Art Talk with Kara Walker
Kara Walker. Photo © Chuck Close.
"I think there are many open-ended questions that artists can pose and we can ask communities to feel empowered enough to reply, respond, rebel, and feel amazed by the relentless spiraling of thought and image and action that is the artist's profession." --- Kara Walker
California native Kara Walker grew up in Georgia, where her artist father taught at Georgia State University. As Walker explains in the interview below, she knew from an early age that she wanted to follow in her father's footsteps. The youngest recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant to date, Walker has shown her work nationally and internationally, including shows at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, New York's Guggenheim Museum, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. She also represented the U.S. at the 2002 Sao Paulo Biennale. Walker works in a variety of media, though she is best known for her wall-sized installations of provocative paper-cut silhouettes exploring issues of gender, race, and class. We spoke with Walker via e-mail about her version of the artist's life, a transformative encounter at DC's National Portrait Gallery, and why art openings should have food.
NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?
KARA WALKER: My life is a life that's both ordinary and extraordinary. As a single (divorced) mother of one there are innumerable domestic duties and chores and pleasures, which I am always trying to balance with the intensely demanding and often egocentric demands of working on my work. For the most part I have a pretty workable studio and travel schedule and routine, thanks in part to the involvement of my Ex in our daughter's life. But my life as an artist has never been a bohemian one in the sense that I live completely outside the quotidian. In fact my work has always existed in relation to the ordinary. The themes and methods that I use and reference: silhouettes, cartoons, dime novels all speak directly to the the psychology of domestic life. I do go to the studio every day, and I spend time reading or trying to research my interests. Sometimes I bring my projects or sketchbooks home so I can keep the thread alive in between making dinner or in the late night hours. The days that I have to myself I fill with a combination of studio work and spending time with my equally busy friends.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or experience with the arts?
WALKER: My earliest memories of my childhood in Stockton, California, revolve around art and artists. My dad is a painter and used to keep his studio in the garage. I recall sitting on his lap when I was around three years old and watching him draw. I can clearly remember thinking to myself that I wanted to do that too, when I got big. My dad always encouraged us (my sister, brother and I---even our mom) to draw or basically find a way to be creative. My favorite memories from my early childhood are of going to art exhibits at the university where he worked or, occasionally, to other art venues around town. Mostly I liked opening receptions, which always had butter crackers and little cheese cubes with toothpicks in them, fantasy punch (which is just ginger ale poured over orange or lime sherbet), and canned black pitted olives that you can fit on all of your fingers. It's a shame most gallery events I attend in New York have no food at them, but I am sure I would make a spectacle of myself with all those olives. In any case I always made an effort to spend a few seconds looking at the artworks before hitting the hors d'oeuvres.
NEA: What's been your most significant arts experience to date?
WALKER: Well this is a difficult question to answer because there are so many experiences in my career that are significant, and then there are moments of profundity and surprise that occurred when looking at other work. Once when I was in college at [Atlanta College of Art] some friends and I drove up to Washington, DC to see some shows---saw the Sigmar Polke show at the Hirshhorn [Museum]. I wound up seeing Mike Kelly for the first time there, too. These were among the memorable events for me, but, more significantly, on that trip I found myself in the National Portrait Gallery and realized that I loved genre and history painting. I felt a deep longing for the certainty of traditional painting technique, which sadly I was not learning at school. I almost felt guilty about this desire for old-school painting as if I were turning my back on modernism. In fact, my feelings about early American art opened up my eyes to very idea of the modern. Through this retroactive search I began to piece together the circle of ideas that formed our national attitude and in a broad sweeping sense, created the conditions for my being---an African-American woman studying the art of the past.
NEA: What decision has had the most impact on your arts career?
WALKER: To continue with the statement above, this cycle of searching the past to understand my present stuck with me, so that the biggest, and by far hardest decision as I embarked on graduate school was to dismantle everything I thought I knew about art, and start over from a different place. This meant a kind of forced analysis of all my motives for making art, searching and researching the social and physical constraints on my being, and creating a practice that was at once wholly specific to these (racial, gendered) limits, but not beholden to them.
NEA: What does it mean to you to be an African-American artist? A woman artist?
WALKER: What it means is always having to navigate the limits contained in these titles. Even to escape their impact, an artist must pass through this channel. Expectations on the performance of race and gender are simultaneously high and low, depending on who is looking or asking. I prefer to keep all the options in the air, to try and better understand the conundrum that inequality creates---not just in culture, but internally.
NEA: Your work deals with ideas of power, whether those are dynamics of race, of gender, etc. yet the medium you often employ is seemingly genteel. Can you talk about that tension between form and subject? And also about the relationship between tradition and innovation in your work?
WALKER: The silhouette technique announced itself to me as I was researching the cultural identity of early America. In many ways as a form it succeeded in being both a minimal reduction and a means to cover a lot of territory. With the technique one is talking both about the shadow as a form by making a paper cut, but also shadow as the subconscious in psychology. I surprised myself, actually, when I began working [with] how well it suited my personality, sort of polite, mute... and how well it seemed to exemplify the experience of women and blacks as second class citizens. This was a craft form that was (and is) everywhere, but rarely attains a high status. Silhouette cutting for me was my rebellion against high art and painting and to me a way of undermining the patriarchal tendency in western art.
NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
WALKER: Another difficult question, but one I have been trying to answer recently, especially in the light of the "Occupy Wall St." movement (which I didn't exactly participate in, except obliquely). I think artists at different levels in their career or 'presence' are often called upon to abuse their talents in communities, either speaking about art or making art for or with school groups or whatever---for sometimes noble but often facile reasons. Sorry to say, but I really think making art is kind of a holistic endeavor and artists are at their best when they are challenging communities to solve problems, not just to make more art or feel "inspired." Artists can choose to ingratiate themselves with people and places that interest them, beyond galleries and art worlds. (Although we often don't; it's a tricky terrain because the practice of art is also very private and solitary.) As for me, I have been exploring ways to better help other younger artists, some with and some without formal education. I opened a temporary project space near my studio for half a year in 2010 and a range of types of activities happened there---concerts, discussion groups, exhibitions. As an experiment it was quite interesting, and my thoughts are that it needs to happen again, this year, but with more outreach, to keep it from being too insular.
NEA: What do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?
WALKER: This is at the heart of a question I asked of a crowd of mostly artists at an event/talk I staged this past fall called "Occupy Kara Walker." I wanted to try to speak through my experience as a highly in demand, commercially successful artist. One whose work has taken into account the successes and failures of political protest art, and whose work has itself been the object of protest. One of my queries was what do art audiences want? And are artists Obligated to respond to those needs? What do we expect of art, and what are the limits of those expectations? I think there are many open-ended questions that artists can pose and we can ask communities to feel empowered enough to reply, respond, rebel, and feel amazed by the relentless spiraling of thought and image and action that is the artist's profession.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” What do you see as missing from the world of visual arts?
WALKER: There aren't too many opportunities anymore for artists to simply practice out loud. What I mean is right now there is an art world in place that emphasizes graduate school as the place to expand ideas, meet your peers, and, in many cases, learn to network, become a professional. One thing that is missing is a non-commercial space outside of the studio that doesn't cost the artist anything---besides what gets put into the work---to generate ideas and receive comment and critique. I think more non-profit galleries or art theory programs (like the Whitney Program in NY) with challenging missions and strong leadership are what's needed today to diversify the field of art. Not everyone can afford graduate school! It's important I think to reduce the debt that artists going to school will face, by giving structured and unstructured time, social and private space, and a platform to rethink how to operate as an artist.
NEA: What should be part of the work visual artists as a community are making but isn’t?
WALKER: I think more work should have been done about our two recent wars. Perhaps it was there, but I didn't see a whole upsurge of interest in the topic of American missions abroad.
NEA: What does the phrase "Art Works" mean to you?
WALKER: I guess I can see a couple of intended meanings there, one being the work, the actual labor of making art---one thing that often goes missing when talking about an artist's process---the remarkable fact of things being made, often by hand. But of course also there is an idea that art as a pursuit embraces so many facets of life that it figuratively "works" on the spirits and minds of those who encounter it.
Want to learn more about Kara Walker's work? Visit the Walker Art Center web exhibit The Art of Kara Walker.