On the day I visited Dimitri Walker in his Douglasville studio, he was hard at work putting the final touches on his “first real, professional artist’s website,” www.1painting.x10hosting.com.
“There’s one painting—sometimes it’s the one that will get your name out, or the one that’s your masterpiece, or the one that tells you you really shouldn’t be doing this. Sometimes it’s the same painting. Some of the paintings I learned from the most, that told me I could paint, weren’t the ones I thought were my best,” says Walker.
Take the painting on the homepage for example: Waiting for Eve. A partially-shadowed figure sits on a bench in a garden, proffering a ripe red apple while a rope coils, suggestively serpentine, beside him. Walker jabs a thumb in the painting’s direction.
“That painting isn’t my favorite, far from it. I had never painted a person to life before, and it was a self-portrait, and it was a fantasy thing.” He shakes his head. “But so many things went right with that painting that could have very easily gone wrong. That was a turning point for me.”
Walker, who just wrapped up a show at the Smyrna Public Library, says his style “leans toward Surrealism, but not so much that the idea behind [his work] is impossible—only extremely unlikely.” Equally drawn to still life, portrait, and landscape painting, Walker finds himself combining those three categories in his work.
“I do not restrict myself to just still life, just landscapes, or just portraits. I’ll put all of them in the same painting. I won’t be ‘Dimitri Walker the Landscape Artist’ or ‘Dimitri Walker the Portrait Artist,’” he says. “Just ‘an artist’ will be fine, thank you.”
Well, there is one other title he aspires to have.
“My goal is to be Professor Walker.”
After receiving his art degree from Reinhardt College last spring, Walker decided to take a year off to work and paint before resuming his studies at Georgia Southern University, where he will pursue his master’s degree. He’s passionate about teaching and mentoring other artists, particularly where basic craft is concerned. The fundamentals, he says, are paramount.
“I get the whole highfalutin’ idea about art, that anything could be considered art, but in 400 years, what’s going to stand the test of time? Not some paint splashed on a canvas with a piece of newspaper dragged through it. It’s going to be the Caravaggios, the Rembrandts. Andy Warhol, yes, he did Pop Art, but he painted Marilyn Monroe. See, that’s something people can relate to.”
Walker, who sold his first drawing at the age of seven to a friend of his mother’s, had no formal training in art himself until he won an art scholarship to Reinhardt in 1984. “Growing up with no outside influences except comic books and my own desire, and limited to notebook paper or the rare treat of a piece of copy paper, my early style was simply to render objects as faithfully as possible while still giving them my own flair,” Walker notes.
Unfortunately, his early college experience didn’t give him what he was looking for, and after two less-than-satisfactory years, he left school feeling he hadn’t advanced very far in his technique. Over the next two decades, his life and career took twists and turns. At one point he co-owned a gallery in southeast Atlanta. He did custom picture framing. He started his own business, Walker Design Consultants, which he still runs. He continued to draw and sell portraits, but still he felt creatively unfulfilled. Eventually, he found himself at a crossroads, in his life and in his art.
“I knew I had to make a major change,” he said. “I was 39. I had four kids. I wanted to show them how important an education is.” He re-enrolled at the school he’d left 21 years before, with classmates nearly half his age—and this time, everything clicked.
“The art department was much improved,” Walker said. “[They] helped me to focus on the importance of process and to investigate a subject by going beyond what something looked like and to question why I was painting it at all.”
Walker’s process involves painting in natural light as much as possible, reveling in his outdoor studio. “This ambient light just comes from everywhere. There’s no shadows, not even my own shadow to mess anything up.” He uses “canvases” he constructs from recycled wood and pressboard, textured for interest.
“I get kind of rough when I’m painting,” he confesses. “I need something that can take me getting a little abusive with it.”
Walker works in bursts of activity.
“I’ve probably done upwards of 60 paintings in the last year, but for months I may not pick up a paintbrush, and then I’ll do five in a week,” he says. “I usually paint anywhere from 3 to 5 things at a time. To keep a little life and a little movement in everything, I have to keep moving around.” Walker paces from one painting (a sunflower) to another painting (a landscape) to a third, tracing for me the repetition of colors from one piece to the next. That means, he explains, that he was doing them at the same time from the same palette (a sort of “CSI” demonstration for the art world).
This third painting, a still life marked with abstract red streaks, turns out to be another of those “one paintings” his website references. Walker tells how inspiration struck him as he was looking at the pattern of stones on a friend’s mantel. He started to paint the stones, but found the resulting work to be “boring.”
“My daughter came in with a feather she’d found outside. I said, put that feather on the mantel. I painted the feather and looked at it. Still boring.” In frustration, he slashed at the painting, scattering red paint across it. He found he liked the way it looked, so he tried it again, more deliberately. That serendipitous painting became Beginning Mess and inspired Walker to work in a whole new direction, combining natural organic and inorganic elements such as feathers, fruit, bricks, and rocks with abstract touches of color.
“That thing gave birth to my whole senior show,” Walker says. “This one painting gave birth to 18, things I never would have done otherwise.”
“What inspires me to paint … I found when I was younger that it was my outlet, the thing I can do. If you love books, you might end up working in a library. If you like to drive fast, you might end up in NASCAR or else on Cops. It’s just part of me, like my eye color or my height and weight. One piece of it is, I’m just somebody who paints. So I guess my inspiration would be doing what I gotta do to be me.”