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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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07/20/2005 Archived Entry: "An Interview with J. Michael Walker"

Interview with J. Michael Walker

J. Michael Walker is a Los Angeles-based artist whose work is grounded in his decades-long immersion in the rural Mexican culture into which he married over twenty-five years ago. He is the recipient of more than a dozen grants, artist residencies, fellowships, and public art commissions; and has participated in more than eighty-five exhibitions in the United States and Mexico, including solo shows at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art, at Harvard University; el Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, in Mexico City; and the Arkansas Arts Center. He is also a California Humanities Scholar. He very kindly gave this interview via email to Ginger Mayerson of J LHLS and Kathy Gallegos of Avenue 50 Studio in July of 2005.

Ginger Mayerson: What are you working on these days?

J. Michael Walker: Around mid-March I completed the latest installment of my ongoing public art project, "All the Saints of the City of the Angels", which is a poetic and visual exploration of the cultural heritage of Los Angeles. At that point I wanted to try something different -- and that certainly is what occurred. I brought a dozen or so large square canvases into my studio and began envisioning a theme to paint. I had recently been spending quite a bit of time listening -- and I would emphasize "listening" -- to my close female friends as they spoke of what they're going through, what they like and dislike, what they put up with and are tired of, what they wish they were doing, etc. All those thoughts and sentiments somehow coalesced into this strange but charming hybrid of the Geisha Mermaid, who became the focus of (so far) 20 paintings.

As an artist I work intuitively, but analyzing it, I think that the elegance an erudition of geishas married with the freedom and earth-connectedness of mermaids helped create a thematic voice for a lot of what I heard my women friends expressing. I've just fallen in love with Geisha Mermaids -- and I am deeply moved by the positive response they have elicited in others, and in women in particular.

JMW: Over the years I have concentrated in works on paper, chiefly in a technique I developed of drawing with color pencils to create a surface impression of oil painting. For the "All the Saints" series I taught myself to paint with Sumi ink and bamboo brush -- which I love for its improvisational draftsman-like immediacy. I have also worked a bit in ceramics (I created a large ceramic tile mural for the Weingart Center, on San Pedro Street, in Skid Row). And, for the Autry Museum's upcoming exhibition on Yosemite, I created a large digital photo print. Regardless, I consider myself to be a dibujante, someone who draws.

GM: Did you have formal training in art or are you self-taught?

JMW: There are certainly moments when I wish that I did have formal art training! Much as I longed to attend art school fresh out of high school, that was not a financial option for me. My alternative was to educate myself, eventually acquiring hundreds of art books, and buying myself a box of color pencils and teaching myself how to use them. That said, I believe there are real advantages -- along with the obvious disadvantages - to being self-taught: perhaps the principal advantage is not confronting a deterring voice.

GM: What artists or art periods, if any, do you feel have influenced or inspired your work?

JMW: My influences range widely. Since forever I have loved the work of the so-called Flemish Primitives, such as Gerard David, Hans Memling, Petrus Christus, and so forth. Similarly, I really identify with the painters of the Mexican Virreinal, such as Miguel Cabrera, Jose de Paez, the dozens of anonymous authors of crowned nun portraits, and so on. Early Spanish, Flemish, Irish and German illuminated manuscripts are glorious treasures, as are the woodblock prints of some of the Japanese Ukiyo-e artists, such as Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Hokusai. I am humbled by the work of self-taught artists, like Howard Finster, Gertrude Morgan, Rev, Mary LeRavin, and dozens more too marvelous to believe. And I love the primitive graphic arts of the Americas, such as broadsides, engraved holy images, and early advertising. I could go on: tintypes, glass slides and stereoviews; Mexican folk art; African masks and Benin sculptures…

GM: What do you consider the most important aspects and experiences in your development as an artist?

JMW: I think every opportunity to exhibit or to create work for a commission or installation affords an opportunity for growth. I relish the chance to work in a media which is new to me, for I find I develop a new visual style in response to the materials. This has been the case with my work as I've moved, over the years, from color pencil on paper, to Sumi ink and acrylic wash on paper or canvas; to ceramic glazes; to linoleum prints and lithography; to ceramic tile murals; to digital photography; etc.

Also, I've come to see it as a blessing -- however unwished for -- that I've labored in relative obscurity, so that I've not experienced the pressure that other artists face, of being stylistically or thematically consistent.

GM: How has your personal and artistic background influenced your art?

JMW: I doubt anything has influenced my work as much as personal experience, from growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the tail-end of segregation; to living in rural Mexico off and on for several years, and marrying into the culture there; to immersing myself in the imagery and traditions of Mexican Catholicism; to having an incredibly supportive, intelligent and fun wife; to moving to Los Angeles and slowly falling under its spell; to becoming the father of an extraordinarily gifted and goodhearted son; and probably a number of other experiences I've not yet singled out as influential.

Kathy Gallegos: Does your culture or the Chicano culture here in Los Angeles have any influence in your art?

JMW: Soon as I stepped foot into la Sierra Tarahumara -- the region people here tend to know as the Copper Canyon -- thirty-odd years ago, I felt like I had come home for the first time. I was spiritually and culturally transformed by the experience; and that profound and positive impact has been everlasting. In the same way that a person from another land can come to the U.S. and find themselves truly a hybrid of the two cultures, I found the same to be my experience, as so much of what I came to intimately know in rural Mexico seeped deep into my heart and soul. Oddly, I feel more like an immigrant here than when I am in Mexico.

That said, I have almost always found that the artists, writers and other intellectuals of the Chicano and Latino communities here in Los Angeles have treated me as "one of them." No one seems to question my right to express myself in the way that I do, as an essentially culturally Latino artist (if, perhaps, of "immigrant" status). I think my art speaks for itself.

GM: What are the most important aspects and experiences in your practice of art now?

JMW: For at least a decade now, most of my art has been woman-centered, which is to say that I try to portray women in such a way so that their interior beauty is conveyed together with their exterior beauty. As well, I have been laboring for over five years now on artworks that explore the cultural heritage of Los Angeles, because I find our history here to be quite compelling, a rich vein to tap into for narrative and symbolic pieces, and, of course, illuminating in the ways that such art might address contemporary situations.

Together with those thematic concerns, I find I increasingly welcome the intrusions of chance into my work. Telephone calls while I'm drawing or painting away in the studio often provide an unexpected yet influential opportunity to reconsider the direction of a piece. Similarly, I am always attentive to the chance comment from someone I encounter while I'm working on a painting or drawing; I never know when something said ill find its way into guiding my approach when I return to the studio to work. The music I listen to while working also definitely impacts the work. And, of course, the most exciting moments for me as artist are when I disappear; become a vessel for the painting, and permit it to happen without my conscious intervention.

GM: Are there any shows in the LA area or elsewhere you've seen lately that have had an impact on you?

JMW: I'm truly a terrible person to ask this question, because I am so utterly reluctant to leave the studio to visit museums and galleries. Unfortunately, galleries and museums tend to be open during the same hours I consider to be my studio "work hours" -- from 9 to 5 -- and I am reticent to take time away from the studio for that. It would be easier to recall exhibitions I did not see which I truly meant to see: chief among these would be the recent show down in San Diego, of 2000 years of Mexican portraiture. I can't believe I never took the time to drive down to see that, but I was too busy working on my Geisha Mermaids.

There is what must be incredible exhibition of work by Basquiat opening now at MOCA and I hope I take the tie to drink that one in. I believe Basquiat is one of the truly inspired draftsmen of the 20th century: there is such an extraordinarily broad and profound richness to his work, thematically, culturally, and visually. In a sense, almost everything that preceded Basquiat appears on some level in his paintings and drawings; it is really remarkable.

KG: If you could talk with younger artists, how would you explain the role of inspiration and self-discipline? And, which is more important?

JMW: I think it all comes down to passion. If you have a passion for something -- like art -- then both inspiration and self-discipline will find their ways into your soul and your work. It truly baffles me when I consider that other people sometimes do not have a passion for something. I have always known -- literally, always -- that I am an artist, so there was never any question in my mind that I was placed on earth to create art -- even if the kinds of art that I might create at a given point in time is at odds with the art I would create earlier or later in life.

I'm a great believer in silence; I try to create quiet sorts of "openings" for ideas and concepts to enter my forethought, or for images to catch my eye and suggest an approach. Similarly, when I find myself stuck on the next step to take in a piece I'm working on, I sleep. That isn't a very evolved notion, perhaps, but I find that if I lie on the studio floor and sleep for, say, five minutes, "I" get out of the way somehow, and my subconscious resolves the issue or conflict. I awake refreshed and the direction is clear.

Working frequently over the years on very time-consuming drawings has given me a different approach to time as well. Many of my drawings in color pencil on paper are quite large and take months to complete -- four years ago I created a seven feet high by ten feet wide drawing for Seattle University that took six months to complete. Not only did the aforementioned silences, naps, and interruptions find their way into my work habits, I also learned that I should take advantage of every given moment to work. This meant that, if I only had twenty minutes one day to draw, I would go into my studio and draw on the piece for twenty minutes: I wouldn't complain that it was too little time to accomplish anything. And it worked -- I developed a real appreciation for time and opportunities to work.

GM: What are you reading and/or listening to these days?

JMW: Much as I love both poetry and fiction, I must confess that most of my reading directly relates to my art. Therefore, I mainly read nonfiction reference material, principally about Southern California history and, another of my longtime passions, the representation of people of color in art and other imagery. I've been reading "Lands of Promise and Despair," a collection of articles, journals and essays about other peoples' experiences of California up to the United States takeover; and an interesting book called "Colored Pictures", about the depiction of blacks in popular media in the US up to the early twentieth century. I am always reading nineteenth century travel books about Southern California (I've acquired a little collection), and they are invariably fascinating and depressingly racist. Most recently I've been reading books about geishas and Ukiyo-e prints, in relation to my Geisha Mermaids series. Oh, and haiku.

Musically, there tends to be a bit of a soundtrack I associate with each body of work I create. For most of the Geisha Mermaids series I listened to Coldplay, Beck's Sea Change, a couple of Joseph Arthur albums, a great collaboration between Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, and this wonderful singer-songwriter I recently discovered, Angela Correa. I am particularly excited about Angela because her writing and music are so singular, and because she has agreed to perform a concert in honor of las Geisha Mermaids, at Avenue 50 Studio, on July 29. That will be fabulous!

GM and KG: Thank you, Michael.

JMW: My pleasure. Thanks for your interest.

Mr. Walker has a show of paintings at Avenue 50 Studio, 131 N. Ave 50, in Highland Park until August 7 HELD OVER to August 21. Please call 323-258-1435 for gallery hours or visit the website at www.Avenue50Studio.com.

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