A studio visit by Susan Cofer
With introduction by Deanna Sirlin
Larry Walker, Tweet, Other Voices, Other Spaces - Spirit of Wild Things and other multicultural images, 1992, Acrylic with mixed media on canvas. Photograph: Michael McKelvey
Larry Walker reflects on the gritty complexity of urban life through his chosen medium of collage. It is possible to read the works he has made over seven decades as cinematic frames through which to contemplate the walls and people of the cities where the artist has lived, be it New York City, Detroit, or Atlanta. The works are layered: some images peel away to reveal, while others cover and obscure. The range of Walker’s work is suggested by the titles of his series: Wall Series, Figurative Series, Passage Series, and Saguaro Series. The human element is present as a shadow that moves through time and space. Walker has said:
The Figurative series is predicated on the notion that humanity is inextricably bonded to its environmental space, that the human body is a structure which not only protects that which is within but metaphorically extends to question – to interface with – or (in some cases) to protect a variety of humanistic values and emotions.
—Larry Walker’s artist statement for an exhibition at Morehouse College in 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia. (From the MOCA GA archive)
Artist Larry Walker was born into a sharecropping family, the youngest of eleven children, in Franklin, Georgia (population 993 in the 2010 census), a town near the Alabama border. Walker’s father died when he only was six years old; his mother then moved the family to Harlem. Growing up in New York City, he attended the High School of Music and Art. After graduation, Walker moved to Detroit where he studied at Wayne State University and then taught art in the public schools. A life-long educator, Walker was a professor of art at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California for 19 years. In 1983, he moved his family to Atlanta, Georgia where he became director of the Art Department at Georgia State University until 2000, when he retired as emeritus. He is married to Gwen Walker, also an artist, with whom he shares three children, the youngest of whom is the artist, Kara Walker. This past May, artist Susan Cofer visited with Larry Walker at his studio outside of Atlanta in Stonecrest, Georgia.
Atlanta, Georgia 2023
Larry Walker, Pathetique... A Detroit Sonata, 2013, Mixed Materials/Diptych, Photograph: Michael McKelvey
Larry came out of his house to direct my parking off the street and onto his short driveway, a gentlemanly way of keeping me from getting too wet in the drizzle. In the six years since I had last visited, the trees had flourished and the new neighborhood east of Atlanta had settled. His house now seemed more deeply rooted. Once inside, my eyes were overwhelmed by the art on the walls, so many framed works begging for attention. From my previous trip, I knew that most were by family, close friends, and former students, as well as renowned artists, but we didn’t linger to study them.
Much to my surprise, I was directed to the stairs to the basement. I was surprised because Larry is 88 this year, and it wasn’t long ago that he’d had a stroke. His studio is on the lower level of the house, but he would not be stopped from going down there. A chairlift had been installed to give him a ride down the steep steps, a marvelous invention that must give some comfort to his wife and three adult children.
Once down, we passed through a space filled with art by others until we arrived in the familiar working space that was even more crowded than it had been when I’d visited previously. Framed works rested in stacks against every wall; a few were positioned on a bracket near his worktable. They seemed quite different from his previous work. Color is more apparent, a diptych painting has a warm yellow as a base to a flowering of hues. Below that, is a multicolored lithograph, and on his table, a new piece with luscious blues.
Larry Walker, Emergence II, 2014, mixed mediums , Photograph: Michael McKelvey
One of the questions I had planned to ask him was about a story he had told me years ago. He was working in a grocery store as a young man where he took pleasure in arranging the cans on the shelves. I had assumed the pleasure was from arranging the colors on the labels, but I hadn’t seen much color in his earlier works so I wanted to know what was the fun was. Structure, he said. It had always been the vertical and horizontal composition that he took from his grocery store experience that went into his art. And then he showed me how he has repeated this in works over the years. It’s in the Wall Series paintings and collages, in the lithographs, and now in his Tree of Life compositions, sometimes implied and sometimes quite obvious.
One by one, he took works out of the stacks and off the wall to show me these compositional structures and then to show me the complexities within each work. More metamorphosis than in Ovid. Birds and snakes become human heads and faces, profiles show up on pocketbooks of shadow women. Photos and scraps of magazines, and even a precious blob of dried paint grace the verticals. Larry says these “images should be enough to feed upon,” and as I looked along with him, I could see just what he meant.
Larry tells me 1982 was the first painting in his Wall Series. This was after I had asked him if his move from California to head the art department at urban Georgia State University had inspired his shift to images of city walls. In fact, he tells me, the question intrigued him enough to return to Harlem years ago to verify that his time spent there in his youth had been the main influence. A creative sign over a fruit vendor’s produce was enough to assure him that New York was indeed his muse. In paintings collaged with parts of magazines, newspapers, posters and street debris he tells tales of life in our times. Often, he includes a shadow form, sometimes a man bent over a cane, sometimes a woman passing in front of a wall. What is he telling us, I ask. The shadow, he replies, is the journey of mankind. He’s on a mission. He ignores what he is passing. He and the wall are separate things. This seems enigmatic to me, so I move the conversation along, but in retrospect, I think I understand. The layers of news, the famous of our time collaged onto Larry Walker’s walls, the slogans, the stuff we leave in our streets are all ephemeral, but mankind goes forward.
Larry Walker, Barrier Spirits #2, 2009, Mixed Media on canvas, shown at MOCA GA, photo: Michael McKelvey
This “mankind,” or “humankind” as Larry corrects himself, is at the forefront of all his work, he tells me. He pauses to say that the question driving his art is this: Why is it that mankind cannot get along with himself? And I pause to write this down. And what answer does he have? There is no good answer for it, he replies.
Over the years Larry has included the word spirit or spirits in many of his titles. I came prepared to ask him about this. Before answering, he tells me that he will soon have an exhibit in the Mason Fine Art Gallery in Atlanta titled Larry Walker: Enigmatic Messenger. It’s clear he’s not going to explain this title or any of his other uses of the words beyond saying that these spirits are no longer on Earth but “go on.” I suggest he began thinking of spirits during his time in Mexico, on a four-month sabbatical years ago. He relates that the Day of the Dead events might have opened a mental door, but he leaps to tell me that about 100 of his works were lost on the flight back to California, never to be found. An exhibit had been planned. The spirit of those works lives on.
In 2017, I made a portrait sculpture of Larry Walker called The Hero’s Journey. In researching the work, I read that his daughter Kara Walker had written that her father had been influenced both by Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols and by Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero’s journey. Going beyond that to interview his former students and dear friends, I noticed how many saw him as a hero. He taught for most of his life, graciously encouraging and inspiring his students to head off on their own journeys. So, I asked him, has any student taught you anything? Yes...the use of synthetic media. He enjoys playing with materials of all sorts. He happily showed me his latest find - a spray paint with a textural look. One of his newest works is a painting on layers of plexiglass. Some works he showed me had frayed cloth, others electric cords. Everything can be co-opted into his work.
Larry Walker, Soul Family, 2017, Collage, acrylic and mixed materials. Photograph: Michael McKelvey
Hoping to get a bit deeper into his works, I asked about his religious upbringing. His mother, he said, was deeply religious and saw to it that her children went to church and Sunday School every week. Then, at age eleven, he rebelled because he discerned some hypocrisy in the preaching to dress neatly for church, talk properly, and stay out of gangs, when that’s not what you saw in the daily surroundings you needed to negotiate.
After a few moments thought, he told me that his daughter had witnessed someone brought to tears in front of one of his paintings. This led me to tell him of my own tears in the presence of Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals in London and his telling me of his tears at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I told him I had read that Rothko said, "If you cry in front of my work, it’s because you saw God." I proposed that the same thing may have happened to the one who cried when looking at a Larry Walker.
My final question was in reference to a term I learned from Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic. The word is homophrosyne, like-mindedness. The thing that both Odysseus and Penelope and Mendelsohn’s long married parents shared. So, I say to Larry, after reading this to him, tell me about Gwen, his wife of 65 years. He hesitates to speak, but ultimately says, “she is my star, my guide, my love forever.” To me, that says it all.
Susan Cofer, Atlanta, Georgia 2023
Larry Walker was born in 1935 in Franklin, Georgia. Walker has been the subject of over 40 solo exhibitions and has participated in over 200 group exhibitions since 1971. His work is in the collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia and The Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.
Larry Walker Photo: Jerry Siegel
Susan Cofer is an Atlanta, Georgia, native. She attended the art school at Mrs. High’s house as a child. That school eventually became the Atlanta College of Art and the house gave way to the Woodruff Arts Center. She left Atlanta to study Art History at Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia. She received her BA degree in 1964.
Cofer taught art and art history at the Lovett School for several years in the 1960s and took studio art courses at Atlanta College of Art and Georgia State University. She had her first solo exhibition at the Heath Gallery in 1976. She has been exhibiting regularly since then.
Susan Cofer Photo: Deanna Sirlin