Press - Feathered Sculpture - Virgil A. Walker

Being Takes Flight:
The Feathered Sculpture of Virgil Walker
by Allen Roth

Virgil Walker’s sculpture seems to be the offspring of an old tradition, but when we rummage through our memories or our art books, we draw a blank. No term seems to exist for this art form, other than ‘feather art,’ which leaves us no wiser. A few unrelated candidates of ‘feather art’ come to mind: Native American raiment, capes, shields and vestments of power, wisdom or royalty; fetishes, fans, boas, god’s eyes and, yes, hippy jewelry. We might recall an odd piece of flatwork we once saw, carried back from some remote island or Amazon village.


Surely the creations of this Arizona artist are the culmination of a well-established artistic medium: yet, the closer we look, the more their originality becomes obvious.


These cross-blends of man and bird confront us, like spirits peering out from the mouths of huge, fantastic flowers. Not sure of what we are seeing, we wonder to ourselves: Is this painting or sculpture? Those are real feathers? Well, then, what lies underneath? Wandering over the surfaces from every angle, our eyes are drawn back again and again into the dark hollows of its gaze. It is a mask – we realize.


The fusion of bird and human is complete in Walker’s series of full figures, homo sapiopteryx, we could say, with winged arms outspread to the sun, or folded in repose. These radiant creatures, too, are hollow eyed, hollow from head to foot, embodying the visible and invisible, being and nothingness.


“My feathers come exclusively from poultry” says Walker, “that class of birds raised or hunted for human consumption.” This scrupulous selection from the bird kingdom provides him with an inexhaustible palette of texture, hue and shade. A moon-enraptured face comes sheathed in soft combed down, while the next is layered in emerald scales. Another dully shimmers as if cloaked in brazened mail, or bursts across our field of vision like frozen fireworks.


The craftsmanship of a jeweler, fabric maker, weaver and enamellist come together in the execution of every piece. Walker has the naturalist’s eye for organic asymmetry, the beautiful accidents and flaws of nature. His adroit arrangement of natural materials compares with naturalist artists like Andy Goldsworthy. As a designer Walker undoubtedly would stake his claim in architecture, fashion, almost any art form - if he had the inclination and the time. He is often asked how much time it takes to make one of his pieces, to which he replies, “Most of it.”


So what exactly are we seeing? The artist finally composed a definition that has served him well enough: Feathered sculpture in a mask motif. The art form in a nutshell, perhaps. But I only began to appreciate how much of a multi-tasked process is meant, by seeing the artist at work.


Walker’s lair is more of a studio-home than a home-studio. All around him are the stages of his labor. I start my leisurely counter-clockwise survey of the room, beginning at the long, sunlit counter for working clay, on which a half-dozen ghostly faces lie, looking up at the ceiling. Hovering above them is an armless torso molded to an armature. All clay molds will cease to exist after a single plaster casting is made. Inside and out, all Walker masks and figures are original.


The perceptive viewer deduces this evolution in reverse. “The first stage starts with dirt,” he pictures to me, “earth made plastic by the addition of wax and oil. Between my hands one face after another is coaxed out of the clay, from which a plaster cast is taken, refined and sanded smooth. The final stage is the feathering.”


On a shelf below are plaster masks, painted black. Each one already foretells a distinct character, as in flesh creased with age, a sleekly elongated neck, or furrowed brow. I imagine standing in the costume room of a Chinese opera.


To the left of this long alcove is the modest front entrance, undefined but for quarry tile transitioning to carpet, over which Turkish and Tibetan rugs are strewn. Here the ceiling pitches upward to a high clearstory, under which new feathered masks hang in rank.


Here is Walker, in dungaree shirt and cut-offs, glasses perched on the end of his nose, a middle-aged face of elfish symmetry, salt and pepper eyebrows, the sly and winning smile. All around his workspace are sortings from stores of plumage, washed, groomed, clipped, to be individually placed just so. He stands before a polished granite work station of his own design, with adjustable steel column and armature for supporting his full figures. At his left, a tall velvet easel on which a mask in progress hangs, flooded by task lights. To his right, a long work bench covered with cutting instruments, dentist’s tools, glue guns; paper plates with thumb-nail sized clippings like metallic green scales, wisps of red like pinstriper’s brushes, bundles of stripped quills, soft curling plumes; stacks of books, pens and pencils, phone messages.


I watch as he turns back to the mask, arms poised as if to shoot a basket. The pinion of each feather must seat itself at just the right angle while the glue is hot. One hand holds the gun while the other does the placement. As a drop of glue cools and hardens in seconds, timing and ambidexterity are essential to the process. His left hand palms a dental tool, while between thumb and index finger he touches feather to glue gun - which is held in his right hand, along with a hemostat dangling from his index finger. The droplet of glue in place, with a fly fisherman’s wrist he loops the elongating thread of glue around the tip, severs it, sets down the gun, clamps the feather in the hemostat, pries up a layered feather with the dental tool and inserts the new one underneath. All this, in about six seconds.  “I wish they made a better glue gun,” he laments. “If the tip got a little hotter I wouldn’t get these spider webs when I pull the gun away.”


Every detail of Walker’s feather art may appear to have been grown from nature.  Hidden away from view are a hundred niggling little skills he has developed over the years to achieve the effect. “Art for me is a sport. This place where I stand and work day in and day out is my arena, my tennis court, where I play within a set of rules I make up and stick to.”


“Nature has done most of the work already,” he says. “My work mainly consists in rearranging nature’s designs into human expressions - or rather, to express the forces behind those expressions.” Psychologists have been drawn to Walker’s creations. A full female figure in glass case greets visitors of one councilor’s waiting room. Masks hang in various physicians’ offices. They have a soothing yet provocative effect on their clientele, they say.


A woman who knew his work, in the last stages of cancer bought a particular mask to hang at the foot of her bed. It helped her, she said, to confront the dying process.


His patrons often see something of themselves, perhaps their best part, or some virtue which their secret self aspires to. Sometimes they see an inner demon. A one-time visitor to Walker’s studio was struck as if by lightning, when his eyes fell on the mask of a self-satisfied old rogue, named Divine Decadence. He left the room, visibly disturbed, and stood outside alone for some time, chain smoking.


My own Walker mask hangs over the Indonesian armoire in our living room. Virgil’s secret name for it was South Gate, but did not say so, insisting we name it ourselves. The leonine face of combed golden pheasant, roiling out from a sunburst of brown and orange turkey feathers, projects its lips as if to blow a hot wind from out of itself; or, as it first occurred to me, to emit a sustained cooing sound of shear delight.  What calls forth such an emotion? Nectar suddenly came to mind.


With no effort at marketing or advertising beyond Roberts Gallery’s annual shows and mailings, six hundred or so of Walker’s pieces have found their way into homes across this continent, a few scattered through Europe, South America and Australia. He has attracted a number of return buyers and serious collectors since beginning this mid-life career in 1983. “I started out by packing the pieces up in my truck and hitting every street fair and regional show within driving distance.” After five years of this, he found a gallery that took a chance on this unique genre. Roberts Gallery at el Pedregal at the Boulders, North Scottsdale, has since been the sole venue for all of Walker’s output.


We have yet to complete our tour around Walker’s studio. Behind the easel at which he is working, pieces ready for photographing hang upon a full field of royal blue. A full figure is poised on a black velvet throw, flanked by two silvered light umbrellas. Walker’s photographer has left his tripod and equipment in place for an ongoing shooting session.


The faces are a third larger than human scale, conferring on the viewer the perspective of a child looking up at an adult. The overall dimensions of a Walker mask vary considerably: the more consolidated, medallion-like faces are thirty inches or more in diameter; other pieces fanning out in kaleidoscopic starbursts can measure six feet across.


Near the work station are stacks of open books, and notepads covered with journal entries, to-do lists, and running thoughts woven together by deftly penned cartoons and diagrams. I leaf through the notepad and jot down a few entries:


Job protection doesn’t, insurance isn’t, wanting won’t.

Only doing does.


I can never deny the absolutes:

to do so would be the willful creation of a boundary.

Nor can I ever affirm them:

same grounds.

Struck mute, I hum.


Ignorance is the shadow of concentration.


Snippets of his family’s past appear:


Old Mormon blood. Arizona Mormon. They were of a flintier disposition.

They would hit back, shoot back.

Old Joe Fenn wore a star in Colonia Diaz when Villa was riding.


The Fenns are his mother’s side of the family. They moved from Arizona in 1883 to an old Mormon settlement in Old Mexico. Times were hard. “Father moved to Mexico on account of polygamy,” Walker’s grandmother, Ada Iona Fenn, writes in a touchingly informing memoir she left for her family. “He had two wives and lived in a small adobe house for years, till they could get started. My father was a carpenter and he pulled people’s teeth and soldered everyone’s pots and pans, boilers and washtubs. He fixed clocks and everyone’s instruments, he also did some blacksmithing and farmed besides.”


His mother’s family prospered. The father built a good house for each of the wives and their respective children. Then came the Pershing-Villa campaign. The danger of living near Pershing’s main encampment at Colonia Dublan, encouraged half the family to move back to the Arizona Territory. Ada died in Kingman, 1955.


The journal is sprinkled with paradoxes and private jokes:


Once a talk-show host asked

a child what he preferred - TV or radio.

‘Radio’ was the reply. ‘The pictures are better.’


Does the slowing of the expanding universe

imply gravity or resistance?


Those who profess an ideology

Are least able to implement one.


I’ve diagnosed my bad habits

With sufficient clarity

To construct a rationalization

for each and every one.


 His approach to art as a daily discipline is the main theme:    


What is an artist?

Someone who stands in one place for a long time.


I rise from the dirt daily, blink and stare.

Still here. What’ll I wear?

What’ll I do? What’ll I be?

What’ll be food for me?

Will I do what I do

the way I did?


As a business I am little, marginal, and therefore timid.

I’ve had less success in chasing success

than gluing feathers and answering the phone.


Less success in chasing success is perhaps accurate. Nevertheless, at the peak of a former career, Walker earned accolades from a number of public officials, including the Dean of Education at Arizona State University, who would take his undergraduates to observe Walker and his students at what he recognized as an ideal learning situation.


This career began in the early 70s, when he and a psychologist friend from his college days created a spin-off of the local school district’s Opportunity Hall program; i.e., a new education and counseling program for juvenile offenders. As director of studies, Walker devised a program emphasizing self-reliance and initiation into higher grades of responsibility and commitment. The program’s structure was based on another year long, round-the clock educational experiment in which he took part in 1971-1972. That school’s director was English philosopher-educator John G. Bennett, who compressed a mix of psychological ideas and methods of self-study, group dynamics and practical work, with considerable attention paid to dance and movement. The course inspired much of Walker’s own innovative program for getting teen offenders, girls and boys, to stand on their own feet. He introduced special training for staff councilors as well, including exercises for sustaining attention, notably through executing demanding bodily movements in time with piano accompaniment. These ‘movements’ were gathered together by specialists in the nineteenth century, from rapidly vanishing esoteric traditions of Central Asia, Africa and the Near East.


Eventually Walker introduced these routines to the young residents. A number of them took the movements very seriously and practiced them daily under his tutelage for years. Having youth’s bouncing energy and single-minded drive, they eventually held annual public demonstrations of these exacting, complex routines, attended by the press (NBC News filmed a segment), and dignitaries including the aforementioned Dean of Education, who brought along his inner circle. Later on, two or three of these students themselves attended several weeks of movements practice. In Virgil’s living room are three ceremonial drums given by the Acoma tribe as a gift of appreciation for his work with their children. Students from back in the 70s call now and then, wondering why movements are not better known in the ‘outside world.’ A few of Walker’s full figures duplicate the postures of these dances.


The notebook has embarked on a noticeably different course, chasing down an idea for naming one of his new masks …


     cone of flashlight scanning: visual of time past, time present skidding past, hurling toward time future… cone of light, pointing back…  Apollonius of Perga’s collapsing circle… transposed through its own apex a second circle on another plane… edge of cone (of perception) with its apex at the source of insight…


     … sun dogs at 22 degrees from sunset …


And then:


In your Engineered Society,

social genetics rules.

Like a breed-ranch bull, you hope

your nuts stay above thirty centimeters.


During my days of interviews with Walker I have seen cross his threshold academics, lamas, cowboys, Navajo code talkers, media junkies, a hundred-year old monk, dogged hippies, a biker with jail time under his belt, an Apache poet, and two Mormon elders (regular and staunch admirers of his work) - not to mention a bevy of grown children, grandkids, ex-wives, and the serious other.


When I asked what he thinks about his work being ‘Southwest’ or ‘Native American’ art, Virgil became mischievous:  “I do joke about that. My father’s people were among the second wave of Jamestown settlers. My mother’s people were in the Arizona territory when it was still Mexico.” He was born and raised in Northern Arizona by his Mormon mother, and an outdoorsman father who held golden gloves title in six Midwestern states who once made a living challenging all comers to prize-fights in Arizona mining towns; had a roomful of bowling and golf trophies; umpired Little League, and established the first full-service gas station along the Arizona stretch of Highway 66. Virgil himself evolved from a bespectacled nerd into a street-tough youth who showed remarkable promise both in music and art early on. As a policeman in his early twenties, he would park his patrol car on lookout points above Flagstaff to paint the dawn breaking over the mountains - occasionally checking with his partner what color was on the end of his brush. To the amazement of everyone who meets him, Virgil is partially color-blind.


Virgil quit the force after three years (during the cop-hating 60s) to pursue an education degree. He was drawn into a circle of hard-working disciples of a grizzly genius professor named Goyette, Doctor of Mathematics and Philosophy, who plunged his students headlong into Socrates and Plato, German metaphysics and esoteric psychologies East and West. Goyette’s classes were notoriously demanding, often with an enrollment of seventy whittled down to twenty survivors after just two weeks. “Now this is about the right size,” he would say, delving into the first of fifteen-or-so books required for his classes.


“He’d come into class with a bible and a clock, and set the clock on top of the bible next to his lectern. Not once did he ever refer to them being there. In fact, his lectures usually ran overtime and we were always scrambling for our next class.” Between Virgil’s class load, he worked two jobs to support a family, discovering that he could subsist on two or three hours of sleep a day for months at a time. But he was young then: now he sleeps between two eight-hour work sessions - no days-off - “Gluin’ feathers.”


Meanwhile, I have left us standing at a pedestal in one corner of Virgil’s studio, snooping through his notebooks. Open books - sources for naming most of his pieces - are piled about.


The authors and titles are an unpredictable mix: Thomas Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice; Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces; All twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels; Sun Tzu; National Review; Hiebel’s The Gospel of Hellas; Sorokin’s The Crisis of Our Age; Charles Sanders Pierce; A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe; a hefty Tibetan-English dictionary; Time, Space, and Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku; and a war-torn Talbot Mundy, Queen Cleopatra.


“This coexistence of bird nature and human nature,” says Virgil, “is my method for depicting the nature of mind.”


“I saw how easy it was for me to leave therapy, with years of looking out exclusively for the good and welfare and nourishment of my patients, and then turning to selling real estate - quite successfully. I now saw myself sizing up everyone I met according to potential net worth. With both of these modes of will side by side in my mind, I came to see in the bird’s anatomy not just an image of evolutionary freedom but the more predatory and single-purposed aspects of our nature, so well represented by the beak and talon.”


His early blends of man and bird were more ornithomorphic – beak-nose, carapace brow, owl glare. He found himself moving toward the human without losing the birdlike qualities he was after. An equal balance is struck between these two natures in Stands Between, where the head and wings of a falcon fold around a male face and transform into a hooded cloak. A guardian of the Hearth.


Virgil motions me over to the other side of the room, his living space. He unstraps his knee brace (an old motorcycle injury) and hoists his leg onto the recliner. I sink myself into a cushy leather coach. “One more mask to name,” he says, then points. The brow and cheeks of the mask are gold spangles edged in black; her smooth pallid face surrounded in a curly froth of snow-white emu. “Wu Chi,” he offers, after a suitable pause.


“That sounds about right,” I confirm. “Now what does it mean?” Virgil remembers studying under a master of Tai Chi, who once told his students that he does not teach Tai Chi. “Tai Chi, simply put,” the teacher explained, “means the teaching or path of Master Tai - that is, of a man who lived and taught many years before any of us were born. It is Wu Chi I teach: the path that emerges from the center of one’s being.”


The idea seems to fit all right. Her expression manages to express both self-possession and open-mouthed awe, as if to show that self-awareness renews the sense of wonder. Please to add, by the way, that Wu Chi is drop-dead beautiful.


Whether Wu Chi is happy with her name or not is of no consequence to her admirers, certainly not to the woman at a gallery opening who came up to him while he was touching up his latest work in progress, thanking him while drying tears from her face. Their beauty speaks. He is paying compliment to human being, to the kingdoms of birds and flowers, to creation itself.


More gallery patrons circle around Walker at his work station while he draws the neck feathering toward the upstretched chin of his new full figure, a ruby and grey changeling, wings in compound curves. In finding a name for her he has been reading up on the Greek furies, the Erinyes or goddesses of vengeance who in their benevolent aspect symbolize the light of conscience. The customer nods his head meditatively then asks him how much time it takes. “Most of it,” says Walker.


Long-time admirers of his work are once again surprised by the new exhibition. As the Gallery’s owner, Robert Padesky, puts it, “What impresses me most is how all the techniques required of his method continue to mature.”


“What I like about my work,” says Walker, “is that children like it: five-year-olds and old people, of all lineages and social classes. This has been the case since my first showing - to the Mexican men working the orange groves around the trailer I was living in.”


Fortunately, a history of Walker’s output exists by way of Mark Miskill, a people-watching and nature photographer whom Walker met while selling his masks at street fairs. Miskill overcame many obstacles to capture the glows and textures of feathered art. Giclée reproductions on quality paper and canvas are now available. “I have always wanted my art to be accessible to more people. Up till now only gallery visitors and buyers knew my work.” A book of Virgil Walker’s feather art is now in the making.



                                                                                                          Allen Roth
                                                                                                          Author, Architect

                                                                                                          April 2004


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