Back in January 2015, we visited Gwen and Larry Walker in their home in Lithonia, Georgia. The Walker home is a multi-faceted dwelling. While certainly “home,” it also houses their art collection, including works by Gwen and their daughter Kara along with numerous local artists, along with treasured memorabilia and Larry’s spacious studio. Over a light lunch they had graciously prepared, the Walkers reminisced about their early days and talked about how they ended up in Atlanta.
Earlier this summer, Larry had an exhibition (curated by Kara Walker) at Sikkema Jenkins in New York, which was favorably reviewed by Artforum. Another show, “Selected Works by Larry Walker,” just opened at the Welch Galleries at Georgia State University and will remain on view through November 11 (a reception for the artist will be held on September 8).
This Saturday, Atlanta Contemporary will honor Walker as its 2016 Nexus Award Winner. At 80, Larry Walker is hitting his stride.
STEPHANIE CASH: Did you return to Georgia for a job or because you had family here?
LW: It was because of the job. I also moved to California for a job. When I moved to Detroit, that was a different situation. My first college teaching job was in California. Well, let me start from the beginning. I graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York City, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. People said, “What are you going to do? Are you going to college?” I figured, you know, maybe I’ll go to college for a little communion, maybe I’ll join the service for a little bit, maybe I’ll keep working in the supermarket—I don’t know.
Meanwhile, my mother, who was ill, went to Detroit because my oldest brother lived there. He felt that he could take the best care of her, better than any of the rest of us — I’m the youngest of eleven. My father died when I was six months old and my mother never remarried. As the kids grew up, they dispersed here and there. They wanted me to come to Detroit, too. They were worried about me because I was the youngest. They said, come here and you can go to Wayne State University. That summer, I moved to Detroit and got a job at A&P supermarket. At the end of the summer I said, “Okay, I’m ready to go to school now.” Since I didn’t have my transcript or any application paperwork, I had to take an entrance exam, and I didn’t pass. So I went to the community college and transferred into WSU after a year. I eventually graduated from WSU and then went back for my Masters. Between all that stuff, Gwen and I met and got married.
Gwen Walker: Growing up in Detroit, and living in various places, my mother wanted to be sure that I went to the right high school. I’m a daydreamer, and my mother didn’t know what to make of me. So I went to the High School of Commerce, which was the type of education I needed, because one thing I hated was sitting in the classroom listening to someone talk. And so at Commerce, of course, you’re always doing something: typing, shorthand, all that good stuff. Halfway through the program, you get a job. So it was neat working four hours a day and making money and going to school. Eventually, I went to WSU. I was working full time, so I was only going to school at night. I met Larry in the supermarket. In high school, during my senior year, I stopped in the store and I was wearing my high school beanie. This tall guy was stocking cans and he asked me about the beanie and I thought, “Hmm… He meets the first qualification: he’s tall.” But I stopped going to the store and that was it.
LW: Yes, she stopped going to the store. Her mother would still come in, and one day I asked her, “Where’s your daughter? Did she get married?” She said, “No, she didn’t get married.” So of course her mother went home and said, “He asked about you!” So she magically appeared again!
GW: I had the world’s worst cold! My eyes were red. My nose was runny. He asked for my phone number as he was checking out my groceries. So I gave him my phone number.
LW: After finishing my undergraduate degree I was an elementary school art teacher in the Detroit School system while also working on a Masters degree. Once the MA was completed, I was moved to a high school position. I applied for teaching jobs in colleges and I received the opportunity from the University of the Pacific to take someone’s place who was going on sabbatical leave. So they flew me out for an interview. It was my first flight, first airport, and I met Bing Crosby! So I ended up taking the job, and the professor extended her leave to two years. The administration told me they wanted me to stay even if the professor came back. I ended up working there 19 years, moving from a temporary assistant professor to a full tenured professor, to chair of the department for seven years.
Once I left the chair position, I went back to teaching for another three years and came to realize that I missed the connections I had as department chair. As chair, I met people all over the country and there were a lot of opportunities and decisions to be pursued. I didn’t want to wait another three years to reapply for the position so I started looking around for other opportunities. I received a call from Georgia State University. The chair of their art department had retired and I was invited for an interview. Then I had another interview a few weeks later with the dean, who also invited my wife to accompany me. So I came in as chair of the art department. After a couple of years, we were able to change the name from Art Department to the School of Art and Design and my title changed from chair to director. I stayed in that position for 11 years. I finally gave up the director title but stayed at GSU to teach until I retired in 2000. I was there a total of 17 years.
SC: Were you always drawn to teaching?
CR: I read that you very logically started eliminating the jobs or positions that did not quite fit your personality, and the only thing left was the desire to teach. How did art play into that? What were your early influences that made you pursue an art education instead of another discipline?
LW: Well, I was always going to be an artist. I didn’t know what that meant, but I was going to be an artist. I have been drawing since I was six years old. When we lived in New York, I would look out the window — we lived in a six-story tenement — and I would see the people scurrying by and all of the streetcars. I would draw the apartment buildings and the people.
CR: So you married your passion with a vocation of sorts?
LW: Yes. We first lived with my sister Betty and her husband Charles when we moved to New York. Among other things, Charles did some artwork and he painted landscapes on glass. He painted backwards. He would put the detail in first and then cover it up with all of the other stuff. I would sit there and watch him, and that was kind of fascinating. I remember he gave me a book once. He was in the Merchant Marines for a while and therefore he had done some traveling. He gave me a book of van Gogh’s work. I would look through the book and somewhere along the way I came up with this notion that I wanted to be an artist. At one time I thought I’d be an architect, but someone told me that I’d have to get good math skills.
My first encounter with an art teacher was when I got to junior high school. Ms. Evans would encourage people to do things, and somewhere along the way she made the decision to send four kids from her class to the High School of Music and Art to take the entrance exam. I was one of those four kids. That was the first time I went to school with kids who were of different nationalities, from different areas. That was a wonderful experience, because everyone got along and everyone had goals that went along with either music or art. So I got a little influence here, a little influence there. I was introduced to the Museum of Modern Art, and I would go there on Sunday, and I would listen to what people would say about the art because I could learn from them. People standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting, you know, would say, “Isn’t it this? Isn’t it that?” or “I see this and I see that.” I would be looking and looking and think to myself, “I don’t see any of that! I’ve got so much to learn.” None of the stuff was there anyway, it was just stuff that they were seeing, but I didn’t know that at the time.
So the notion of being an artist was developed, enhanced, and engraved by the time I finished high school. That’s all I knew — art and the supermarket, and I had some wonderful experiences in the supermarket. In Detroit, I’m taking some art classes and organizing shelves at the supermarket so that they look artistic. I loved the days when there was nothing on the shelf, because I got to go in and organize them myself as long as I kept everything in order. So, one day I would arrange the cans in a ribbon pattern based on the color of the labels. The next time I might do a checkerboard pattern, but all of the peas, beans, and corn were grouped appropriately. It kept changing, though, and I had fun doing it. When I finished an aisle I was able to look at the different patterns from different angles, and I came to understand perspective and design.
SC: Did you ever take pictures of the shelves?
LW: No, but I did occasionally send students to the supermarket for a couple of assignments so that they could see and understand perspective and design. I learned an interesting thing when I moved to the University of the Pacific; one of the reasons they wanted me was because I had taught at an elementary school and a high school, and because I could also do artwork. So I was teaching life drawing, painting, and art education. The students in the school of education had to take at least one art class in order to meet their credentials. So I became the art educator. For the students who only had one class with me, it was my opportunity to spark their imaginations, to show and teach them everything I could: drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, etc. We made things out of cardboard boxes, found objects and scrap materials as well as the traditional art materials. [cont.]