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Clark Walker

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Clark Walker
(1940 - )

Clark Walker was born in Selma in 1940 and grew up on the south side of Montgomery, where his father operated a grocery store. He attended St. Mary of Loretto Catholic School, made art for the high school newspaper without any formal training, and graduated in 1959.
In 1960 he studied art with Charles Shannon at the University of Alabama Center in Montgomery. In the summer of 1962 he attended the Art Students League in New York City, and the following summer he studied under Ben Shahn and Jack Levine at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine, where he won the Bocour Award.
From 1963 to 1966 he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Stuttgart, Germany. Once his colleagues learned that he could paint, he was tasked with painting murals in the dining hall. While in Europe he visited art museums in Paris, London, and other cities.
He spent a second summer at Skowhegan in 1966 and exhibited with the faculty and alumni of the school in Lennox Hill Hospital, New York City in November 1967. That October, Walker’s solo show at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts was reviewed in the Montgomery Advertiser by staff writer Travis Wolfe, who described the art as “abstract impressionism.” Wolfe found that “the facial expressions of Walker’s artistic characters, for the most part, appear the same. The people seem still and uncomfortable.” He also noted that Walker’s “later pictures show a boldness of line that can only be termed masculine.” He was contrasting Walker’s art with that of Ann Goldthwaite, another contemporary Montgomery artist.
A decade later, Walker’s art was included in the Four Montgomery Artists exhibition at the Museum. He exhibited five paintings including items from private and corporate collections. The brochure essay indicates that his “figurative paintings display graceful and serene individuals lost in contemplation. The quieting effect of these introspective figures denotes Clark Walker’s ability to capture the atmosphere evocative of a daydream in his paintings…. Unified brushwork, soft lighting, and muted tonality” contribute to the effect of his pictures.
In 1989, Walker was interviewed again by the Advertiser for an exhibition at Montgomery’s Company Gallery. Staff writer Lynn Rollings indicated that Walker reported using acrylics primarily and favoring “people more than objects” as subject matter, although “most of the time the faces in his work come from his imagination.” Rollings also noted that except for his time in the army, “he’s made his living for more than 30 years by selling his paintings.”
In a 1995 Montgomery Art Guild interview, the painter indicated that he was teaching art one day a week and working in his studio, which at that time was in an old house on South Hull Street. He said, “I still find myself using an abstract idea…I just carry the idea further along to become a still life, landscape or people.” A few years later, when Robin Litchfield interviewed him for yet another Advertiser article, this for his show at Gallery One in 2001, she mentioned that he “continues to begin each piece as an abstract.” She also quoted Jake Wagnon, another revered Montgomery artist, who said, “Walker is incapable of drawing an ugly line or mixing an ugly color. His work is wonderful…. Clark is very dedicated to his art, and he lives it and practices it every day.” Litchfield also recorded that Walker routinely took his sketchbook to restaurants and other public places, with “composites of the people he finds” appearing in some of his pictures. She added that he also “creates what he calls circus people.” Walker described circus people as “people in a fantasy world...costumed people you wouldn’t see just anywhere.”
In 2006, the artist was selected to design the awards for the Montgomery Area Business Committee for the Arts. He created watercolor paintings of the Court Square Fountain, Curb Market, Train Shed, Bibb Graves Bridge in Wetumpka, and Heritage Park in Prattville. Those designs were marketed as prints and Christmas ornaments.
Throughout Walker’s career, he has drawn and painted faces, heads, full-length figures, and lots of cats, but in interviews with the author in 2015 he said that his art still starts with abstract compositions, as has been his practice over the years. Atop the rectilinear and circular forms that he arranges on his canvases he articulates representational imagery. “I just make people up,” is the way he explained it to Foster Dickson, a local writer and teacher whose biography of that title was published in 2008. Some of the artist’s friends think they recognize the faces and features of the artist and his acquaintances in various paintings, but Walker wisely leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination.
Self-portraits have been part of the artist’s oeuvre from very early on. The downcast gaze and fresh-faced features of the youthful artist in the 1968 gouache self-portrait from the Museum’s collection are hardly recognizable as those of the bearded artist in a Panama hat painted in 2014 and illustrated in the brochure for his Montgomery Art Guild Featured Artist exhibition in 2015. Those self-portraits and others show Walker’s deft ability to capture likeness as well as psychological aspects of his subjects.
The curious characters that Walker calls “circus people” populate many of his canvases. Harlequins, clowns, and sideshow performers are commonly found in his pictures, and an occasional monkey sneaks in. His Menage au Trois avec Chien (illustrated in the MMFA 2015 brochure) is among the best paintings of this type. Three thoughtful figures sit behind a red countertop, silhouetted against a black and blue background. A bald guy with a day-old beard makes eye contact with the viewer, as does the alert lap dog that cocks its head, showing off its ruffled pink collar. The Basenji breed does not bark, and the three circus people are tight-lipped like virtually all Clark Walker faces. No one expects paintings to speak, but Walker’s faces inevitably evoke a sense of quiet introspection rather than overt expression. Eyes are often deeply shaded and usually averted from the viewer.
The artist’s “curb market people,” another of his popular themes, are likewise portrayed from a distance, both physical and psychological. The redheaded clerk in the Cleckler booth (see 2015 MMFA brochure) is a fine example. She sits in a floral frock amid the bounty of the farm—fresh produce, potted plants, and cut flowers—a still-life composition every bit as concocted as the woman the artist “made up,” although his inspiration is surely rooted in reality.
That reality, like Walker’s oeuvre, includes lots of cats, animals whose quiet, independent personalities may be kindred spirits of the artist. Woman with Four Cats (see 2015 MMFA brochure) pictures a lady with a cat in her lap, another in her arms, and two more nearby. Each feline is characterized as effectively as the female model, although we know that all are merely “made up” by the artist.
Whether Walker’s paintings and drawings are portraits or merely depictions of faces and figures, there is a strong market for them. Fortunately, the artist continues to “make people up,” much to the delight of his many devoted collectors, fans, and friends.
(1) The best source for Clark Walker’s biography is Foster Dickson, I Just Make People Up: Ramblings with Clark Walker (Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2008). (2) “One Man Show—Clark Walker,” MMFA Oct. 8-31, 1967, flier in MMFA artist file. (3) Artist interview with the author, 27 July 2015. (4) Travis Wolfe, “Local Artist Explains Work On Display At Museum,” Montgomery Advertiser, 24 October 1967, no page number; copy in MMFA artist file. (5) “Four Montgomery Artists,” Oct. 2 through Nov. 11, 1979, MMFA, brochure in MMFA artist file. (6) Lynn Rollings, “Artist combines images of fantasy, reality,” Montgomery Advertiser, 2 March 1989, no page, copy in MMFA artist file. (7) “No ‘Sunday Painter,’” Magnews, 1995, no page, copy in MMFA artist file. Walker taught painting at Huntingdon College around this time. (8) Robin Bradley Litchfield, “Born Painter: Clark Walker Has Mother’s Day Opening,” Montgomery Advertiser, Arts and Travel section front page, 13 May 2001, copy in MMFA artist file. (9) “Business Partners,” Montgomery Independent, 27 July 2006, p. 22. (10) See note 1. (11) For illustration, see “Clark Walker: MAG Featured Artist: 41st Montgomery Art Guild Museum Exhibition,” June 12 through Aug. 9, 2015, MMFA, in the MMFA artist file.

m.panhorst 17 August 2015

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