The Work of Being Artists

John Walker is a giant in the world of contemporary painting, but that’s not what counts for the students in his graduate CFA program. What they need, he says, is their own vision.

by John Stomberg

John Walker & Jason Chase
Graduate student Jason Chase (CFA’03) and John Walker talk about Chase’s photorealist painting of a suburban Colorado Springs strip mall. Photograph by Vernon Doucette.  

John Walker enters a crowded seminar room on the third floor of the old Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Avenue just before eight a.m. Although roughly renovated, the building once used for selling and repairing automobiles retains much of its former identity — high ceilings, lots of cement, car ramps. The CFA school of visual arts graduate painting program occupies most of this floor. The areas nearest to the windows have been divided into studios; the interior seminar room has four high white walls with gallery-style lighting. A student finishes tacking a drawing to one of the few remaining spaces on the three walls displaying her semester’s work.

Walker is here for that seasonal rite of passage in every serious art program, the end-of-semester “crits.” These group critiques oblige students to display and defend their work to professors, classmates, and invited guests — usually other artists or critics. Lively discussions follow brief presentations, with the goal of keeping the dialogue impersonal and productive. The professor conducting the session must balance honest criticism with sensitivity to the artist. Tears are not uncommon, although they more often occur privately during the weeks that follow.

When Walker runs a crit, he speaks last and it’s his opinion everyone waits to hear. He neither minces words nor wastes them. His strong accent — midlands England broadened by years in Australia — can make him sound gruff at first. He has a laborer’s build and close-cropped hair, enjoys cigars, and appears unconcerned with his wardrobe. This grizzled exterior is at odds with the eloquence of his critique and his genuine concern for his students. This morning, after letting the first discussion run its course, he deftly mixes praise with advice to the student to establish clear goals for her paintings and to be much more rigorous in her self-appraisal. Without favoring one kind of art over another, Walker looks at how his artists are progressing individually with the aesthetic problems they’ve set for themselves, usually with his guidance.

Red Cove No.9
  Red Cove No. 9, 2001. Oil on canvas, 84” x 66”.
With the barest inventory of marine landscape — tide pool, mudflat, horizon, sky — Walker brings out the fury of the departing sun setting the wet sand ablaze with the day’s final hurrah. Walker has been returning to this Maine cove for the past decade.

It is nearly nine before the first student removes her work and a second nervously begins hanging his. The crits extend well into that evening, and will for the next two days. Students are exhausted but exhilarated by the process. The heady atmosphere, the comments of the participants — aspiring artists, experienced artists, and critics — lies at the heart of the program. For months students have worked alone in their studios, spurred on by Walker’s private visits. Now they are submitting their art to an intensive hour of evaluation. Defining and defending their work in these rigorous sessions forces them to directly confront and assess their progress since the last crit, and often indicates possible avenues to pursue.

Mixed Messages
Each year hundreds of young artists vie for one of the twelve places in Walker’s graduate painting program, making it one of the most competitive in the United States. “The students are picked for their diversity,” he says, “that is, their range of artistic approaches.” He doesn’t try to teach them to paint a certain way, but he does insist that they become painters. “Looking at my work is not important for my students,” he says. “The way they behave as artists is important.” He stresses to them that conveying what they have to say takes dedication and long, lonely hours in the studio confronting honestly the complexities of paint and canvas. Walker’s own life demonstrates that painters paint.

Graduate painting students arriving at BU have usually been forewarned by their undergraduate advisors of the demands they will face. Walker expects his students to paint full-time. They are assigned individual studios and have twenty-four-hour access. Most need it.

Can painting be taught? “You can teach students to be driven,” Walker says, the response of an artist whose productivity and restless exploration of new styles is legend. With a studio next to his students’, Walker demonstrates daily the key requisite of painting: hard work. Most mornings he is in the studio by eight, and often there well past eight at night, dividing his time between teaching and his own painting. He has several one-man shows each year, evidence of his productivity.

NH No. 6
NH No. 6, 1977. Mixed media, 92” x 68”.
Walker’s early reputation was based on large-scale abstractions such as this. He painted abstract forms as if they had volume and took up space inside his compositions. He also often used collaged canvas elements to reinforce that these were not pictures of shapes, but were shapes, thereby obscuring the line between real forms and images of forms.

Passchendaele II
Passchendaele II, 1996. Oil on canvas, diptych, each panel 96” x 84”.
Summarizing Walker’s personal visual vocabulary for his World War 1 series, this painting includes references to his father, who fought in the war, to all the soldiers led into battle like sheep to slaughter, to the crosses at the Somme battlefield memorial, and to the epic World War 1 poem “In Parenthesis” by David Jones. Jones took the quote scrawled on this painting from Aneirin, a sixth-century Welsh poet, who describes the battlefield as “Death’s sure meeting place.” Placing Aneirin, Jones, and World War 1 in a contemporary painting, Walker explores the eternal enigmas of war, especially love and loss, life and death, transgression and redemption.

Walker came to New York in 1970 as a Harkness Fellow, a prestigious award affording English graduate students the opportunity to travel or study in the United States. He soon began showing in New York at the Betty Parsons Gallery and for the past decade has shown at the Knoedler Gallery. When he came to United States, he began painting abstract forms with a realistic, physical presence. This hybrid of abstraction and figuration earned rave reviews and refuted then-current claims that painting was no longer a viable art form.

In the early 1980s he moved to Australia as a visiting artist. He became dean of the School of Art at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne, establishing the curriculum and shaping the entire program while teaching. He collaborated with other professors and incorporated indigenous art into the mix of forms he taught. This combination of teaching and painting has proved essential to his work with the graduate program in Boston as well.

Walker began teaching at BU in 1993. He shares his enthusiasms with his students. Poetry, for example, has long been an inspiration, not as a source of subject matter, but rather for the emotions that come from a great poem. Much of his work over the last decade has been inspired by World War I poets Wilfred Owen and David Jones. He has also worked with Rosanna Warren, BU’s Emma Ann MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities.

In a collaboration with the University’s Creative Writing Program, Walker has partnered students from the two programs to work on an annual book project. One poet and one painter produce a single handmade artists’ book. The results amaze everyone who sees the small exhibition of the books each spring.

Clammer's Marks
Clammer’s Marks, John’s Bay, 2003. Oil and mixed media on linen, 96” x 84”. Reflections, Low Tide, 2002. Oil and mixed media on linen, 84” x 66”.
Walker’s painting continues to be strongly autobiographical, even his landscapes, which have less to do with specific locations than with mapping the topography of his emotional responses to the place and time. This accounts for the wide divergence in their look and feel despite obvious compositional similarities. Much the way classical musicians play the same piece with varying inflections each time, Walker depicts the same scene — the water, the island, and in the darker painting, the moon and its reflection — with a variable emotional heat.

Walker’s personal approach to painting landscapes informs his curriculum. He loves long sojourns in the wilderness. Each fall and spring, he brings his class to Maine for a week of outdoor painting. Whether a student favors pure abstraction or figure painting, Walker insists that all first-year students go on the trip, because he feels that painting directly from nature is immensely beneficial. Most return season after season. Light and shadow as they appear in nature inform every decision a painter faces, as Walker’s students come to realize firsthand.

The emphasis on painting sets the University’s M.F.A. program apart. “This is a place you come to paint,” Walker says. “That is incredible in America today. Painting holds the program together: the belief that painting remains viable and important.” In terms of what is accepted and what is technologically possible, there are many more routes for artistic expression available than there were thirty years ago. But painting prevails. Many art schools today offer thriving video, installation, and various conceptual approaches to art-making, with the painting department considered anachronistic. After decades of critical discourse about the end of painting’s significance, a quick survey of current exhibitions from New York to Tokyo proves otherwise. Walker and his students avoid the debate on painting’s viability — they just get to work.

On the morning after the crits have ended, that is exactly what they are doing. The large room is empty now, save for the stray bottle or cracker box from last night’s post-crit reception. Students are in their studios again, working with renewed insight, inspiration, and motivation. The buzz of a table saw merges with the bang of a hammer as a few rearrange their studios. It is time to start over. Some are drawing, some stretching fresh canvas over newly cut wooden frames, some studying their old work from a new vantage point. It’s only a few months to the next round of crits. Walker will be by soon. He will not say much today — just check that they are all cleaning up after the storm and returning to the work of being artists.

John Stomberg (GRS’90,’99) is associate director for administration and programming at the Williams College Museum of Art, and former director of the Boston University Art Gallery