, born in the rural area of Franklin, Georgia to CaSanna Wood Walker and Willie Bunyon Walker. I never really got to know my father because he passed away at age forty-nine in 1936, when I was only six months old. We lived on farmland. I don’t remember a whole lot about farmland other than my brothers participating in plowing the field and planting things and so forth. I was a little kid and I tagged along and got to sit on a horse or a mule every once in a while. Somewhere along the way our house burned down. At that time we were sharecropping. As an adult I found out much later, that before we were sharecropping and before the Depression, our father had owned about 100 acres of land. I understand that the Depression brought many difficulties for my now-widowed mother and her eleven children. She and my older brothers and sisters didn’t really have the expertise or experience to effectively use the land to generate funds over a long period of time. They sold off a little here and a little there, and before long the major parts of the land (i.e. valuable lumber and other key areas) were gone and the family was thrust into a sharecropping situation. The family began to disperse to other areas. Two sisters got married and moved away, as did my oldest brother who had completed his studies at Benedict College. Another brother moved to Atlanta to study at college and the other brother joined the armed services.
I remember the house burning down and having to move to LaGrange, Georgia to live with my oldest brother and his wife for a while, until my mother found a place. From LaGrange, the family continued to get a bit smaller as two sisters migrated to New York City in search of better job opportunities. They in turn sent back for my mother and three sisters and myself to come to New York City as well. In 1941, when I was six years old, we moved to New York City. That was a whole new life, another beginning … a new experience. Riding a train for the first time, being in contact with people of a different color and background who gave me strange looks caused me to feel out of place. I was very much aware of the fact that we carried our lunch and dinner with us in picnic baskets and I was annoyed that the smell of fried chicken filled the entire railroad car and called more attention to our presence. To this day I have never really enjoyed riding a train or the smell of cold fried chicken.
KW May I just interrupt, although I know I’m not supposed to, the dinner on the plane ride down here was cold, fried chicken. (laughter)
LW In New York, we got off the train and into the subway, which I didn’t know anything about. We rode someplace. I didn’t know where we were…I couldn’t see sky or ground—just concrete, metal and lots of people. Is this New York? It’s all underground. We got off the subway train at 145th Street and Lenox Avenue and walked up to the street. There I saw skyscrapers that seemed to reach up to the heavens. I had never seen anything that tall before. I said, “My goodness! We’re moving to a very, very ‘rich’ place.” Some time later, I discovered that that “rich” place was six-story tenement buildings in Harlem. Everybody who lived in that area of the city was pretty much in the same boat. The notion of being in a low-income area or being poor was not an issue. I was in a glorious place, a much different and better place than where I was before. There you had dirt and sand and dust all around. You had farm stuff and animals. Here, the animals were dogs and people walked them on leashes. You had tall buildings. I didn’t know what an elevator was. We didn’t have any. We climbed six stories up and six stories down, day after day after day. That was my life. Going to elementary school, just a few blocks away. I had a very nice teacher, I don’t remember her name, but somewhere along the way she discovered that I had some interest in drawing. So she would involve me in doing these murals in chalk on the blackboard—George Washington or some other historic figure or event that we were studying. That must have been third grade.
In hindsight, one of the things that always interested me was the difference between one environment and another. Between that uncomfortable and somewhat oppressive train environment and that initially free New York City environment. Between a farm environment and a New York City environment. Two different spaces, like two different worlds. That they could coexist was eye opening. One could go back and forth between them if necessary.
At that time—this was the 1940s—there was my mother, three sisters, and myself. When we got to New York, the five of us moved in with my oldest sister Betty, and her husband Charles. It was seven of us in this four-room apartment before Charles and Betty moved to Detroit, following the “opportunity for jobs.” My oldest brother, William, had moved to Detroit from Georgia. They were all focused on the auto industry.
One of things that was intriguing was that my brother-in-law—Charles Maxwell, Betty’s husband—was an artist. He used to be a Merchant Marine. He had had some training over in Europe and had learned to paint on glass. He did a painting on the glass doors between the bedroom and living room—what do you call those doors that open up like that?
KW French doors.
LW They were all glass panels on which he painted a landscape. He had to paint it backwards; working on one side of each panel he painted details in first and all the backdrop stuff came afterwards. When you looked from the side he was painting on, it looked like a total abstraction, but from the other side you could see the details and structure of mountains, trees, and fields. It was fascinating to watch this painting develop. He also had some art books that he would share; one was about Van Gogh. Looking at the Van Gogh book I became very much enamored with the idea that people could paint things that looked like things. At the same time, some of Van Gogh’s paintings emanated something that was greater than their appearance—an energy from inside, like they were throbbing. I found out later that the way he applied paint to the surface helped create that situation. Again, the notion of interior and exterior, an inner life pushing forward to affect the outer surface, was fascinating to me.
At the time, when we got to New York, there was probably a gang on every block, or close to every block. But there was not a gang at 145th Street, because like 125th and 135th, it was a commercial street with businesses on one or both sides; as such there were fewer apartments. The streets in between had apartments on both sides; thus, there were more kids and more opportunities for gangs to develop. There were girl gangs too. My sisters and I managed to avoid serious trouble because my mother stressed things like, “You come home after school. You stay inside until I get home. After I get home, you can go out and play a little bit, but I don’t want you getting into trouble.” When I got home I would do things like draw. When it was warm, I sat on the fire escape, six stories up, and drew whatever I saw across the street: the gas station, people walking on the street. On the backside of all the apartment buildings they had fire escapes and clotheslines that ran from one side to the other. I would draw those clotheslines, and those fire escapes, and draw those little bricks. Or I would do things to amuse myself. An old card table became a baseball field. I painted a baseball diamond on it and I would play baseball with my hand. I would swing at the ball with one hand, while the other threw a little wad of paper and then I would run the bases.
When kids reached junior high-school age they had to go to the junior high school in that area. They were divided so that the boys went to one junior high school and the girls went to another. A tough situation where you had potentially X number of gangs in one school. Horrendous possibilities were there … . Great place to get bullied, especially if you weren’t in a gang.
I had a few friends but I was not in a gang. The thing that saved me in junior high school was Stanley, the leader of the gang on 143rd Street. Stanley was in my art class. (It was my first art class.)
KW I was going to say, people barely get those anymore.
LW Somewhere along the way, Stanley discovered that I could draw things that looked half real. He asked me to draw “dirty pictures” for him. I didn’t know much about what dirty pictures were except I had seen some of these little thin cartoon-type books that people sold. They had all kinds of characters in them, doing all kinds of things. I would improvise and emulate that stuff and draw the characters. I gave him the books and he was happy. He wouldn’t let anyone bother me for two years. If somebody came up to me looking menacing, Stanley would intervene: “Leave him alone! That’s my man!” And they would go away and leave me alone. Stanley was respected as a gang leader. He was tough, but he was also a sensitive guy, which I didn’t realize until later. Our art class had Ms. Evans as our art teacher. Ms. Evans was relatively small given the size of her students. But she ruled her class with an iron hand. Nobody would mess with her. She always had an interesting project to do. She got us involved in drawing and painting and discussing artists. Stanley did something one day and she said, “Okay Stanley. You know the rules. Come on up here,” which meant that Stanley had to come up to the front of the room and get slapped on his hand with a ruler. She had rules, certain infractions warranted one or two whacks with the ruler. Stanley went up to the front of the room to get his whacks. “Oh, Ms. Evans you don’t want to do that,” Stanley said. “Stanley, you know the rules. Put your hand out.” He stuck his hand out and somebody in the back of the room began to snicker and Stanley was on him real quick, “All right, sucker! Shut your mouth!” He put his hand out, got his whack and went back to his seat. At the end of the term, Stanley and his warlord (second in command in the gang) talked to everybody in class. He said, “Okay. We are collecting money to get Ms. Evans a gift.” Everybody scrounged up pennies, nickels, and dimes, whatever, and gave it to him. I don’t know how much he collected. No one knew if it was ever going to be seen again. The last day of class, Stanley comes up to the front of the room. He said, “Ms. Evans, the class got you a gift because we think you deserve this gift.” And he and his warlord presented her a print of a Degas painting that they had gone out and purchased with this money. At least we think they purchased it. That this tough dude had enough sensitivity and enough gumption to go around and collect money, and present this print on behalf of the class to Ms. Evans—I always thought about that. It always affected me. Here was someone who had all kinds of potential. Not potential as an artist, but potential as an organizer, as someone who could get things done.
I never knew what happened to him, because at the end of the eighth grade Ms. Evans had chosen four students from her class and sent us off to take the entrance exam at The High School of Music & Art, which was on 135th street next to City College at that time. We were all terrified. We knew we were going to get beat up going out of our area, out of our territory. That didn’t happen though. We all got accepted and I began high school as an art major.
That experience at The High School of Music & Art changed my life in many ways. It was the first time I went to school with people of different nationalities, races, different everything. I got introduced to new ways of doing things, new ways of looking at things, different languages being spoken. One kid came to school one day with his pet hamster. When I saw it on his shoulder I jumped and said, “Hey! There’s a rat on your shoulder!” He said, “That’s my pet hamster.” I had no idea. There was a kid from Lithuania. I had never heard of Lithuania. Didn’t know that it existed.
The High School of Music & Art was a unique place. As you probably know, it was a sister school to The High School of Performing Arts. There were a few students like Diahann Carroll who took classes at both schools. I guess it had been the goal of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to promote the arts in a magnet school context. In 1984, the schools merged into the LaGuardia High School of Music & Arts and Performing Arts, which incidentally is where your daughter goes to school.
KW I know! (laughter)
LW Our granddaughter goes to the same school that I went to. That’s cool. I remember some of my teachers who probably influenced me in one way or another. One was Ms. Lee Rosen. She was primarily a ceramics sculptor. I had her for a design class. The first day of class she told everybody what they needed for materials and what they needed to do in terms of conducting themselves. She said things like, “Do not expect to make something in this class that you are going to take home and share with your parents. Something that they would hang on a wall, put on a table. Probably you are not going to have anything to take home at all. The materials that you are going to need for this class are not expensive—a pair of scissors, a box of straight pins, a piece of cardboard approximately nine inches by twelve inches, and a pack of black construction paper.” Okay. So we come in with our black construction paper, our scissors, and our pins. She says, “Today I want you to get out your scissors and cut that construction paper into a series of strips of different sizes, different lengths, all in strips. No circles. No curves. Just strips. Your assignment is to create opposition, conflict. When you get that, pin the strips down with the pins and we’ll talk about that. So we moved our strips around, pinned them down, and put them on the wall to have a critique. When you look at these things on the wall you start to see that some of them really look like they are in conflict and some of them don’t. The next assignment was to create harmony with the same strips of paper. Day after day she would come up with some term to describe a situation. Our task was to design that situation or term with the shapes at hand.
Toward the end of the term she allowed us to use different shapes, to cut some squares, some triangles, and circles. She eventually allowed us to use a couple of different colors too. It was true; by the end of the term we didn’t have anything to show. Everything was in our heads. Being able to organize on a flat surface and to give the illusion of depth and movement reminded me of some of those Van Gogh paintings I had seen, where there seemed to be an internal energy. If you can actually generate energy out of something like a piece of paper or paint, that’s exciting. It’s like creating a whole new life. That’s some of the early stuff. I’ve been talking for a while.
KW Hey, when did you meet mom? Was she interested in art at all?
LW We—my wife Gwen and I—made a point of taking each of our kids (together or individually), you and Dana and Larry, to museums or art galleries and frequently some of you went with me to deliver work for an exhibit. I remember one occasion when we had taken you with us to see an exhibit at the Berkeley Museum in Berkeley, California.
KW Was it Claes Oldenburg?
LW Yes. (laughter) There was an Oldenburg sculpture, an inflated vacuum cleaner or something like that. Maybe it was an ice bag.
KW I think it was an ice bag.
LW Yeah. An ice bag. It would inflate and deflate. You were relatively small. You were fascinated watching it grow and then deflate, grow and deflate.
KW Like my ego!
LW By the time you turned thirteen, we moved here to the Atlanta area. I had accepted the position as Chair of the Department of Art at Georgia State University. That was one of those major situations for you in terms of change in environment and change in everything. What were some of the things that happened to you during that time?
KW High school, which is always troubling. You’re trying to find your place in the world and find a community of like-minded people. Of course, the first high school was Towers and that was a little microcosm of the mythologies and racisms that I didn’t understand exactly, because I think I was naive and/or protected from them. I don’t know how much of that I need to say or you need to hear. At Towers I was called a “nigger,” told I looked like a monkey, accused (I didn’t know it was an accusation) of being a “Yankee,” sent home by the staff for breaking arbitrarily enforced rules—the whole list of rules related to a set of reduced expectations of me, as a person being reduced to a category. When I didn’t meet my own expectations in an AP English class, I literally demoted myself to a regular class that was so bad, so much the stereotype of disinterested and disruptive students taught by a frustrated and jaded teacher. I really stood out in those classes! I remember I wrote a poem about failure and that second English teacher told me I should be in AP classes, and I was like “No….” Anytime I had a black instructor at that school, they took a special interest in me and told me I had “talent.” With some of the white staff, one counselor in particular, it was more of a challenge to prove I was different. I felt myself trying to assert my “me-ness,” my humanness, in a place that didn’t really see me as part of the mass, and an undesirable mass at that. I took an art class, which I think was really beneficial and I met a couple of interesting people along the way (who have since disappeared from my life altogether). Actually, my art teacher from that era contacted me earlier this year, I am blanking on her name. She probably was encouraging. There was a girl in my art class named Diana. I was both afraid of and friends with Diana. She had moved from Ohio with her dad, who was a jazz musician. She was nothing but trouble. She was biracial, had punked-out hair that was shaved on the sides, curly on the top, and long braids in the back. She was like the legitimate punk girl. What I always kind of wanted to be. She called me a poseur, but hey, in that environment that was punk enough. She drew really well. She had a natural eye and was very methodical in her drawings, but also rigid in the things she wanted to draw. We were the weird girls who drew in art class in an underprivileged school full of self-proclaimed white “rednecks,” and black athletes, and would-be “preppies.” We became friends and she made that first high school situation a little bit more bearable. I kept running into people who I thought were friends and then they would avow, declare, their redneck status by saying something completely over-the-top racist. Literally I would be standing with one group of friends and then someone would start talking about “niggers.” I would just walk into a blank space in between people so there was nobody that I was talking to. The German class, the German club, was the other weird outgrowth of me finding friendship and weirdness. The oddballs were in art class and German class. Then we moved again, to Stone Mountain, Georgia. I wasn’t familiar with Stone Mountain as a place, as an entity, as an object with a history until a little bit later. While still at Towers some self-proclaimed redneck classmates of mine would talk about going to Stone Mountain to see the laser show. I didn’t realize that the mountain has a carving commemorating the Confederacy and that the KKK still had a strong presence there, or that the laser show was all “Dixie” and a celebration of that southern Civil War/plantation myth. When we moved to the area I recall the Klan march announcement and the American flags we got on our mailbox pretty early on. Racial division in the school was very apparent. I was always a person who was trying to negotiate a very hard racial line. Kind of failing at it—or flailing at it—but rather optimistically. (laughter)
LW That sounds like an earlier aspiration when you had interest in becoming a cartoonist and created your own cartoon with your own characters. They were always very friendly and doing interesting things together.
KW It’s good to get goofball slapstick. You know, the Laurel and Hardy of my imagination. The cartoons kind of grew out of TA for Tots in first grade—a kind of transactional analysis, self-reflection, and feelings. It was a 70s-California-West Coast-New Age thing. I have one book that I made when I was seven, when my sister Dana went off to USC. It’s all reflections on family, from a child’s-eye view. As I grew up it got harder to feel or be objective. I think I always took art seriously as a pursuit, even as I was floundering around in high school. My eleventh and twelfth-grade art teacher, Julie Schaffer, nominated me for the Governor’s Honor Program. That was my game-changer. You took me to the portfolio review. There was one round were I dropped off my work and a second round where I had to go and perform and make art on the spot. When I got into the program, I spent six weeks in Valdosta, Georgia in the sweltering, buggy, humid summer, making friends and feeling the urgency and agency for making stuff. It felt good again.
LW I was amazed at the quality of your work when you came back. It had more discipline, there was more emphasis on composition and clarity, color, and so forth. It wasn’t cartoonish. It wasn’t mythological. It was just straight-up stuff, where it seemed like, Hey, she’s learning something about the foundations of art.
KW The art-making tools. Yeah. Paint—this is how you mix it.
LW Harry Ally, a painter, was the teacher in charge of that group.
KW Yeah, there was a woman there too; I forgot her name. Harry Ally was on task with us. I also took a good drama class while I was down there. It was my other quasi-interest.
Georgia got weirder for me as I continued on. I stayed through the Atlanta College of Art, got mixed up with a few bad men, and regained the sense of the limitations that might be imposed on me as a black woman. Period. Let alone as an artist. “Artist” was already such an outside pursuit from far left field.
LW The work you were doing as an undergraduate at the Atlanta College of Art was on a very different track than the work that you were doing when you got into the RISD grad program in Rhode Island.
KW Oh yeah. Of course I didn’t have a clue what art I wanted to be making when I got into undergrad. The making of things had always been available to me. I just continued on without thinking of the who, what, and where. Why do artists do the work they do? Why do artists make the choices that they make? It was a learning process. I think the gap year between undergrad and graduate school gave me the opportunity to ask the question: Why am I making this work? The about, and for, and why. What meaning does it have? But it dovetailed with questions of race and gender and agency. People I was meeting and the limited expectations I was butting up against. I mean I spent that part of my late adolescence, from nineteen to twenty-two, falling for and having a tumultuous affair with an older guy—a local artist who lived out in the country. I fell in with a few other folks, too. Sex was my main pursuit and white men were my objective, I somehow sought out their legitimizing potential or sought to make an impact on them. Eventually I broke up with my poor neurologically unstable boyfriend (he had a cerebral hemorrhage at a young age and was quite fragile). I had no idea what my life was about, and although I had a clue about what I wanted from it, I wasn’t sure how to go about it and if I should continue with it—life, I mean. That year after ACA—working at Oxford Bookstore and living at home, painting in the space above the garage—was one of the worst for me, emotionally. I had what a therapist later suggested was a “schizoid reaction.” I was physically present, but so not there that I once thought I saw another person in my place. It’s hard to explain if it was a hallucination, my out-of-body experience. She was the “negress” basically, the “me” that I saw. I took that moment as a sign, however, and I applied that sign to my art, and decided to try to not go insane and to see what my next chapter was. It was a particularly scary time. Looking back I see what a fragile person I was.
When I got to RISD, I made a plan for myself, which is something that I hadn’t done before. I was also on my own for the first time—a little bit late—I was twenty-two. I wanted to work harder, be more directed, more focused. I felt like I knew what I wanted to tackle in my work. I knew what I had been avoiding in my work in Atlanta. And I knew why. I needed some distance in order to tackle some darker aspects of my personality and experience. RISD and the environment around Providence and all of its colonial nostalgia, and the collegiate air of being down the street from Brown University, gave me a sense of purpose in a way that was a little bit larger.
You know, when I was still at ACA, I went with a few friends to DC. Stayed with your sister, Auntie Katie, looked at a few shows. There was a Mike Kelley show up and a couple of other important exhibitions, like Sigmar Polke. But the thing that actually knocked me out was all of the historical art—the National Gallery, the Smithsonian and all of these genre paintings and big history paintings. I really felt like a deeply perverse connection with them. I felt like, This isn’t the work I’m supposed to like! I’m supposed to like modern, gestural pieces that reveal something about the interior of the maker—and these don’t do that at all and if they do, they do it in ways that are so subtle and disguised in other sorts of materials and techniques.
That was also a question of mine: What images do I actually like looking at versus making? I spent a lot of time in libraries at RISD and Brown. Part of the plan that I made for myself was—I wish I could articulate my twenty-two, twenty-three-year-old self—to try to look at everything as though it were black. Everything is a black woman. That was the proposition. It was an acceptance of self and an acceptance of these weird limitations that are imposed on this self, my subjectivity—and then to try and look at historical images: at incidents of colonialism, at the formation of the idea of America, of slavery. Different sorts of representations of blackness within all of that—it sort of freed me up to approach everything this way, even though it imposed these very extreme limitations on a point of view. It was that paradox that I really wanted to try and articulate. Not just the history, the images, but also the paradoxical, contradictory mechanics.
I had a student the other day at Columbia say these words to me when she “got it.” She was making sculpture and she said, “Well, you know, I just decided I’m going to take the fact of myself as given. I accept myself.” And it freed her up to do whatever work she wanted to do, instead of having to explain her blackness or woman-ness as her originating force.
The other part of my project at RISD that still carries on and which I still battle with today is that I felt the need to abandon painting really dramatically. I needed to set the kind of painting that I was trying to do aside altogether. Painting, for me, is so fraught as a technical set of problems of color and wetness, fluidity, and all of those things that come up with painting and depth of field. I felt like painting was bound up with an idea of patriarchy that did not necessarily have me in its best interests as a viewer, appreciator, colleague—colleague mostly. I didn’t feel like I was a peer to the kind of painting that I actually enjoyed and admired. At the High Museum while I was still here in Atlanta, I saw a show of German Expressionist paintings. That one kind of blew me away. I felt like each one of those artists had a mission. They were really trying to articulate an internal life that was in conflict with political realities. I thought that was also important for me to consider. How was my understanding, or love of painting at odds with where painting would place me? Painting would place me at its margins somehow. I also started looking at historical paintings that were placing black people at the margins. Grad school was important in a lot of respects. Just unmaking things that I had taken for granted, dismantling and piecing them back together with elements that were important.
LW Around the time you finished your degree at RISD in 1994, I remember you wrote a letter to us expressing concern and the possibility of a backup plan to being an artist. The backup plan at the time was to do fashion design or modeling.
KW It wasn’t exotic dancing? I didn’t put that one down? (laughter)
LW You had been talking to somebody who had given you some notion that all you would need to do to become a top model and do fashion stuff would be to take one or two classes and have some introductory modeling experiences. You were asking for an opinion.
LW Your mom stepped right in and responded, “I thought you wanted to be an artist? If that’s what you want to do, then that’s what you should do. And don’t let these other things get in the way.” You don’t remember that?
KW No. I did a couple of fashion things at RISD. I don’t know if I seriously thought I would be a model.
LW As a backup.
KW As a backup, maybe. At the end of every semester, all of the fashion students would run to every tall woman in the program and beg them to model their clothes.
LW When you were at the Atlanta College of Art you had the notion that you would wind up working in a—
KW—In a brothel?
LW No, in a restaurant.
KW Oh yeah. Well, I did that just to get through school: coffee shop, bookstore. I never took having a job all that seriously. When I actually started looking for work, while I was still at RISD, I went to the CAA (College Art Association) conference in New York to look for a teaching job and had one interview with a pretty shady school in Connecticut. I was told that the Reverend Moon Organization had bought this college, and I thought, Really? Is this the best I can do?
LW What was this interview for?
KW It was for a teaching job. The guy who was head of the program was probably two years older than me; I was twenty-four at the time. I was staying with a friend, Margaret Curtis, who had gone to ACA and who had scandalously moved to New York with one of our professors and had a bit of a career for herself as a painter. She and I went over to the Drawing Center—one of the few places that would actively review slides and occasionally select a work for a group show. I dropped my slides off (since I had them from my job interview) and felt like, Okay, that was something.
A few months later I got a call from Ann Philbin at The Drawing Center asking if I could do my work in a larger scale. Like fifty feet. I said, “Sure.” At RISD I had a studio space that was smaller than this room, with one viable wall to work on and a window on the other. That was the big studio. My first year at RISD I had the small studio. It was like an office cubicle, and I spent a lot of time working and crying in it. It was all good, cathartic tears—over ideas, not being able to articulate them and not getting the full experience. The fifty-foot wall at the Drawing Center was kind of funny. I think Ann Philbin still credits herself for my big work.
I was still living in Providence at the time and I asked around if anyone knew of a good adhesive that I could use for large sheets of paper. Now it’s almost twenty years later and I’m at this point of obsolescence with the materials that I have been using. The solution that I came up with back then was a roll-on hot waxer used for paste-up. It was a great solution but was supposed to be a temporary one. I thought, Later, when I have some time, I will come up with a better way to do this. I didn’t find the time. (laughter)
LW You can take the paper off the wall?
KW Yeah, you can take it off and reapply it, up to a point. I mean the paper is still fragile, depending on its weight. And sometimes it has to be pinned up a little bit. But it creates an illusion of flatness—the paper just kind of disappears into the wall. It’s not all bumpy and pinny. Not too long or voluminous. The Drawing Center work had some very large elements to it. The work had two floor-to-ceiling trees and a long piece of paper that represented an island, and in between and all along it it had almost life-size figures cut from this black photo-backdrop paper. The title was “Gone; an Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred B’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.” I wanted it to be a kind of opening phrase to a tableaux—like something from Gone with the Wind or a romance novel, but with a wicked twist. I wanted there to be an awareness that this work was the product of a specific black woman, and I wanted it to contain all my contradictory lusts and self-abnegating tendencies. I think this work was fueled by this frustration I felt—that the story of black art and being black always returns to a compromising set of locations and representations; it is always about “us” and rarely about “ME.” But instead of feeling angry about it, it kind of cracked me up.
LW You had a couple situations where I believe you were asked to change the material in order to paint directly on the wall?
KW I’ve done it two or three times, I think.
LW How did that work out?
KW It works. Let’s say there’s a piece at The New School that is like a permanent mural. I don’t know if I will ever feel satisfied with that versus the paper because it is so important to me that these pieces be semi-dimensional. They are two-dimensional but there is still a moderate sculptural quality there. They are cutouts and not paintings. The first time I did this mural approach was for the collector Peter Norton. Initially, he purchased a work and had done a lot of the research for me and had found an adhesive that seemed to be workable for a long-term display. I had an exhibition copy cut that they could put on the wall and use this with a more permanent-spray adhesive. I don’t remember, I think it was for a section of the piece African’t from 1995. But the work still buckled and did all the things that paper does—the fibers stretched and shrunk, even in his climate-controlled condominium. The solution was to work with this sign-painter guy and make this big stencil on the wall over the exhibition copy, remove the cutouts, and paint with a couple layers of black flasche—starting with a color that matches the wall for the bleed and then using a black flasche, which has that same matte richness as the paper. It sort of disappears into the wall. Again, it’s still a painting.
LW So what do you see for yourself down the road in terms of materials?
KW (laughter) Interestingly enough, I’m stockpiling a lot of the materials right now, getting the waxers on eBay. For instance, the Guggenheim has a piece of mine Insurrection… and the problem is that it has the overhead projectors, which are becoming obsolete. Everything that I have been using, overhead projectors, adhesive wax, eight-inch by ten-inch transparencies, super 8 film, including silhouettes, are obsolete. It was intense to think about what should happen in the future with these works. Of course, the Guggenheim has an exhibition copy of the cut-out elements and they have the waxers and the rollers for installing the work. Every piece of mine comes with this set of instructions and materials that we soon won’t be able to get. I don’t know. It’s a question. Some of my studio assistants will have to just do that—research and test different materials as technology advances. Well, I will find another way of working.
LW There was a period of time, right after you won the MacArthur Award, when all sorts of strange situations seemed to develop among the artists in the area who seemed to be concerned about the nature of what you were doing. It seemed to be compounded or confused by the fact that you had won a MacArthur award.
KW Specifically, there was the Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell letter.
LW Yeah, that whole campaign to prevent your work from being shown in various museums—
KW One argument was that the work shouldn’t be supported because it was perpetuating racist stereotypes. Another argument was that I was too young and getting too popular or too hot and that this was just a symptom of the racism of these institutions—I was only twenty-seven and hadn’t paid my dues. I had so many shows at the beginning of that year, 1997, before the MacArthur even came down the road. There was the show at the Renaissance Society, and a group show at the Walker Art Center, and the Whitney Biennial. I was working on the book for the Renaissance Society show and I was pregnant. I was giving a talk at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and had a show there. Then I gave birth. That whole period of time was pretty rough. Then the MacArthur happened, praise of the highest sort, but then came the letter-writing campaign. I think it was Peter Norton who first alerted me that there was a letter going around, I believe he even faxed me a copy because—I am not sure I even had email then. The letter was from Howardena Pindell and Betye Saar and “concerned” artists. And it basically called me out by name as an artist who was making work that reasonable people would find racist, sexist, and offensive. She called on institutions to withdraw their support and censor it. It worked in a few instances—at DIA in Detroit, I think a print of mine was pulled out of a show. But in many respects the letter tended to work in my favor, although I spent the next several years answering to the “controversy” my work elicited. I believe Ms. Saar got sick of being asked continually about my work and whether there was a generational divide in the purposes and perceptions of Black Art. Sometimes I want to do a biography of illness when it comes to the stresses of my—
LW Interestingly enough, I remember, when you were in high school, we had an exhibition of Betye Saar’s work at Georgia State University. You came to see that exhibit and you met Betye Saar. I remember her giving you all sorts of encouraging comments about continuing to work and continuing to do your best. I wondered if she ever made the connection between having met you when you were younger and what she was saying later on.
KW I don’t know. I don’t feel the need to ask ever. Wasn’t Howardena Pindell also exhibited there?
LW Yes. She also exhibited at the university. We can leave that part alone.
KW I just remember that you always said it was difficult interacting with Howardena Pindell. But you are a very generous person when it comes to people’s humanity and spirits, so if you say somebody is difficult they must legitimately be difficult.
LW On the other hand, we also had an exhibit of Robert Colescott’s work at the university. After the MacArthur controversy Robert told me, “Just tell your daughter to keep doing what she’s doing.” Raymond Saunders called me during that time, too. He said, “What is all that stuff I hear about your daughter? People are calling me, wanting me to join them in saying this and saying that. I’m not doing any of that! I think she should just do what she’s doing.”
KW I guess it was a real pull, either or. I’ve encountered people since then who, for better or for worse (well for worse actually)—said, “When that letter came out I didn’t side with them.” A buddy-buddy kind of situation.
LW “But I didn’t say anything else either. I just kept my mouth shut.” (laughter)
KW As an outgrowth of that, Howardena Pindell produced a book in 2008, that seemed long overdue or just a bit late out the gate. It was around the same set of issues but really tied directly to me and my work rather than other artists who might be dealing with similar subject matter. “Kara Walker: yes. Kara Walker: no. Kara Walker: question mark.” I didn’t read all of it. She solicited essays and words from different people—a lot of artists, some writers, art critics. Some of what I read was pretty mean-spirited. Some of it was kind of hedging. The hedging I find novel and interesting because hedging says, “Well I don’t begrudge her success, but I guess I could see how…”
The success versus responsibility thing. Seems like eleven or twelve years after the initial letter, the fact that I am considered successful, seem to be making my way in the global art market and all that, has kind of trumped the struggle, for now… People want to know what my “secret” is.
LW My recollection is that one of the people who contributed to that book met you years after in Barbados. He said to me, “She’s a very pleasant person. I was surprised.” I said, “Yes. And…?” He said he was doing research on approaches that a certain number of women had taken in their work—and that he had come to realize that the nature of what they were doing was similar to what you were doing in a different context, which in a sense made it legitimate: “Now I understand it better.” He sent me a copy of the paper he was writing. I said, “What do you want from me? If you now have changed your opinion of what my daughter is doing, you should share it with her and you should share it in the context of the paper.” I don’t think it ever got published.
KW There were a lot of dissertations floating around at some point. A former colleague pointed out to me, somewhat snarkily, that everywhere she goes she runs into somebody who is writing a dissertation on my work. It’s a point of amusement and terror. You don’t want to have everything that you do locked into a set of useful perimeters all the time. There has to be something that slips out of confinement. I get a lot of people’s papers. (laughter) My gallery show two years ago started out on the premise that I was going to make decorations and book covers for everyone’s dissertations because I felt like there were so many coming on. Here is a dissertation cover—you can fill in the rest with your words.
I have a question connected to the artist colleagues of yours. Talking about Betye Saar and Howardena Pindell, Raymond Saunders, and Robert Colescott—there are a whole bunch of artist peers and colleagues of yours. I was wondering, when you first encountered their work, met with them in person, did you find that you had a community of artists? What was your connection with, say, the Black Art movement or things that were happening at that moment? It does seem like there was a moment of conversation and viability of being a black artist. Was it connected with politics?
LW Those were pretty interesting times. Sometimes confusing times, too. In the early ’60s, I was in grad school at Wayne State University. The topic that I wanted to do my thesis paper on was African-American artists. I talked to my advisors about it. They basically suggested that I probably should find another topic for a couple of reasons. One of them was that they weren’t sure that I could find enough material that would be sufficient for a thesis. This is 1963. Yeah. They had some concerns about whether or not it would be a worthwhile or valid approach to a thesis. I thought about that for a while and checked to see what was out there. I didn’t have a lot of research skills and I really didn’t find a lot of stuff. I was running out of time. I figured maybe they were right. So I moved ahead and did something else.
In hindsight, I think if I had insisted on the project and had found somebody who could have moved me into a helpful direction, I would have been at the forefront of a lot of things that took place afterwards.
During the mid-to-late ’60s, there was a lot of discussion going on about the nature of work done by African-American artists. One of the things that grew out of that was it was important to do work that pertained to the black experience. The term Black Art became a term that was used by a lot of different people to describe the black experience. It created a lot of controversy and debate as to what that term meant. Some people wanted to know, What makes “Black Art” different from “art”? Where are the defining characteristics of “Black Art” in contrast to “art”? People would have these discussions back and forth, not really leading to anything, because some had this position and others had that position, and they weren’t going to change anyway. One of the solutions was presented by the Black Panthers who clarified what the term meant. Their position was that Black Art was art done by black people for black people about black people. Nothing else made a difference. I thought, That sounds a little myopic, because when you start looking at many works over the years, some people fall into that category and some do not. Robert Duncanson doesn’t fall into that category. Henry Ossawa Tanner doesn’t fall into that category. What do you do with them? I did recognize the fact that if an artist came out of a black experience, another artist came out of a Chicano experience, and another came out of a Hungarian experience, there was generally something in the culture of those situations that somehow became a part of who they were as people. It would probably be reflected in the nature of their work. It shouldn’t be limiting. It should be an asset, not something that says, “You should do this.” Art is more about humanity in general than anything else. It has to do with human expression. It has to do with ideas, but with feelings, too. All of those things are not germane to one group. Relative to my work, there are some works that pertain to some aspect of a black experience and some that do not. For the most part my work is relative to humanity in general. If someone is dealing with pain and suffering, joy or freedom, there should be no specific restrictions or limitations of ownership.
There were groups in the California area who were trying to promote the works of African-American artists. Some of them bought into this idea of Black Art being a thing to do. It was a term that was created for expediency more so than anything else—to get people to become aware of the fact that there were African-American artists. The people who coined that term didn’t mean it to be the all-defining thing for everybody throughout history. A lot of time was spent dealing with that issue and a lot of artists came to the realization that it wasn’t their job as artists to clarify or make decisions about the term. Some said “My job is to produce work. Let the art historians and the art critics tackle those questions down the road.” I suspect that debate is still floating around in one way or another. There were some African-American artists who flat out rejected the idea of showing their work in any exhibition that had the term Black Art connected to it, because it was too limiting. They took some criticism for their position…some were applauded for their stance.
Stockton was located in the San Joaquin Valley about ninety miles east of San Francisco, forty-five miles south of Sacramento, and some 400 miles north of Los Angeles. Each of those cities had a larger, more diverse visual arts scene in place than Stockton. From 1964 to 1983 I was one of a very small number of minority artists in town so your question of how I came to know or know of some of the other African-American artists in the state is quite pertinent.
Basically I had to search for them…reading art newsletters, word of mouth exchanges, and accidental discoveries led me to such places as a venue in Oakland called the Rainbow Sign Gallery. As its primary mission this venue provided an opportunity for people to experience the works of African-American artists, musicians, poets, and dancers. The Gallery usually attracted a large number of people (mostly African-American) to the exhibitions, presentations, or events it sponsored. The Rainbow Sign Gallery was instrumental in establishing a black-oriented cultural presence in the Bay Area. On one occasion when I brought over some work for an exhibition the Gallery curator/director (whose name will come back to me in a few minutes) indicated that she would love to put together an exhibition of my work and that of Raymond Saunders…to which I replied, “Who is Raymond Saunders?” She was amazed that I didn’t know about a number of African-American artists in the Bay area or Los Angeles. Later I looked up some information on him and I was impressed with his resume and the nature of his work. As a painter who also used mixed materials and collage elements, there were indeed similar tendencies or characteristics in our respective work. Some aspects of our work touched on African-American experience, but clearly articulated an urban attitude in a representational/abstract context. After an exchange of a few letters I eventually met Raymond Saunders. In fact, I met a number of artists and arts-related individuals during my nineteen years at the University of the Pacific—people like Dr. Samella Lewis (who included me in her first book on African-American artists), Robert Colescott, Charles White, and others. I frequently followed leads or contacts picked up at the Rainbow Sign Gallery from individuals like…her name is on the tip of my tongue…
KW I can Google it.
LW She also worked for the US State Department in terms of setting up exhibits. She was working out of Washington D.C.
KW Oh! CIA agent? Working against the Black Panthers? (laughter)
LW No. She’s also an artist. Montgomery.
KW Angeline Montgomery?
LW Yes. Evangeline Montgomery. That’s her name. She’s now doing paintings and prints, but back in those days she was doing jewelry, if I remember correctly. I met a number of people through those sources. Some I kept in touch with and others faded somewhere over the years. A couple of years ago, I had an exhibit at the Thelma Harris Art Gallery in Oakland and reconnected with a couple of people I used to know at the University of the Pacific. That was kind of nice.
Some people have referred to my work as being an outgrowth of Black Art…others, including myself, don’t believe the work fits into the framework or parameters set up for that term.
KW Abstract things?
LW The abstract work didn’t, and the landscape stuff didn’t fit, that’s for sure. In California I was so impressed with the landscape, open fields and big sky, that I was doing mostly landscapes—in watercolor and oil. Somewhere along the way I got introduced to acrylic. You could do the same with acrylic that you could possibly do with oil in terms of building up the thickness and impasto quality and so forth. I said, “Hey this is something to try.” It stuck and still hasn’t gone away. Occasionally, I go back and revisit oil, but very rarely.
Some of the early things that I was doing in Stockton included a series that I called Microscape. The Microscape Series was characterized by a circular format with landscape imagery inside of the circle that somehow broke through the outer edge of the circle and disappeared under the circular mat. Going back to what I said earlier, the notion of exterior and interior spaces, of being inside and being outside, it carried over into these works. The Mircoscape Series literally came about because I was driving down a highway and noted that, when looking into my rearview mirror, I was seeing what I had just passed. So I had seen something once, and now I was seeing it again in a different context—captured in this small frame.
Eventually, that circular format carried over into another series called Children of Society. That series involved drawings of people beneath a competition line—a horizontal line, like a barrier, in the upper third of the circle. The people were sometimes struggling to break through the barrier. Some were black and some were white, but they were all struggling. The narrative sometimes related to the black experience, sometimes it didn’t. Simply by virtue of the fact that sometimes there were black people in it, or the notion of black people struggling against a barrier—okay, that fit with an ideology in terms of what some thought black folk ought to be doing with their artwork. At the same time, there were other situations where a whole bunch of people fit into that context of struggle. Eventually, the competition barrier line going across the upper third started to bend. It bent into a parabola shape that became a capsule for one or two figures. They were trapped in a kind of environmental space that was rooted to the earth, but they were managing to make enough of an impact to change the shape of their captivity. Eventually that parabola-shaped line softened into a cloud form and faded away. It left figures standing in the landscape by themselves, rooted to the earth by some self-connection, a sense of being in the world. Some of that came about on a trip to Mexico in 1970.
One of the things that I became aware of after being in Stockton for a number of years was that Stockton was considered a kind of “nowhere place” relative to the arts. It was a nice place but if you wanted any success in the art world you needed to be in another place or have access to a place that was much more prominent, like Los Angeles. I remember some critic at the time calling the work of people in areas outside of Los Angeles “backwater art.” I don’t think I ever had enough contacts outside of the Stockton area. I had some in Sacramento, in Oakland, and very few in the LA area. My work could have easily gotten lost. It did get lost. This became one of the factors in looking for another place to work and to live. When I had a four-month sabbatical leave coming up, my goal was to find a studio apartment in New York. Move the family to New York, live there and work. I went there to check out things and came to the conclusion that it was not feasible to move the family to New York at that point. It was too different in terms of the weather, the culture, in terms of everything that we knew. It would be more of a hassle for my wife and my three kids than for me, their school and daily activities. I came back to California totally disillusioned and disheartened. “Regarding the New York thing,” I said, “I can’t see it working.” I didn’t really know what to do at that point. I was trying to figure out an alternate plan when, your mom said, “Let’s go to Mexico!” After thinking about it for a few days…we decided to plan for Mexico. We zeroed in on Guadalajara and made arrangements to live in the city for four months. You weren’t even a year old. You had your first birthday in Mexico.
KW There’s a lot in this Mexico trip.
LW Yeah, your first words were Spanish. Musica! Anyway, the trip to Mexico gave me an opportunity to return to some of the things I had enjoyed earlier on with my work. That kind of expressive mark-making with pencil or charcoal or whatever tool I was using. The line had a kind of energy to it. I needed more of that and less of the hard-edged imagery I had been getting with the parabola shape and the things that were added to it. I had been influenced by an artist named Ernest Trova—he was a sculptor primarily—who made these little pot-bellied men. My work started to have these little sideview figures placed in a composed machine-like space. But this approach was not me…it was too mechanical, cold, and without feeling.
The trip to Mexico was an opportunity to try and break that cycle and get back to something more meaningful. I made a lot of discoveries. Some of those had to do with watching people through a different lens, seeing the way people worked and did what they did. For example, instead of using a fancy tool to grade or level off a window ledge at a house under construction, a worker would be using a chisel and hammer, chipping away little by little to obtain the desired effect. Or somebody would be working with hand tools to make a texture on a concrete curb…one line at a time. I’m saying to myself, “This is so much easier with a machine. What a waste of manpower. But I came to realize, Hey. Wait a minute. That’s the way I would have seen it in the United States. Somebody using a machine, but here I’m seeing a different approach. The people here are not begrudging what they are doing. They were gaining something out of their job. Part of it was the fact that they participated in creating it. There was a sense of pride in what they did. I thought that was wonderful.
KW This is in Guadalajara?
LW Yes. Guadalajara. Some of that started to show up in my work: the digging, assertive markmaking, and reemergence of myself as a viable part of the composition. The other thing that was showing up in the work was that I became very conscious of the idea of death during that time period. Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, honoring the dead—something that I had not been used to but became very much aware of. There were so many people, particularly women, who walked around with the black shawl over their heads. It always suggested or seemed like there was a sense of impending doom that was going to happen down the road. Also, visiting museums and seeing the artifacts from the past made me aware of some of the horrendous situations that had happened in Mexican history.
I remember one reoccurring drawing I did during this period. The primary image was like a cut-away section of the ground which revealed a rectangular pit filled with compacted skeletal forms.
I did a lot of drawings in Guadalajara and some acrylic paintings. After four months, we got ready to leave . We gave away quite a bit, and packed up what we needed to take back and came up with a unique idea to carry our stuff on the plane rather than shipping it. Some of the paintings were in suitcases, rolled up or laid flat. At the airport I checked with the people to make sure that everything would be on the same plane with us. They told me that everything would be fine.
LW When we checked in at Customs in Los Angeles everything was there. When we got to Stockton, several bags were missing.
LW I said, “Where’s the rest of my stuff?” There were only a couple of bags which contained about twelve or thirteen paintings. The rest of the works, a hundred or so, were in the missing bags.
KW No! I had no idea. Devastating.
LW I had an exhibit coming up (to appropriately show the results of my sabbatical work). I spent a fair amount of time writing to and talking with people from the airline and the airport. I got a lawyer involved. This went on and on. The airline sent me a check for $500 that I didn’t cash. I kept sending correspondence to see if we could get everything cleared up. After some time, I gave up on the whole process but realized the experience had given me an opportunity to quickly produce something for the exhibit. Using the Mexican experience, I was able to generate enough pieces for an effective exhibition.
KW That is always a good thing, to have some distance on what you were thinking about.
LW The exhibit was at the Artists Contemporary Gallery in Sacramento and it went well. But I never got those pieces back from the airline.
KW That must be lingering. Is that why you never went back to Mexico?
LW Oh, No! I enjoyed the Mexican experience, in fact I have been to different parts of Mexico on two or three occasions.
KW Were there any artists you encountered while in Mexico or any artworks that were important to see?
LW I didn’t meet a lot of people in the arts there, just a couple of artists in Guadalajara. There was one artist who lived across the street; Ricardo. He and I used to go to a gallery exhibit or a museum, or we would talk art with my broken Spanish and his modified English.
Another thing happened while I was in Mexico that was kind of intriguing, it involved the city bus…as the bus slows to stop, people tend to hop off without incident. Our two older kids were enrolled in the American school in Guadalajara and I had to go over to pay the bill once a month. On one occasion, I took the bus and as it was coming to a rolling stop, I hopped off without being in sync with the momentum and hit the ground the wrong way, and my momentum kept me going.
KW Oh no!
LW I wound up on the ground tumbling over. Scraped up my arm. Ripped up my shirt. Bruises and scratches on my leg. A lady who had seen me fall, came over from her building to see if I was okay. I could stand up and I just had a little blood on my arm and so forth. I walked over to the school. The school nurse saw me. “Oh! Que pasa? Que pasa? (What happened?)” She put something on my arm. I paid the bill, got the kids, and took a cab back to the house. You were about one year old at that time. We were living in an apartment above a shop that made shock absorbers and other car parts. The shop owner, Mrs. Hernandez saw us come in and came to ask what had happened to me. She insisted that I go to the hospital. She got one of her employees to drive me to the hospital. Have you heard this story?
KW I’ve heard parts of it but not the detailed version.
LW At the hospital we wait and wait until they finally get to me. The doctor said, “Que pasa?” He checked me out and decided that my leg needed a cast. I had a very bad contusion. They made an appointment for me to go to the clinic the next week.
KW Oh no!
LW Yeah, my foot and my leg up to about mid-calf. A nurse came in and looked at my arm. She loosened my sleeve. She had some materials, bandages and stuff. I said, “No. No. No. No iodine.” She smiled nicely and poured the iodine all over my arm. Anyway, I go home and a young man who lived across the street who had been walking around on crutches saw me with my cast. So he brought me the crutches he no longer needed. That was kind of nice, one of those gestures.
KW So you were on crutches for how long during that trip?
LW I don’t know—two or three weeks. In a week I had to go the clinic (The Cruz Roja de Mexico). I noticed, while in the waiting room, all of the people sitting there in chairs had bandages or casts on their leg, on their arm, on their head. Old people, young people, men, women, kids…all with casts—it was weird. We all sat there and quietly waited. One young man was reading comic books. When he finished his comic book, his mother suggested he share it with me. So he shared his comic book with me, Superman, in Spanish, I thank him for it. Gave it back to him when I finished. Another man whose son had a cast on his head was going to get his son something to eat. So he brought back a hamburger for me, which I appreciated. But this kind of willingness to share, from people who didn’t have much to give, was impressive. The doctors who checked my leg agreed that it was not broken but put it back in a cast because it still needed to mend. So the following Wednesday I was at the same place and the same people were there. We re-shared things. I’d share whatever I could with them. We would talk about California, about Mexico and Guadalajara, and so forth. It was an interesting addition to my learning experience because I was getting a feel and an understanding of their situation and how they lived, which I think entered into my work. While I was on the crutches and walking around in a cast, Ricardo and I went to a movie. Me hobbling around with one crutch. We went to see a Japanese movie with Spanish subtitles. No. It was a Japanese movie. Yes. With Kung Fu and fighting and sword fighting.
KW Wasn’t it Seven Samurai? I think you told me once.
LW It may have been. With the visuals, the action, and the subtitles I actually understood the movie. Yeah, intriguing times. Anyway, what was your question?
KW I was asking about artists and artistic influences that you came across while you were in Mexico. Wasn’t Elizabeth Catlett living somewhere in Mexico at that point?
LW Yeah, but I never knew her during that time. I met her when you met her. I don’t think I got to meet any really important artists. We just met and lived around people who were probably middle-class. But we also met some people who were on the marginal end of life.
KW There’s a picture of me in a crib—I think that was in Mexico—and I’m standing up and that painting with the standing figure and the parabola is in the background. I have certain early memories of works of yours that are curious to look back on with a child’s eye view of what was happening there.
LW That stuff with the parabola was predominantly in the late ’60s, early ’70s. I remember you took your first steps in Mexico. The day we were leaving.
KW You were talking before about disillusionment and the difficulty of living in New York and pursuing one’s work with family and kids. That dovetails with my moving to New York and having a family and pursuing my art, and all that happened since. I got a little bit sad. I figured we would probably have to talk about that.
LW It surprised me that you wanted to move to New York and be in that climate, that environment, after having been in such a warm place in California. To move up to where it was going to be cold, and snow and all that.
KW We had that in Rhode Island, at RISD. Then I moved to Maine, the coldest place in the world, for a little bit.
LW The whole East Coast thing.
KW We did California for a few months in 1999 when I had the residency at CCAC (California College of Arts and Crafts), the residency was called “Capp Street Projects.” My daughter, Octavia, was fifteen months by the time we got there. This was right in the thick of everything. I had had the MacArthur, and the conferences that happened around the controversies, and the article in the International Review of African American Art. I had this little child in the residency. My husband at the time, Klaus, had a cobbled-together teaching job in California, which he made the best of—teaching jewelry and I think a drawing class at CCAC. That was hard for a lot of reasons. I liked being in California, but I didn’t like not having lived in New York. I didn’t feel legitimate somehow without breaking my back in New York. At the time, in the late ’90s in Northern California, it was the dotcom boom. Everyone was building websites and people I had gone to school with had become paper millionaires, building websites and getting shares of the company as payment, so suddenly there was this attitude of complete security. I met people with some terrible attitudes. The kind of fetishistic culture that made me really annoyed. People would say, “Oh we have this great Tibetan nanny!” Tibetan nannies were some kind of new breed of person. And, “Oh! My children go to school with every different kind of person.” And then start getting really finicky about naming what variety of people they were. I thought, Oh, I can’t stand these people. I always thought that I should move to New York but I was scared. Starting a relationship and wanting to pursue that and my work at the same time. I didn’t see the conflict until I actually moved to New York with a family. Things went quickly downhill. The disadvantages of being a woman artist, to paraphrase the Guerrilla Girls, were imposed on me—as if, somehow, there had to be a division between being a mother and being an artist.
When I was watching a documentary about the artist couple Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, I felt a bittersweet inspiration. They were in the avant-garde living in New York in the ’60s, ’70s. She’s an artist, a wife, and a mother, raises some kids. He’s pursuing his work and getting pretty well known, while she is struggling in the shadows for quite some time. I think they were each mutually supportive of one another. At least that was the retelling in the documentary. It seemed as though he was really understanding of the difficulties of being a woman artist in that climate, which was heavily male-dominated and would not make a lot of allowance for people who were not “the guys.” White guys. Let alone anything else. At a certain point she was making very important work. It made me feel good that it had happened without somebody getting thrown out a window or other kinds of catastrophes in artist couples’ relationships.
My move to New York was pretty fraught from the get-go. I had mentioned to Klaus while we were in Providence that I wanted to seriously consider moving to New York and he said, “Yeah, okay.” Then two years went by and I had a job offer from Columbia University that seemed to round out the security aspect; so it wasn’t just moving like a post-graduate. The acclaim and the criticism around the MacArthur was like being given a gold shield to march into wherever with. I didn’t fully appreciate that, though. It was terrifying to start teaching at Columbia and not know the first thing about teaching, working with graduate students. I felt like I had big shoes to fill in that regard. Then I also had my gallery exhibition commitments and things that I just wanted to pursue with my work. I felt like I had to do it all. I felt like I didn’t get the full range of support from my husband at the time; although, he was trying, I think. You can parse out the details till the cows come home and our relationship would still not have been a good fit when it comes to ambition. I met Klaus when I was considerably younger, twenty-three, a student and an unformed diamond in the rough. (He’s a jewelry designer.) I think that is how he saw me, but I never saw myself as that. I wish I could transcribe all of the ellipses, trailed-off sentences like that. I know that is where the meat is but it’s hard to access sometimes.
LW You said that you didn’t feel that secure about teaching initially but you have been doing it for a number of years now. How do you feel about teaching now?
KW I feel exactly the same. (laughter) I feel (a little bit) untransformed in the world of teaching. A few years into it, the schedule that I got was kind of off and on. I was sharing the teaching load with Rirkrit Tiravanija. He was more adept at taking the time he needed for his wide-ranging practice. He was traveling a lot. That’s how he rolls. I never felt secure enough in myself as a highly fluent professional artist to take advantage of the gold shield. For the first couple of years, I felt that I needed to do more, work harder, go to all of the meetings, be on the committees, make sure that everyone knew I was pulling my weight and was not just a trophy professor. Trophy wife, trophy professor. All the trophies, tokens, that I am rejecting. I was burning out. It is safe to say that from late 1997 through 2001 was like a series of cathartic burnout moments that I kept trying to recover from and then kept running. Like in an animated movie where a person keeps stepping on mines, “poof!” but keeps on running.
To backtrack, before the teaching in 1998, when Octavia was a few months old, Harvard organized this conference around derogatory black representation in contemporary art. They sort of used my art as the opportunity to have that conversation. I went up to Cambridge to install the show with Octavia in my Baby Bjorn. I had a couple of awkward encounters. Met Bruce Nauman up there. He gave a talk and then dinner with people, and I was drinking a punch that I did not realize was Sangria. Somebody was angrily pointing that out to me long after the fact. It was awful. Everything was awful. I was nursing my baby and drinking Sangria at the table with Bruce Nauman! It became worse. The show was up in the Carpenter Center in Harvard. This conference was being planned during the duration of the show, but Klaus had planned a trip to Germany to have his parents meet the baby. Both of these things are happening at the same time. So I am on the phone saying I can’t really make it to this important conference that is being organized around the ideas in my work because I have a family obligation. I’m sort of conflicted and in the meantime I get really sick. I got mastitis from nursing. I go on antibiotics immediately and then we go to Germany. I miss the conference. While we are in Germany, I wake up in the middle of the night, having a physical breakdown with explosive diarrhea and throwing up. That day was also the day of the conference in Cambridge and I felt like there was bad mojo out there. Part of it generated from me and part of it generated toward me. I felt irresponsible to my work and the ideas in my work to not be at the conference. I was not entirely there for the family either. I was caught in the space in between.
I mention that because I did feel then, and probably still feel now, under a great deal of pressure to make good on the promise of words, accolades, and all of that. When I took the teaching job—in addition to already making good on those large-seeming ideas and promises, I also had to make good on the idea of how to teach whatever it is I know and have learned. I didn’t really get a lot of guidance, and I was intimidated by the Ivy League and the kind of attitude that the art program at Columbia was trying to instill in its graduates. Which was the idea that you could get the right sort of theoretical and critical input in order to walk out of school and have a really scintillating art career in New York. For a couple of minutes that was happening for some of the students there, but I felt that was unrealistic and not really healthy. I could say it was not healthy because I wasn’t all that healthy. (laughter)
LW How did the students respond to you?
KW There are so many of them, coming from so many different points of view. I don’t really look at my teaching evaluations but I guess it’s mostly positive, ranging from indifferent to positive. Really, I think that there is some aspect where kids get really messed up in the program. I know there was one portrait painter who had come from Georgia. Everyone was trying to push and encourage her in a different direction than she was ready for. She revolted and started doing what she had already been doing—landscapes, portraits. I missed out on this, but apparently she said something really negative to some art blog, like the TMZ of the art world. Since I wasn’t reading it, it didn’t matter so much that I heard after the fact that she was apologetic and so sorry that she had said those things. I was like, What things did she say? She thought I was indifferent to her work, which was not true. But for the most part I have met people who always have glowing things to say. They still have contact with me, not as a mentor, but as a peer or a friend even. So it varies. It’s a big, sprawling, and ambitious program. The only time that I felt on top of what I was doing as a teacher, like I really understood what my role was there—not to teach drawing, not as a technician—was when my survey show was up at the Whitney. I was mentally strung-out, but at the same time I felt legitimate—like, Okay, this is what I do. I have everything in front of me and in an organized fashion. On the subway advertising there I was, and I could go over to the university and say, “That’s me, over there, in the museum.” When I walked into people’s studios, I remembered again what it was that I offered.
I think from the moment I started doing this work in my studio, it was huge. Everything that I do starts with an effort in recalling who I am. Crawling through the clutter of who I am supposed to be; who somebody else thinks I am. External constructions of race and gender and height. The more clutter gets added to the pile from outside, the harder it is for me to get to my core of myself. I always tried to find the same balance that you had—between doing your art, and doing the teaching, the chairmanship, the committees—and doing it well. I was trying to do what Dad did. I think I was maybe approaching it all wrong, thinking that I was filling shoes instead of recognizing what I can contribute and what I can’t.
LW Once you discovered who you were, you could just be yourself and go from there, right?
KW One would think that, but every time I step into the studio I have to remember who I am. If it only were that easy. If I were seeing students on a regular basis, then maybe, but it’s more promiscuous than that. Often I would just say a few words and then move on to the next one. Then the next semester it was, “I think I remember you. We met six months ago. I don’t remember what you were doing but—” It’s like starting over. I have to remember what I said and everything. I have not had the kind of continuity and consistency that I think I would want in a professor if I were a student.
LW You don’t have to remember everything you said. They have to remember everything that you said. If you remember their work, you remember who they are. Somewhere along the way I weaned myself from the idea of trying to memorize names.
KW Oh, I don’t remember anybody’s name. I try to remember their work, because their work changes from first semester to third semester.
LW For me, knowing what a student did was more pressing—in order to help them get through, past, or beyond a particular point. It became individual on each level. From undergraduate students to graduate students it was a very different experience. I’ve seen a lot of stuff in all of these years, but I’ve seen some teachers come into a program teaching the graduate class like an undergraduate class and it doesn’t work. And they don’t know it. I’ve also seen teachers come into a system at either level, undergraduate or graduate, who get hung up on the jargon and what comes down from higher administrators about doing things a certain way and being accountable. “Everything that you do has got to be written on paper. You’ve got to be able to demonstrate that this person really moved from this point to that point.” It doesn’t work well with anybody, really, let alone in an art program. One of the principle learning experiences in any art program is the critique session. The dialogue between individuals, students as well as the teacher, is where the learning really comes about for the most part.
KW That’s the problem that I wind up talking about with the grads at Columbia—there are so many crits, multiple crits over the course of the day, so that there is no time to work.
KW They have the opposite problem. A visiting critic from New York Magazine comes in and a resident artist comes in for the same week. They have a mentor group. Some of them will go off with that mentor for a week and they come back exhausted. It’s complete overload. I walked into somebody’s studio the other day and there was another visiting critic sitting in there.
LW Who programs all of that?
KW We have a graduate director for the visual art program, working along side our chairperson. With fifty thousand plus students a year, with not enough financial aid and fellowship and scholarship money, most of the students that I have talked to feel resigned, like this is what they have signed up for. You can have a lot of alone time in your studio after that. What is two years of the non-stop barrage of critique? You have to remember to not get lost in the overload. In moments when they lose their sense of self or feel defeated and bowled over, they have to take a stand, even if that stand is against the very program they enrolled in—they can engage in a larger critique of the nature of their personal ambition and desire.
I think that that was rolling back to my own grad school experience. I wound up rolling back into a critique within my own art practice, which is the nature of my desire. What are my goals here? If painting is associated with all of these terms of being a legitimate part of—why do I feel excluded from it? Why am I trying to sidle up next to it? I thought I would try to remove the image from the canvas altogether, cut it away. The first few years at Columbia I felt like they just wanted people with big names, fancy galleries, and a cultural cache to come in and be flashy.
LW Frequently in some programs where they have a big name or several big names, the names help draw students to that institution, but unfortunately only some students get the opportunity to work with that big name. A case in point was Wayne Thiebaud. His name was associated with UC Davis for years in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80’s—although often his schedule was such that he really didn’t have time to be in the classroom with the students who anticipated that they would be with him.
KW It’s a conflict. Do I really want to be used to add to the pile of identity questions that I already have to wade through in order to make a picture? (laughter) The four text portraits that I did a couple of years ago and that you saw—block texts that were biographies of creative, black American women—they were all just tragic models of overextension, emotional breakdowns, physical violence. It’s not funny. I wound up trying to figure out how to reflect the over-extended creative woman.
LW How do you see your work shifting in another five or ten years?
KW When I start teaching elephants how to paint? I guess they already know how to paint. We have to work on horses now. Well, since I have been working on my actual calendar for the next five or six years, the calendar suggests that my work cannot change at all. I feel like I am always trying to push things in other directions at least, so I can do the things that I am interested in doing and try to find new ways to think about moving around subject matter. I don’t know about five or six years out. Next year I have a show that I am curating at the ICA in Philadelphia, that is around a theme I’ve been writing about that is mercurial and hard to articulate. I have been thinking about modern architecture and the way space is distributed unequally. Architects have this exalted position in the modernist landscape—it’s not that they just make environments, but they use theories of modernism to make sometimes ugly environments happen, irrespective of the needs of society (housing projects and the like). Anyway, I am trying to explore the way space and power are reacted against and undermined and rebranded by badass urban dwellers. I call the show “Ruffneck Constructivists” and it features eleven artists whose work I think elaborates on the fugitive impulse that fuels hip hop and the violence that underpins modern urban design.
Did you find there to be a conflict between teaching and being a studio artist?
LW Both are challenging: teaching, in particular on the college level, and being a studio artist at whatever level. They pull from the same energy source. The creative energy that one expends in the production of an art piece is not unlike the creative energy that one expends trying to figure out a way to get a class of students to move from point one to point two. They can both be exhausting and taxing. They are also very exciting. They can be done together, or they can be not done together. I think I was fortunate to be able to combine both of those things in a way that was satisfying over the years. If anything suffered it was probably, not so much the production of the artwork, but the sharing of the artwork in the larger context. That could be for a whole variety of reasons. Maybe I didn’t have the right contacts. Maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve been living in backwater places. There are a lot of possibilities in there. Never will I accept the notion that the work wasn’t good enough. Because I think it was. I’ve had people ask me things like, “Wow. This is really good stuff. Why isn’t your name up there with so-and-so’s?” I said, “I can’t answer that question. You have to ask someone else.” I have also heard someone say, literally, “curators make artists.”
KW I don’t know. I had somebody ask me not too long ago if I thought I had peaked, which I thought was the cruelest thing any human being has asked me. She was on the board of a museum or a chair and I just thought, You don’t want to ask an artist if they have peaked. That is not in the artist’s interest. I’m still making work and generating ideas, regardless of whether the interest in my work has tapered off. I’m not interested in the sale value of my work.
LW That might be an indication that it’s time for me to sell what I have.
KW Right! (laughter) Now that you are not teaching anymore, would you like to be showing more and maybe having a wider conversation?
LW Some other folk have asked whether I want to do that. Some are pushing me to write my memoir. Somebody else is saying, “You should do a book,” which I have also been thinking about. Someone should do a book about me, if not me, somebody else. So I’m interested in that. I’m also exploring things like what to do with all of this stuff.
KW Isn’t that my job?
LW I’ve got a lot of my own work, plus your mom and I have a fairly large and growing collection of works by other artists. You reach a certain point in age when you start to ask, “What am I going to do with this stuff? Where is it going?” One of the things I will not do, I will not donate the works to a university or school that does not have a legitimate, bona fide museum connected to it. Most art programs don’t have the means to do anything with the work other than store it. I don’t want that to happen to it. If anything, it would be nice to have the work seen occasionally or used in some educational context so that somebody gets the chance to learn something from it. I have not zeroed in on anything specific. I have been toying with a lot of ideas.
KW What if we just made a museum of you, for you, and we housed the work of your collection and then had a gallery space that showed other people’s works, student shows or whatever.
LW Oh, that would be wonderful!
KW I just created a museum for you. Where should it be? University of the Pacific, Wayne State, or Georgia State? I’m getting donations now! (laughter)
LW Back up. Back up. I can’t even think about that. One of us needs to win the lottery first. That would solve a lot of problems. The question of was or is there a conflict between teaching and doing one’s work—I never really felt the conflict. I did feel that there were certain obligations that I had at the university and there were certain obligations that I had relative to my work, but if push came to shove I was always able to put the work into a context that was workable. For example, I was chair of the art department at the University of the Pacific in Stockton for seven years. After leaving that position and returning strictly to teaching; I also had a grant from the California Arts Council. I was writing articles—art reviews—for the Stockton Record and I was also painting. I was showing in places. That was going okay but I came to a point when I really missed being an administrator. Maybe I like being in charge of stuff. I figured if I wanted to do that, I needed to look for someplace else to be rather than trying to repeat the role at UOP. I looked around and I wound up with an offer from Georgia State University in 1983. Atlanta was not Stockton in the eyes of the art world. It had a much larger reputation. The program I would be going to was also larger than the one that I had been in—with more students, more faculty members, a graduate program, and more opportunities. They were offering me twenty thousand dollars more a year than I was making. That made some difference too. You put all of these things together and say, “Well, look. If I take the position I may not be able to produce as much stuff as I have been producing, until I learn the ropes.” I was willing to accept that for a year or a year and a half, I might not be able to do much art. Which happened to be about the time it took to get back into my work on a gradual basis. I would work in the evening, sometimes during a school break. I was also teaching while I was doing the administrative thing, but as a result I was able to reduce my teaching load. As such I was teaching two classes a year and I had the winter quarter free of course work. At any rate, it worked out so that I could manipulate my timing in such a way that I could produce some works. It may be that, had I not been teaching, I might have produced more during that time. One of the other things that became interesting was that working with older students, particularly grad students, the ideas flowed a little better. You could explain better what you were trying to do and grasp better what they were trying to do.
KW Do you think your work changed between California and Georgia? When you got back into the studio, how was it different?
LW Initially it didn’t change, because I had like a year and half or so when I was in a hiatus. When I took up my work again in 1984-85. I started where I had left off in California. That was during the Figurative Series, which started to evolve and became the Blindfold Series. The Blindfold Series was spearheaded by the fact that an eye exam inadvertently revealed that I had glaucoma. Contemplating the notion that I might go blind at some point in time, I started doing these figures that had blindfolds on. In another series, I did figures that had no eyes. I had also started the Wall Series before I had left Stockton. In Atlanta I started using panels and worked in diptychs. The materials started to shift to something a little bit more durable. Heavier materials. Wood. Metal attached to the panels. After I gave up the directorship of the school and just stayed on to teach, the work expanded even more in terms of numbers and sizes and so forth. I think the work got better as it continued to develop.
KW I thought that when we were in Stockton after your mother passed, you had work that was really reflective of the city, of New York, in particular.
LW Well, yeah. That was part of the Wall Series. Prior to the Wall Series, I was doing two other series. One was the Trucks Series—the backs of trucks. Only a few of those. The other series I called the Remnant Series. They were mostly acrylic abstractions. They had some little remnant from a torn piece of paper, torn ticket stub or whatever, which got laminated into the painting. The questions that I started asking myself were: Where are these ideas coming from? What is this about? In 1982 I went back to New York purposefully to look around because I suspected that some of these images and ideas had grown during my childhood there. I walked some of the streets I used to walk as a child, went back to some of the places I had been, and kept looking, and made a lot of discoveries that some of these things did indeed come out of my New York experience. The graffiti marks, both the legitimate and illegitimate graffiti. Legitimate graffiti being painted numbers or “do not enter” notices. Illegitimate graffiti being spray painted graffiti…names, messages, etcetera.
KW Yeah, early ’80s.
LW I saw one building, for example, that was abandoned. The windows were all broken out, most of them, but you could see through the window and what you saw was a brick wall. The window had been bricked up to prevent people from getting into the building. In this case the notion of an interior space and an exterior space were both viewed as barricades. Signage, street vendors, and displays were also intriguing. I took a photo, I remember, of a street vendor’s stand with oranges and apples and other fruit arranged in front of a poster that included an image of Ronald Reagan and the slogan “Reaganism = genocide” or something similar.
KW Do you have those photos somewhere?
LW That particular piece wound up in the collection of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. I may have a copy of it someplace but I don’t know where exactly. The whole display was quite incongruent.
KW The fruit is all life and health.
LW When I came back from that 1982 New York trip, the Remnant Series evolved and took on a different attitude and format, with the introduction of a brick pattern, textured surfaces, and collage elements. The paintings became simulated wall surfaces with graffiti marks, collaged posters, peeling paint, and other textures often seen or experienced on urban walls. One of the early paintings in this Wall Series included a deteriorating drawing with an image of my mom, who passed away later that year. Back in those days it was not unusual for me to get the painting started, to get the brick texture set up. Then have kids in the neighborhood scratch names and whatever they wanted to in the brick pattern.
KW I know. They were all over. The kids kept coming back to scratch more into your work. It was kind of fascinating if you think about it. I was growing up with the one dad who had the weirdest thing going on in the garage, in Stockton in particular. You weren’t working on a car. No oil stains. You had this painting studio. It seemed perfectly normal to me. Back to Georgia, I was wondering if there was an influence of Georgia on your work. What did you discover coming here, what has been informative outside of academia?
LW Being in Georgia is a whole informative thing in and of itself.
KW I know! It was for me.
LW And will continue to be for quite some time. The greatest influence or impact of moving from California to here was having a different relationship, or sense of relationship, with my family. For one, I had never been around my brother, Howard, much, nor my sister Clyde and her daughter Alyce. We got hooked up with the family reunion group, which is the Walker-Zachary combination thing. I started meeting cousins and it was interesting how it linked up with me. I don’t think that has had any impact on my work, but it was a different experience. It was also different to live in a state that was predominantly Republican in comparison to where we came from. There are also a number of old-line cliques and stoic positions.
KW Do you think that those cliques are drawn along racial lines or economic lines?
LW Probably a little bit of both. Probably more economic now than racial.
KW When we moved here do you think it was racial? That was my feeling as a teenager—that things were pretty starkly drawn along racial lines. There were no in-betweens and there was only black or white.
LW Well, yeah. That was very evident in contrast to where we came from and probably still is.
LW But the economic thing is a major factor also, because what they call the Atlanta area seemed to be predicated on those who have less. There is a whole section of Atlanta up in the “Buckhead” area; there’s a lot of affluent people up there and then there’s little pockets in other places, north, that have very affluent folks. They don’t really associate with or know much about the rest of Atlanta, because they don’t participate in it. When you come into Atlanta from the airport or by train and you get off at Five Points, in downtown you see black faces all over the place. You might say, “Oh. It’s a black city.” One could also think that because the last several mayors have been black. Council members have been black and people you see predominantly on the streets in major parts of the area are black. While it is not fully a black city, it looks like and feels like it is. But I don’t think it is a factor that has influenced my work.
KW Do you think it has affected your ability to show your work? Do you think that there is a black community that is active in art and culture? I always think of Atlanta as a business city. As long as it’s good business to buy art, then that’s okay, but it’s not really a felt feeling for art.
LW I’m sure some of that is true here, but it’s said that some of the real “collectors” here in the Atlanta area, if they are real collectors, they take their money and go to New York to buy something instead of buying it from Atlanta artists. I’m sure that that was the case at some point. It may still be a factor for a lot of people. The business of selling or not selling work here in this area—there are a number of collectors in the Atlanta area, black and white, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve been gobbled up by the most affluent collectors, or the strongest collectors. Some of the strongest collectors remain under the radar. They just collect their stuff and they go about doing their thing. Those seem to be the ones that go to New York and buy.
KW When I moved here, there was a little bit of an underground art scene that was Nexus, and then Nexus became legitimized and became The Contemporary Art Center and then it became “The Contemporary.” I don’t know if it has shortened its name any further.
LW Now it’s called “The Contemporary.”
KW (laughter) Now it’s just “The C’” or something. When I come here, I wonder where the really burgeoning, vital, messy art forces are that are generating things. Even when I was a student, there was a show at Nexus that had a work of Adrian Piper’s in it. I had one of those moments that you were describing when you were in school, I was supposed to write a paper and I told my teacher that I really wanted to write a paper, preferably, on a black woman conceptual artist. They said, “Umm.” Similar reaction but they didn’t send me packing. They said, “Well, you could look at Adrian Piper.” I think that was a turning point for me. It was really important and amazing that her work would have wound up in the Nexus show, which is inexplicably without any…well…I don’t know. Art’s got to be around to generate ideas and not just income or cash flow. Is there a place for that in Atlanta anymore?
LW Going back in history to the ’50s and before, there was—not just here but in various cities—a separation of works done by black artists and works done by white artists. White artists showed in some galleries and black artists showed in others. Rarely was there a mix in all of that. It only started happening gradually with certain juried exhibitions. I think here in the Atlanta area, it probably overlapped in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Part of it was that there was the separation that existed. The black group was centered around the black institutions (HBSC) in town—and the contributions made by Hale Woodruff and several other artists and institutions.
KW You mean Morehouse?
LW Yeah, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College. They all had certain bits and pieces of collections. Spelman had an African art collection, for example. Clark Atlanta University used to sponsor juried exhibitions. They would buy things from the exhibition for the college collection. Over the years, they amassed a fair number of pieces and at this point it is a well-known collection that is fairly stable. There was also Atlanta Life Insurance Company that used to have their annual exhibition. The High Museum, Nexus, and other groups did their own things and there was no real overlap with other art venues. On the black side, there was Hammonds House Galleries which evolved I think in the early ’80s—just before we came to the area. Anyway, I was on the Hammonds House board for a number of years and one of the things that I used to stress was, “If you want to be an institution in the city of Atlanta that works, one that draws from all of the people in Atlanta, you have to have a different approach to attract people. If your collection is predominantly African-American works then you have to couch the way you present that to the public in order to get a diverse group to come. You can’t just say, ‘We’re an institution with works by black artists and we only want black people to come to it.’ That won’t work.”
KW Has anyone from the Hammonds House taken a visit to The Studio Museum in Harlem to ask how they approach even the idea of what “Black Art” means? I know there might have been artists who are not necessarily of African descent. Who are coming from other places, but whose work dovetails with the aesthetic or concerns once termed “Black Art.”
LW I think over the years they’ve shifted a little bit. They’ve made some modifications in their procedures. They had to. They wanted to be a museum as opposed to a gallery. They still want to be a museum, so they are using a museum name, Hammonds House Museum, but they have to put some other things in place to become a certified, fully operational museum. One of the things that they were doing a year or two ago, they had an annual auction, which is a fundraiser for the place. They sent out an announcement, which is different from the one they had the year before that. When I was on the board, I convinced them that the auction should not be limited to African-American artists. You have to go after some other people. And we did that for a while. I would make sure the faculty members at Georgia State were aware of it and could contribute something. All the art groups in town could contribute something to it. I thought that was working pretty well, but this was a couple of years ago and I have been off the board for a while now. They sent out an announcement about the upcoming auction. I don’t remember the exact wording; it looked like it was an invitation for African-American artists only. It had the words “Black Art” in there somewhere. It didn’t look like it would be something that would appeal to the whole, to many communities, so I called them on that and told them that was something they had gotten past and gone beyond. Why go backwards?! The Board reexamined the wording, agreed, and they changed the wording to attract a more diverse group of contributors.
KW You’ve been on a lot of boards.
LW I have. To name a few past board memberships, not including ones associated with academia, I have been on the board for Art Papers, the DeKalb Council for the Arts, the Contemporary, and I am currently on the Board of Directors for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Georgia.
Contributing artwork for various auctions is becoming a concern for a number of artists.
KW It’s a problem across the art world, right? There are all of these institutions and they do good work. They have auctions. They have benefits. They try to raise funds from benefactors, and artists are constantly being asked to contribute. Sometimes it is like auction season when you get five to ten requests from places you really like. You can’t give all your work away. It’s been a real problem. It’s one of those things where I wonder about the lifespan of institutions and even the viable lifespan of being an artist professionally. Is there a statute of limitations for how long you can be producing work? Running an art magazine or a nonprofit art space?
LW Unfortunately, some artists have bought into this thing and they feel that, “Hey. By having something in one of these auctions, it’s doing me good because someone is recognizing my name. My name gets printed on such and such.” I can’t see that.
KW If you have any thought about slavery and slave auctions, you know that that is really false. (laughter) Well, you know. It’s got good teeth. What else are we looking at here?
LW I limited myself to only a few.
KW Before you talked about Hammonds House, it sounded like you described a separation in Atlanta culture into a black Atlanta and an unknown white Atlanta, this very rich, outside-of-the-city-center Atlanta. It made me think of this essay by James Baldwin called, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.” It’s an essay about the Atlanta child murders in the ’80s and the local political reaction to that. I’m probably getting the gist of the essay wrong, but Baldwin describes Atlanta, or the description was Atlanta’s motto: “The city too busy to hate,” which is a really strange motto to have. He described the black political machine, such as it was, or the black political elite, scrambling because it was not only a tragic and terrible crime spree but also a really bad image problem for the city—murdered black children. A lot of people speculated that there was an expediency to the necessity in finding a black culprit to ward off the possibility of any racist hate crime mucking up the works of the New South. That was something that was always on my mind when we moved to Atlanta. The number of times I got sent home from school because of inappropriate dress. I mean the first week I think I had shorts that were two inches above my knee and I got sent home because the rule for shorts was that they had to be at the knee. I got sent home and I was walking along the un-sidewalked streets in these highly wooded corners of Decatur. It was quite pretty in a way because of the leaves at the side of the road but there is also this deep forest. It was just so easy if you’re panicky, and for me to imagine being lost in there, or being thrown in the ditch at the side of the road. Being found. That combined with having a volatile, bipolar brother at home—I internalized a lot of the stress in those early years. Some of it was internal and some of it was external. It was definitely present for me. It was like segregation is a topic that gets talked about but is not really felt. There are these discussions about race in politics and society, but what gets lost sometimes is that feeling you were talking about in your paintings. When I reflect on your paintings I think about the feeling of barriers and the feeling of people striving to push past those barriers. I used to imagine what you were describing. I think I didn’t quite know until today, that your thinking about barriers went from this horizontal line in The Microscapes, and ballooned into to the parabola shape. I always went straight to the Wall Series which to me was as if you were the flipping that horizontal line into a vertical, physical barrier. Painting a brick wall is kind of a blunt representation of the limits of painting! I discovered through that work of yours that I’m interested in the viewer’s spatial relationship to the art object or the painting—I think I appreciated painting as a space that one has to struggle to get through. Which could be why I had to put painting aside to get beyond it. It’s funny realizing now that the moment I really rejected painting was when I finally moved away from home!
It’s nighttime now. We’ve been at this since ten o’clock in the morning or something. I’m sad and tired now.
LW Now we can go think up some more questions.
LW Kara, what would you say are two or three of the most significant influences that you have had in your life relative to your work?
KW Well, we talked about you being the influence for making work—for the idea of being an artist. For the work itself—it’s funny—I feel like I know the answer and then I don’t know the answer at all. It might be more than two or three. That might be the deal.
KW Being exposed to Adrian Piper’s work as an undergrad was significant for me in terms of thinking about how to approach my work. I did a little performance piece on her by way of a paper. I realized that there was a mode of address that I wasn’t considering in my paintings and the mode of address was that the audience, the viewer of a work, has a history and a point of view that directly impacts how work is received. That was important for me to begin to realize. Then there were some artists from the German Expressionist Period: Otto Dix, George Grosz, and a couple of others who I thought were really important when I saw some of their work. It was the rage that was in there and also the attention to details, the subjectivity—they were attentive to their own subjectivity in relation to the world around them. When I started to tackle ideas around race and gender—stories, jokes, and pop culture that inform the way we talk about or fetishize race in this culture—I would say these are influences. But there are counter-influences. People like Betye Saar and the Black Art Movement artists. Considering what limitations some of these artists felt hemmed in by, or the ways they contributed to the strict dogma of the Black Art Movement ideology. I had this cathartic moment when I was still living at home in Atlanta. I was thinking of my role as an artist as being akin to, or being equated with, a kind of colonialist impulse. As an artist you are assumed to be the master of your domain, the master of the canvas, or screen, or whatever. That was kind of comic and problematic for me, painting as “manifest destiny.” I thought there was something ironic in declaring myself the master of this terrain and then asking whatever I put on there to do my bidding. I think that is where I started approaching the master-slave dialectic from my own agency. The problem was being able to accept my own agency. There was a sculptural piece that Betye Saar had done, maybe in 1970, a constructed box, with a Mammy doll holding a broom and a rifle, looking like an ironic play on the subservient versus the militant. My critique of that was that she was still making Mammy do her bidding. (laughter) Mammy was still playing a submissive role relative to the artist. I thought maybe one of the things that would be more likely to happen, although impossible because I’m aware that I am talking about inanimate objects, would be to have them unleashed. To have derogatory figures from history be set loose on the world to do their own thing. They would not necessarily conform or obey my intentions or wishes, or my conceits and concepts. In that regard I think of artists like Mike Kelley, early on when people were thinking about psychology and a relationship to objects. If only I were better at talking theory and psychoanalysis and all of that. I never really fully became that person. I know there is a theory in there around objects and probably a child psychologist like Winnicott who talked about that. I know the names, but I can’t fit it all together in a sentence.
LW In terms of the various projects that you have pursued over the years and the successes that you have had, including a number of awards and accolades presented by various writers and so forth, what are the two or (again another one of these “two-or-three” questions) three experiences that you have had during the last fifteen years or so that have been significant in your mind?
KW There have been so many significant things. It feels like a blur at times. Not really a blur, but from 1994 when The Drawing Center show happened (that was major and I often think about it as a game changer), and in 1997—with the multiple shows and the MacArthur, and Octavia being born, and the letter writing campaign, and the resulting problems that the whole confluence of activities brought for me— that was significant. I think about those years often, because in some ways so many things branched out from those points. There were problems in my marriage. There were problems of figuring out where I wanted to be to make my work and who I wanted to be in conversation with as an artist, looking for colleagues and wanting to be in New York where I might be among colleagues. That branched off from there. More shows branched off from there. More opportunities to talk about the controversy around my work, which became repetitive and redundant. There has been an ongoing flurry of activity and I do not take a lot of downtime to consider things, but I remember moments when I really had a chance to just sit with my work and think things through. There was a moment in 2000 when I felt like I just needed to write for several months to see what it could do and if it could generate possibilities. After that I did very small paintings, very tiny, with cutouts. The combination of those writings and those paintings was an incubator for other ideas. I think of that moment often. It was also a moment, coincidentally, when my husband had gone on a residency, I was just home with the baby and she was in daycare. I made a very clear plan: I’m going to work here at the kitchen table from nine until three. I think the boundaries and perimeters gave me a weird sense of possibility. What else? The show at the Walker Art Center in 2007 that traveled. That brought out all of the work that I had produced in the previous ten years, not all of it but a good number of types of work I had produced: drawings, collages, paper pieces. That was significant and one of those things that people still talk about when they talk to me about my work. That show had an impact on them. That show created another branch of difficulties for me, as far as thinking about repeating myself or not wanting to feel trapped in the oeuvre that was mine.
LW You have a very active studio program going and you have a number of people who work with you in the studio.
KW No. I only have one.
LW One assistant?
LW How important is that person to your everyday activities, to the nature of the work that you do? Do you need to have more than one?
KW Probably. I’ve had, from time to time, multiple people. It’s usually on a project basis—like with the film-video work and sometimes with the letterpress pieces I was making. I’ve found it really hard to work around people. I really have to trust them on a deep level. I have made the mistake of hiring people who were students of mine at Columbia who I thought were alright, and they were alright. However, being a studio assistant isn’t what I would hope for them to be. I want them to pursue their work and feel free in that pursuit so I get quite self-conscious around them. It’s hard for me, because my work is generated from a rebellious, libidinal place and I don’t really want to share that with most people. My studio assistant, Cindy Daignault right now is really managing the studio. She takes care of the emails. She handles the schedule and the taxes. She is also an artist and a painter, so she knows what kind of space or materials I might need to be able to feel okay to produce my work. It is always a learning curve for me to have people around. She has hired other people to occasionally handle things for me, to do the heavy lifting. I know there are artists who have lots of studio assistants. I am often curious as to how that goes. Sometimes I wish I had held on to a studio assistant longer, so they could have really been a part of the process. That may happen in the near future with upcoming projects. I think it has become increasingly important for me to accept the help.
LW I understand that you now have two galleries. Do you want to talk a little bit about how that works? Do the two galleries interface? Do they not interface?
KW The Victoria Miro Gallery in London just approached me earlier this year and I was kind of hemming and hawing over whether that was something I could do, would do, could handle. More galleries mean more work for me. I have been exclusively with Brent Sikkema since I started, really since 1995, technically. Brent has referred to his gallery as “the house that Kara built.” We work well together. Adding another gallery felt like a big conversation that we would have to have. I was dreading it like one might dread talking to one’s father about leaving home. In the end, after much stalling on my part, we had a good conversation. I said, “The idea of having a gallery in London is that my work has not had a lot of exposure in Europe or overseas.” A little bit here and there, but it’s really important to have someone on the ground across the Atlantic who could oversee those things. Brent knows one of the gallery directors from Victoria Miro. It is a pretty big gallery. They have a large staff. When I was in London last month showing at Camden Arts Centre, every five minutes someone would come up to me and say, “Hi. I’m so-and-so from Victoria Miro. I do such-and-such.” I said, “How many people work there?!” There were so many new faces and each one had a different set of responsibilities. It feels like a brave new world. It also feels like growing up and for once accepting my reality of being an artist instead of questioning it.
LW Do you have to reconcile that one piece that you create to be shown in this gallery might ultimately be shown at the other gallery?
KW I’m trying to keep them separate as best I can. The arrangement that I made with Brent was that Brent Sikkema is my house gallery. They have my archive. They have archival works. That kind of relationship. With the gallery in London, I have not specified their role except that the work I created in Camden Arts Centre last month is the work that they can now have, manage, and deal with. They have to be in communication with Sikkema Jenkins & Co about all the details as to how this work is sold, exhibited, and what have you. Right now, it is a working partnership. The finances are separate and the works produced are separate unless something really radical happens. I don’t think I will share too much. I don’t want to create too much tension.
LW What happens in different situations where you have had some prints pulled from print presses and so forth? How does that work in conjunction with the galleries?
KW I don’t know that I know yet. The prints that I did—not the most recent prints, but the suite that I worked on with Greg Burnet—were generated through Sikkema Jenkins because Michael Jenkins and Meg Malloy run the multiples section of the gallery. They suggest a printer and if it works out, like it did with Greg, who was fantastic to work with, that’s a work that they have to sell.
LW The value of this oral history is that it will be kept in an archive so that researchers, students, and curators—
KW Presumably other artists—
LW —Can look up material and grapple with the issues that are there and relate this to images that they find or have seen. Perhaps even produce books or papers.
KW More books and more papers.
LW Or to organize additional exhibitions down the road and so forth. It sounds kind of exciting. What else should they know or need to know about you that you haven’t already told them?
KW I guess that’s what I don’t know. What are the limitations of the archive? Is it for them or is it for us, for something greater than the sum of its parts? I was thinking a lot about darkness. When you asked earlier about Georgia, and what it was about coming up to Rhode Island and then New York that might have affected my work, that changed my relationship to people, I was telling you about the Atlanta Child Murders and this dark sensation, gothic sensation that overtook me. I was thinking last night further along those lines. I was thinking about that walk to the bus stop when we were still on Decatur, and the apartment complex where we were first living. It had the long, hilly driveway going up into the complex. The lights would always be burned out. If I got up early in the morning to catch the bus to Towers High School, I remember Mom walked me, maybe once or twice, just to the edge of that driveway, and then it was pitch black. You saw the end of the street and it was wooded all around. There must have been a creek running around there. It was the creek and the woods and this total pitch blackness and then road kill— always a possum or something and the stink of death. Road kill and death and that feeling of walking through this dark tunnel surrounded by terrifying dead things just to get up this hill that was populated by people who really didn’t want me around. (laughter) That’s a feeling that sticks with me. I think of that feeling in relation to making things—moving through this dark space to an equally dark space that does not look as threatening.
LW That was a long time ago.
KW Yeah, lots of things are a long time ago but they still stick with you.
LW It’s amazing how the things that you experience years and years ago float through your subconscious and show up in your work occasionally. I recall once I had a studio away from home, years and years ago. The studio was on the campus of the university in Stockton, California. It was an old unused building that the university had not decided what to do with, at that point. I had permission to use it as a studio and I was working there one Sunday morning relatively early. At the time I was doing some fairly large abstract paintings. Primarily color field, not much else going in, but every once in a while a figure would show up in the painting. I would think, Why is this figure here? It has nothing to do with this abstracted painting. One Sunday morning I was sitting working on this piece and a little figure emerged. I was sitting there contemplating its presence when like a bolt of lightning it dawned on me that that figure was my father. My father died when I was very, very young. I never knew him. I believe that figure kept showing up in my work as a way of letting me know that it was important to look back in time. Important to know a bit more about my father, what he stood for, what he was like. I couldn’t paint or do anything else, I just sat there in tears contemplating who he was. Finally I pulled myself away from that, went home, and told my wife about it. I don’t think I mentioned it to anyone else for a really long time. Since that time, I never questioned why the figure was part of my work. It was part of me and it was there as a link to something beyond me. It might contribute something to the painting or it could just coexist. Interesting experiences happen and you never know where they are going to show up in the context of the work.
You asked me earlier about the relationship of my work to the Black Arts Movement. I said something to the effect that it may be that some of my work might have references to the black experience and some of it doesn’t. I think that is true. Over and above anything, the work has references to human experiences, which go well beyond the context of race. It has feelings and emotions, attitudes that are common to people throughout the world. Sometimes you don’t always know those feelings but sometimes you do. In terms of some of the artists who may have contributed to my thinking along the way are Käthe Kollwitz for her drawing skills and compositional methods, and Mauricio Lasansky for his series The Nazi Drawings, which were beautifully done drawings but depicting horrific scenes from the Holocaust. There were a number of artists who influenced me over the years. A lot of people have suggested that my work is influenced by Romare Bearden. I like Romare Bearden’s work a lot. I do collage-oriented things, but mine are more mixed materials than collage, because I rarely use collage elements to piece together an image as evidenced in much of Bearden’s work. More frequently I use an image because of its particular value, color, or texture. I love the way Cézanne composed things. I look at his work and see wonderful curvilinear movements and other relationships among his oranges, apples, and bowls. It reminds me of the time I was working in the supermarket.
KW When you were arranging the oranges? (laughter)
LW When I worked in an A&P supermarket in Detroit I was challenged by and really enjoyed restocking the shelves when they were quite empty. I had the opportunity to redesign the cans and boxes in different but coordinated color patterns.
KW No wonder you don’t like Andy Warhol.
LW I don’t dislike Andy Warhol. In fact, I actually liked the way he used soup cans and Brillo boxes.
KW I’m sorry I am interrupting, but it does remind me of a significant moment in my early childhood that was important and rebellious, which was a San Diego trip, I think in 1981 or ’82. We went to La Jolla and we stopped at a gallery that had an Andy Warhol show up. That rocked my world in a way I was not entirely sure how to articulate. I remember you expressing a skepticism that I was not familiar hearing in your voice. “That was kind of a weird guy,” you said. It was just the soup cans. I don’t think there were any Marilyns or anything. It was just so unlike the art I was used to seeing. It was so austere and comical. But was it comical? It was kind of withholding on its humor. Matter-of-fact, I guess. I liked that. Then later on in high school, I was trying to figure out who this guy was. He was receiving a lot of cultural cache in the pop music world on MTV. It added to the accessibility. I started looking back to the things Andy Warhol had written on Pop Art and his From A to B and Back Again. I was trying to figure out my relationship to that world. It’s funny because I didn’t feel—and I still don’t quite feel—the appropriate lure of The Factory’s mystique. Some people really get caught up in the fashion of it, the uninhibited, nihilistic sex and drugs aspect. I was really into the Andy Warhol aspect of it—which is like the black hole generating or pulling all of this energy towards it but not giving anything in particular back. That was something interesting. Or that people think of him as a shape-shifter and I think of him as a sickly child. Sickly child that was kind of okay about whatever was happening. People interpreted him however they would. That helped me to reconcile myself to where we were in Georgia. People were going to interpret me however they would, but I will maintain this neutral facade and will allow people’s projections to happen.
LW I had a moment where the question just walked out of my head. That’s not good. It was the most important question of the day.
KW Of course!
LW Okay. It will come back in a minute or two. In the meantime, how do you define or differentiate between being a teacher and being a mentor?
KW The teacher can impart actual, useful skills that an artist can use—like composition, technique, pushing and pulling, putting more pressure on your pencil and then reducing the pressure, creating a dynamic line. The mentor can embrace the holistic aspect of the artist to provide a holistic meaning: It’s less concerned with the technical aspects unless there are some real, glaring problems. It’s more concerned with where the concept meets other concepts and then meets the real world—the effect of a piece. You can talk about what the artist desires for the work. What are they trying to make happen there? Not just in the work but outside of it—what are they trying to affect.
LW As a teacher of graduate students, aren’t you doing a little of both?
KW I’m basically more of a mentor. I think it is just semantics. I really don’t teach classes. I tried to teach a class briefly when I first started my stint at Columbia. I realized pretty quickly that it was not the sort of thing I needed to spend my time doing. It was not the sort of thing I felt particularly gifted at. I know a couple of people who are really good at being mentors, and really good at being artists, but really lousy at teaching. I don’t grade. I’m not interested in grading. I don’t know how to grade somebody’s work. I can grade their effort, but that’s not the same. It’s a little close to therapy with other books. In the best scenario you have more time to get into the meat and potatoes of what an artist’s issues are, so everybody has got things that their work is generated from, and has ways of negotiating or obfuscating those personal concerns so that it doesn’t become sentimental. Work that is just about the technical or conceptual, personal or political, is fine; it meets the world with what’s in fashion. But there’s something else bordering on magic, that brings an artwork home, makes it land and resonate. You can’t really teach that so much as conjure it.
LW I have an exhibit coming up in January. It’s a solo exhibit but there is another segment that I am curating that will be centered around a few selected mentees, so to speak. I don’t like the word mentees, so I will use the word colleagues. I asked you about mentorship, because I have been toying with the responses to the question of teaching versus being a mentor. I never really used the word mentor or thought about it until my last year of teaching. I never thought of myself as being a mentor until that last year of teaching.
KW What happened?
LW What happened? In fact, it may not have been my last year of teaching; it may have been after that. At any rate, over a long period of time I have taught a lot of different things. When I was teaching elementary school, I taught everything. I taught a kid how to read art books. When you are dealing in the public school sector, you are supposed to know a little bit about drawing, painting, sculpting, printmaking. I knew a fair amount about all of those things. When I first started teaching at the University of the Pacific, one of the reasons they hired me was because I had taught in a public school system. They needed someone to teach the art education class for people who were planning to teach in the school system. That was one of my classes. My other class was painting and another class was life drawing. That combination fit exactly what they needed to replace somebody who was going to be on leave for one year, maybe two. So we went to California on the basis that this was a temporary two-year thing. It turned into three years and they said, “Well, would you stick around for another year?” The faculty member had asked for a third year leave. I said, “This is beyond the parameter we set up initially.” They said, “We’ll get back to you in a minute.” So they went off and had a discussion with the Dean, and came back with the notion that they would keep me whether she came back or not. I was there for nineteen years, and over the nineteen-year period I taught drawing, life drawing, two-dimensional design, oil painting, watercolor, acrylic painting, and collage. We had a small program with a small number of faculty members. One of the things that was missing in our program was printmaking. We made the decision that we had to offer that. None of us had a complete printmaking background. One faculty member was going to learn lithography, and I was going to beef up my understanding of etching and relief print. So we did that, and I had an opportunity to teach relief printing and etching as well. When I went to Georgia State University as director of the School of Art and Design, I was primarily teaching life drawing, which I loved to do. I have taught life drawing for some thirty-six years.
KW How long?
LW The whole nineteen years I was at University of the Pacific and the whole seventeen years I was at Georgia State University, I always taught life drawing. In the latter part of my career at Georgia State University, and particularly after I got out of being director of the School of Art and Design and stayed on to teach, I got more involved in teaching painting. The painting and drawing program at the graduate level was set up in such a way that one person functioned as the lead professor for a group. You stayed with that group and became their thesis advisor. The more I taught in the graduate program, the more I came to realize the need to alter teaching strategies from theory and technique to the students’ individual needs, concerns, and projections. Trying to help them figure out, understand, and develop, from the many issues that extended from their individual creativity, were the things that occupied my attention. I think that out of that experience the notions about mentoring arose. I’ve written so many, and continue to write, recommendation letters.
KW Recommendations. You were on thesis committees.
LW Oh yeah. I was on thesis committees before and after I retired.
KW When did you retire again?
LW December 2000. Thirteen years ago.
KW Since then you’ve had many mentees, but we won’t use that because we’re not sure that is actually a word.
LW Yeah, there’s a bunch of people—
KW—Who come to you for consultation quite a bit.
LW I had an award from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Georgia in 2007. Along with that award and along with the stipend there was an additional amount of money to cover the cost of a studio assistant. I stretched that into two studio assistants for the same amount of money. One of those studio assistants had a MFA in painting from Georgia State University. The other studio assistant had never taken an art class ever, but she had been drawing. That worked out rather nicely. Every time they came together, we would have a session where we would have breakfast or lunch over conversation and then we would do some work. Those conversations I thought were kind of important and probably helpful to both of them.
In addition, I would occasionally get requests from someone or from a group to look at their work to give a critique, suggestions, or advice. I would do so and they would go back to work. Occasionally, some would request another session.
KW You must enjoy it. I always thought you enjoyed it.
LW I do, but there is a limit to how much I will do. For instance, one person sent me some images to look at online. I looked at them and sent some comments back to him. He wanted to go further than that. I said, “No. I can’t do that. You need to go take a class.” I don’t have the time or energy for long engagements with too many artists.
KW People really benefit from your experience and your knowledge, but you’re giving it out for free.
LW This is all free stuff. I always say to them, “These are just my comments and my notions. You have your own vision and your own voice. You have things that you have been grappling with for a longer period of time than you’ve known me. You have to listen to yourself. You have to build up enough confidence to pay attention to who you are and what you want. You also have had all of these other people in your life. You sort through all of that stuff and you pick out the best of what there is and you allow that to shape who you are. Don’t think you can just walk in and absorb everything that Walker said and walk out of here and become some instant artist.”
KW I remember one get-together we had a couple years ago after Christmas and there was a guy who came up to me, and I don’t know if he was a mentee or what. He was a real country guy. He point-blank asked me, “How do you make it in New York?” I just thought, You know—I don’t have the answer for that. That’s essentially the underbelly of teaching the program at Columbia. It unsettles me, that kind of “How do you make it in New York” program. For better or for worse I don’t mind the mentoring part, but I do think it requires a certain amount of intensity and invasion of privacy that I am not really willing to give or to take with most people, unless there was a very rare instance where that conversation was allowed to blossom.
LW I’ve been around for a long time now. It’s been a glorious experience in terms of producing work and working with people, watching them grow and blossom into something else. One of the things that has always felt really good was that I can look at my family and I see the changes. All three of our kids had various degrees of exposure to the arts. Like I said earlier, they would come along with me on different occasions to deliver work to an exhibit, pick up work from an exhibit, or go see work in an exhibit. I remember when Dana and Larry were young; I took them to see an exhibit by Jean Dubuffet. They were looking and pointing out the faces (I was holding them up) and the colors. It was fascinating. They had those kinds of exposures early on. They had opportunities to pick up tools and materials to work with. You remember, or at least have seen a picture of, yourself sitting on my lap while I was drawing. All of them, at one time or another, would come into the studio and want to do some work. I’d put out some materials for them to work with and I would wind up watching them, because it was fascinating. I watched my kids going, “This is the train and this is the track. The train is going around on the track. Woo, woo. Choo, choo.”
KW But we all developed such different approaches to life.
LW Yeah, absolutely. Somewhere along the way I knew that this creative exposure was going to be an important part of your lives, but I had no idea what was going to happen or what direction it might take. I don’t think anybody does. Some people say that you are born with creativity or that you are born an artist. I’m not sure I buy into that. I’m not sure it is a gene-related thing. I’m not convinced that is it. It may be part of it but the real thing has to do with exposure, opportunity, the kind of environment one grows up in, and the kind of encouragement one gets from teachers, parents, etcetera. It all plays a role in what happens down the road and you don’t know where the creativity is going to go. In some cases it turns out that children will become artistically inclined. In other cases they become musically inclined, and in other cases they become theatrically inclined, or mathematically inclined. But creativity plays a major role in learning to solve problems, generating new ideas, and using the imagination to make things happen and to create opportunities for other things to happen. That has all been very exciting. To see that happen in the context of my family has been marvelous, with three kids and two of them in the arts—one of them in a really big way (that’s you)—and the oldest one, Dana, an outstanding photographer and arts administrator at Art Center College of Design, with great organizational skills.
KW Yeah, but Larry got the artistic temperament.
LW Larry Jr., started out drawing and painting, too. But the creative thrust shifted and he got more involved in music and the relationship between music and math linked up in such a way that he became a rather effective accountant. The interplay with numbers and the musical notes—there’s a strong relationship there. After all kinds of issues that have taken place in each of your lives, you have all relied on some creativeness and organizational abilities to push forward. The other thing that is exciting for me is that my wife Gwen—your mom—hasn’t been lost in the shuffle. She absorbed all of this and combined it with her own creativity and desires. She’s moved from sewing things together, following dress patterns and so forth, to batiking material and using applique, designing fabrics, and designing clothing items. Ultimately it led to photography and the transfer of photographs to material, to come up with other objects, i.e. handbags and shirts. At this point she is primarily focused on photography with Photoshop manipulation to establish visually effective images. So the whole business of creativity revolves around all of us in very wonderful ways.
KW I often felt that artmaking or this notion that there is a creative impulse in each of us is kind of our family creed, in lieu of having this religious calling or background. I think I have asked you before about the family’s switch from regular church-going to not going. Even just to answer the question: Are we religious or are we not? What’s the spiritual underpinning of our family? I feel like that our creativity has become the replacement.
LW You can consider it a replacement, I guess. I don’t think we ever consciously thought of it as that. It’s true that we don’t go to church. But I think church-going and spirituality are two different questions.
KW I always felt that you had the more spiritual take on life and the universe and everything, and that Mom says, “Oh, I’m the atheist,” and leaves it at that.
LW I don’t think Mom is quite as adamant about that as you remember it. There are certain doctrines in various religions that I cannot accept. In some situations I find it contradictory. When I was a kid, my mother (whose background and experience was rooted in the Baptist tradition) would take us to church or make sure we got to Sunday School. I remember early on in Harlem, the business of getting ready to go to church on Sunday—to get dressed and look your best and all that. We didn’t have much to look our best in. I always felt awkward about what I had on and so forth. When you got to church, and particularly Sunday school, the message was “be good to your parents, dress nice, and bring money to contribute to Sunday school.” I’d say to myself, What does this have to do with the reason for going to church? I would bring those issues back to my mom and my mom would never really give me a clear answer. You had to go and look a certain way, perform a certain way, but be sure to bring your money. We didn’t have much money anyway. That bothered me. Combined with that, when you saw people in church on Sundays, then you saw their behavior in the streets the rest of the week, gave one pause. They weren’t functioning in the way you thought they should be based on what you heard in church. I saw a separation ultimately between concept and performance. This was not something that happened in a short timeframe.
Your mom’s background and experience was in a Methodist tradition, so after we were married (in a Methodist church) in Detroit, we made several efforts to attend church. We tried going to church in Stockton; in fact we went to a Methodist church across the street from the university partly because of its beautiful architecture.
KW It was a beautiful building.
LW It graduated in height toward the top and climaxed with a cross. Inside it was like being inside a whale. We went there for the aesthetics. A lot of university people went there. It was ethnically mixed but it was predominantly white. We were welcome there and the church wanted to get us more involved. Over a period of time I started noticing that if you have a skill, as an artist or a musician, (churches seem to love that), they put you to work. I thought, Okay. Getting to church was always a little bit of a hassle though because it reminded me of my childhood: get up, get dressed, look nice, get in the car to drive to church. Confusion. Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. One Sunday we were on our way to church and we looked at each other and we said, “Why are we doing this? Well, children need religious experience. But as they grow up they should be able to select what kind of church they want to go to. Maybe we should just let it evolve on its own. What we really think is important is trying to maintain a sense of morality and some sense of ethics.”
Somewhere we gravitated away from the church per se but the position of feeling some moral obligations or some ethical concerns—I don’t think that has ever left any of us. If we did something wrong, we knew it was something we should probably not be doing. And we’d try to make a correction. Not to say that we were successful in all cases but the effort was always there. That probably did not help your question.
KW No, it did a little bit. It dovetailed because I was like, Oh. Then [my brother] Larry had his big religious conversion and that was terror for a couple of years for me.
LW Yeah, it was terroristic for all of us.
KW He had other problems, but I think one of the things that comes back to our discussion from yesterday was being able to perceive and comment on artwork, on differences between shadow and act. How we behave on the street versus the ideas that we are presented with or the doctrines that control and define us. I have always found that to be a part of my understanding of the world. It’s probably what increases my anxiety at times. My anxiety is born out of optimism for the inherent goodness in people or the inherent creativity, these notions of likeness in human beings—outside of race and class and religion. Noticing very particular and sometimes devastating psychologies can upset that. I think it’s an interesting and problematic recognition of humanity. I picked up a lot of that by growing up with Larry Jr. in the house, witnessing his ups and downs and also just the dichotomy of balance. Talking to you and reminiscing about the Walker family as I always picture us as a family unit, and then the difference between when you were here and when you were not here. Like if you went to a CAA conference or on a short trip, it became a different house. It was like an alternate reality. Being able to be aware of that contrast or even contradiction is something that eventually became useful to me. For a while it was just something I was trying to deal with internally. There is a song by Bjork called “Human Behavior,” which is playing in my head right now.
LW Well, how do we end this?
KW I don’t know. I don’t want to end it on a dark note or a sad note. We should end it on an optimistic note. You were asking yesterday about my future plans and I fell into a dark funk. I was thinking about it. In the immediate future, I have Octavia applying to college in the next two years to think and worry about—but then, where do I want to go from here? I do want to travel more. The one thing I have never done in the course of the twenty years I have been running around hustling to make the TIME 100 list—I have never taken a residency. Just the one in California but that was still tied to a show and it was very short. I would like to do more of that kind of thing: travel, spend some time in a place and really work from a different vantage point. I don’t know what will happen in my work from that, but I trust my ability to find the tools to find my way into my work. I think I will sit out in the woods more.
LW Somebody asked me if I would be interested in doing some residencies and things like that. I said, “No. Not at this point in my life.” I’m not much of a person to go hang out in the woods or hang out someplace where I’m alone working. Maybe some years ago I might have been more enticed to do that. So don’t wait too long. Don’t wait until you get to be seventy-eight years old, to go looking for a residency someplace. You might be able to help me find this, but there is a quote that I don’t have exactly down. I can’t remember the exact source of where I got it but it’s by the Japanese artist Hokusai, who made some comment about when he was five years old he could hold the pen and make this kind of stroke. When he was ten he was able to make a leaf flutter in the wind. When he was fifteen he was able to move a brush around to make a turtle. (I’m making up some of these things. I don’t remember the exact quote.) When he was thirty, he was able to do this. And when he was forty-five he was able to do such and such. When he was 100 he could do this and this. His goal when he was 110 was: “Whatever I do, it will be alive.” It’s a beautiful quote and I always want to use that but I keep paraphrasing it.
KW We have to find it right now. Here it is: “From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy-five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.’”
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.