Art Facts: Bill Walker accentuates the negative | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Art Facts: Bill Walker accentuates the negative

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"No job, no place to stay. No job, no place to eat. No job, no clothes to buy. No job, no bus to ride. No job, no job, no job, yet they hold on, keeping the hope alive, keeping the faith alive . . . the poor, homeless, unemployed, sick American will tell you with a certain kind of pride, 'America, America, I'm proud to be one of you.' America, America, wake up. Do you hear them?"

--from a prose poem by artist Bill Walker

Bill Walker is best known as a muralist. In 1967, he came up with the idea for the Wall of Respect at 43rd Street and Langley, Chicago's first public mural. Between 1967 and 1978, he painted about 20 murals around the city. In 1969, he founded International Walls, Inc., an organization that promoted similar murals nationally and internationally.

Walker's murals, such as Wall of Truth and Black Love, were about black brotherhood and community pride. They often featured black folk heroes and scenes of idyllic family life, which were sometimes contrasted with scenes of crime and despair.

But Walker, gruff and stubborn at 60, doesn't like to talk about his murals. He doesn't paint them anymore; now he paints and draws on small canvases. And these new works no longer show heroes and happy families; instead, they portray gritty street life and poverty: pimps and pushers in big hats and big cars, hungry mothers and children staring into store windows, gaunt families gathered around nearly bare dinner tables, victims of Ku Klux Klan violence, junkies buying on the streets, gang fights. "Dope kills, dope kills, get yourself together," proclaims one drawing, though most have no words.

Forty-four of these new works, along with six photos of his murals, make up Images of Conscience: The Art of Bill Walker, currently showing at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration. The exhibition opened three years ago at Chicago State University and traveled to Saint Louis and Pennsylvania before returning here.

Walker graduated in 1954 from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. He became interested in murals through his friend and mentor Samella Lewis. He says the work of Mexican muralists, such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, taught him "the importance of complementing and working in harmony with architectural structures."

Over the next 20 years, Walker painted murals in Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan, and Illinois. Several of his Chicago murals have since been destroyed, including Wall of Respect, although panels were salvaged; others, like Let My People Go, in Detroit, have been dismantled and put in storage.

The temporary nature of his murals doesn't bother Walker. "If it manages to serve a purpose for a short period of time," he says, "then I'm very well pleased." Early on, Walker decided that what was most important about his work was its immediate impact.

When his subject matter changed, so did his format. In 1978, Walker visited a friend who owned a TV shop on 47th Street. Walker had lived nearby for several years, but during this visit he realized that the condition of life on surrounding streets was much worse than he had recognized. "I thought I knew the area, but of course I didn't at all," Walker says. "I felt the need to make some kind of statement about what I was seeing, because it concerned me."

His earlier work had focused mainly on racism and black pride, but, Walker says, his conscience dictated that he "focus on the bigger world." His purpose now is to show the problems of the underclass, and in doing so, to spur people to action. Walker also advocates community cooperation: "We must stop being afraid of each other. We must start sharing our insights and our knowledge."

Yet Walker is very careful to point out that he's not a reformer, says Victor Sorell, chairman of the art department at Chicago State and curator of the exhibit with Robert Weitz, who is also curator of the Chicago State University galleries. Sorell, who has known Walker for about ten years, started studying Walker's work because of his interest in the relationship between politics and art.

Sorell considers Walker's work the perfect parallel to the 1985-86 Tribune series on the underclass, which was later published as The American Millstone. "He's ultimately attacking the system," Sorrell says. "He realizes the system isn't going to help the victims, so the victims have to help themselves."

Walker's method involves a lot of research; almost every day, he is out on the streets, learning about how the poor--some unemployed, some homeless, some mentally ill--live. "I put myself in much peril doing so," he says, "but I [get] a better picture as I [walk] the streets, looking, trying to understand."

Sorell thinks the danger of being on the streets is one reason Walker no longer paints murals: "His life has been threatened on a number of occasions." Sorell worries--as he guesses Walker does--about how the ruthless community Walker paints might react to his work if they saw it. Hatbands in some of his works contain red, black, and green, the colors of the flag of the African National Congress. But Sorell explains that Walker is definitely not a nationalist; instead he wants to show how some of the most fervent nationalists have become drug pushers.

Sorell says Walker's work "seems to prophesize a bleak future, at least for the time being. He's saying his brothers and sisters better get their shit together, so to speak." Sorell adds that Walker is often criticized and misunderstood by people who wonder why he concentrates on such negative images. "He says, 'Instead of asking that question, why don't you go out and bust the hustlers and the pushers and the pimps?'"

Walker says he understands this exhibit is quite controversial: "People view it as being kind of raw." But he hopes the rawness makes viewers aware of what poverty is like in this country. "One must be critical of that that's negative," he says. "I do what I can do, within my means." Any optimism is guarded. "Economists are forecasting some bad days ahead," he says. "I don't mean to be an alarmist, but I would hope that people can be strong."

Images of Conscience runs through the end of April at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, 969 E. 60th. Viewing hours are 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday; details at 702-8360.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lewis Toby, Mati Maldre.

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