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.
creations of this Arizona artist are the culmination of a well-established
artistic medium: yet, the closer we look, the more their originality
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
protection doesn’t, insurance isn’t, wanting won’t.
never deny the absolutes:
to do so
would be the willful creation of a boundary.
Nor can I
ever affirm them:
mute, I hum.
is the shadow of concentration.
of his family’s past appear:
blood. Arizona Mormon. They were of a flintier disposition.
hit back, shoot back.
Fenn wore a star in Colonia Diaz when Villa was riding.
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
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.
journal is sprinkled with paradoxes and private jokes:
talk-show host asked
what he preferred - TV or radio.
was the reply. ‘The pictures are better.’
slowing of the expanding universe
gravity or resistance?
profess an ideology
able to implement one.
diagnosed my bad habits
construct a rationalization
and every one.
approach to art as a daily discipline is the main theme:
What is an
who stands in one place for a long time.
from the dirt daily, blink and stare.
here. What’ll I wear?
do? What’ll I be?
food for me?
Will I do
what I do
the way I
business I am little, marginal, and therefore timid.
less success in chasing success
gluing feathers and answering the phone.
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.
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.
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.
notebook has embarked on a noticeably different course, chasing down an
idea for naming one of his new masks …
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
sun dogs at 22 degrees from sunset …
breed-ranch bull, you hope
stay above thirty centimeters.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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