Our April 24 artist of the day is Illinois painter John Walker. We took this opportunity to ask him a few questions about how his work, what's new, and how he's coping with the current situation.
KL: How are handling the stay at home order?
JW: One of the ﬁrst lessons I learned working as a freelance illustrator years ago is that keeping to a regular schedule is essential. I’ve always had an in home studio and like most artists work alone so there has been very little change in my day to day routine. However the psychological climate has obviously been challenging with all the pandemic news and its corresponding fallout. I ﬁnd the best way to handle the situation is to just keep going. And while a lot of my ideas come during breaks, while walking the dog for example, I strongly believe in the old idea that your muse must ﬁnd you working.
KL: What are you currently working on in the studio?
JW: I’ve recently completed a piece for the upcoming Mermay show, which is a bit different from my usual work, and of course this little portrait of a birdman poet done in my faux fresco style. There’s a series of small pieces for a late May show on the board and plans for some new paintings in the concept/sketch stage.
KL: Do you use reference photos or does most of your work come from your imagination?
JW: Ah, a great question because it directly leads to my current body of work. I’ve always loved to paint portraits and for a time worked in a very realistic, more or less straight forward style. Photo reference was a necessity as models sitting for extended periods of time wasn’t an option. And while the photos were primarily a jumping off point with changes and additions made along the way, I began to feel the work was becoming stale and needed a larger shot of imaginative thinking. After a period of self reﬂection, and a couple false starts, I began working almost exclusively from my imagination reaching back to what I loved about creating art back when I was in art school. It might best be described as recapturing a lost attitude. I then began combining painting with wood working and sculpting and other interests and skills I picked up over time. Now I call on reference photos for certain situations, and have some props and things in studio that I draw from directly, but nearly all of my work springs from my own thoughts and dreams.
KL: We are always in awe of not only your paintings but your incredible handmade frames. What typically comes ﬁrst, the painting or frame design?
JW: I work on the two simultaneously to some degree. Many times I have an idea in mind and I begin creating the frame by simply laying out wood in a proportion I feel will work well for the painting. Then I cut and assemble pieces to make a face frame. The painting panel, typically 1/4” MDF, is trimmed to ﬁt the face frame and from that point I work on the painting and the frame both. So I might cut side pieces for the frame and glue them together and while the glue is drying I can work on the painting. I often place the painting into the frame when they are both nearly complete and see what other additions, like sculpted pieces or painted scrollwork I want to add to the frame.
But there are times when I do draw up a working plan for the frame, often based on the material I’m working with. For example if I’m creating a piece with opening doors I may need to take the width of my door material and then work backwards to determine what size the cabinet will be, and so on. In more complex pieces, like “Reliquary of a Warrior Angel”, the entire piece was ﬁrst mocked up with card stock so I could ﬁgure out how in the world I was going to make doors that turned into wings!
Recent pieces like “The Birdman Cabinet” or “Reliquary of the Azure Angel” were based off of existing cabinets. In the case of the “Azure Angel”, the base was a 1939 radio cabinet. I added painted panels and sculpted pieces, all custom made to blend with the original wood while making it into something new. I like to add some surprises too. With “Birdman” I created a lift out false panel to hide the secret contents of its imagined spell caster owner, then ﬁlled that space with sculpted bones and found objects that helped to tell a story. .
KL: Who are your biggest inﬂuences?
JW: I consider myself a storyteller as much as anything else so N.C. Wyeth, Maxﬁeld Parrish, Dean Cornwell, and all the other Golden Age illustrators are some of my favorite artists. Their ability to communicate with paint while creating work that stands as ﬁne art is incredibly inspiring. I also like the classical look of renaissance paintings and the compositional complexity of artists like Bosch or Bruegel. I have a love of cutaway drawings and scientiﬁc renderings too. One of my favorite books as a kid was a high school biology text with see through ﬂip pages that allowed you to “dissect” a frog and see the inner layout of the human body. The idea of peeling away outer layers to glimpse what’s inside plays a huge part in my work. .
KL: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not creating art?
JW: I used to be into antique cars in a big way. One memorable ride is a 1972 VW Bug that I painted pearl yellow with airbrushed psychedelic graphics and I currently have a 1965 Impala that I love driving. But my latest project is a 1962 Rek-O-Kut Rondine turntable. I restored and repainted the turntable deck, built a new plinth from some reclaimed oak, then repaired a 60’s Grado wood tonearm for it. It’s part of a vintage stereo system I’ve put together and my vinyl has never sounded sweeter!
KL: Do you have any advice for new artists?
JW: Find your own voice. It can be a very difﬁcult thing to do. But we all have a unique personality, or skill set, or perspective, and when you allow that to show through you make your work distinct. Learn your craft so that you can realize the vision you have. Then show the world something they haven’t seen before, you..