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Muscle Memory: Kelly Walker’s Painterly Alchemy

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Kelly Walker understands the transformative properties of paint. At this point, it’s embedded in the visual artist’s muscle memory—a fluent vocabulary generated from twenty years of commercial decorative painting, a myriad of techniques and materials that can magically turn plaster into stone and concrete into wood.

If you shop or eat out in Baltimore, you’ve almost certainly experienced Walker’s artistry directly. Working with area business owners and interior designers, Walker is able to transform a newly renovated restaurant into an 18th-century Parisian cafe or give a new storefront the patina of urban grunge, not just adding layers of texture but an authentic sense of place. A long list of clients includes beloved Baltimore restaurants like Petit Louis, the Sagamore Pendry, and Dylan’s Oyster Cellar serving as proof of her vision and skills.

However, inside Walker’s personal art studio is where her ideas and technique merge most effectively in prolific, color-saturated, and formalist paintings that employ combinations of traditional and experimental materials to a variety of dramatic effects.

 

Walker employs an experimental formalism based on material properties and a lexicon of painting techniques and media.
Cara Ober

“I can match any color, anywhere,” says Walker, at home in the Mount Vernon live-work space she has owned since 2013, where she resides with her partner, Tess Mosley. The light industrial building includes a two-story living area brimming with art and boasts a garage large enough for six vehicles. This is the home base for Artstar Custom Paintworks, a thriving commercial painting business employing nine full-time artists whose purpose is to enhance the beauty of public and private spaces with oil and acrylics and varnishes and tints. It also functions as Walker’s personal art studio when business hours are over.

During our studio visit, Walker describes herself as an artist overflowing with creativity to the point of overstimulation, but a pragmatic worker who “gets shit done.” This is an understatement, given the prolific pace of home renovations begun during the pandemic and a series of public and private jobs done in conjunction with Patrick Sutton, one of Baltimore’s most well-known interior designers.

Recently, Walker designed a toolbox for her employees to grab and go, to keep up the pace, full of all the materials and tools needed for almost any job—whether it’s a complicated matching of an old material with a new one, creating accents and traditional painted surfaces, or creating a mood for a particular place.

 

A self-described “rainbow tornado,” Walker says the physical acts of painting and carving, as well as robust exercise, put her in her happiest state. Her rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness thinking quiets itself and luxuriates in the physical pleasure of intense looking, experimenting with materials, and creating art from a place of self-care.

Walker admits she has always been a hard worker and loves physical activity of all kinds. This is evident in her fine art practice, which is abundant, colorful, and brimming with unusual textures and finishes. Borrowing materials and techniques from the commercial problems she solves for paying clients, Walker employs an experimental formalism based on material properties and a lexicon of painting techniques and media. The canvas provides a substrate for alchemy, a space where combinations of layers, marks, drips, and pours surprise her.

In her studio, a variety of works abound in seemingly endless variety but coalesce into specific series based on materials and technique. Some of the earliest abstract works resulted from recycling the workboard materials on paper and canvas originally used to create designer samples for Artstar Custom Paintworks clients. Titled the Artstar Collection, these works embrace a linear approach where colors create architectural forms that advance and recede through rows of parallel stripes. 

 

However, Walker embraces an entire range of stylistic abstraction, ranging from linear to loose and painterly. The Saturation Series (Ink + Alcohol) is reminiscent of a young Helen Frankenthaler or Sam Gilliam, where fugitive pigments, ghost remnants of watercolor and gouache, coalesce on the canvas into strange harmonies. Walker uses a wet-on-wet application method where bold-colored pigments move through the evaporating liquid and settle into seeping clouds. Happy accidents abound, where colors resist one another, crazing and curling back. Walker is able to put her understanding of the medium to the test, orchestrating luminous alchemy on the surface, where movement is random and free. This series often resembles energetic biological slides of tissue under a microscope or distant galaxies in space telescope photographs.

Employing lines and sections, Walker’s Vacation Series began with a simple horizon line that divides the canvas into stripes and sections and resembles a Rothko in the way the color bleeds, but also recalls layers of stratosphere or looking out the window from an airplane when sky and cloud are divided into striated bands of airy color. In other abstract series, Walker employs elaborate stencils to create patterned layers, spray paint squiggles that resemble graffiti, as well as hard edges and taped-off corners to layer line and shape. Her abstract works also move into assemblage and collage, where recognizable images, often of Baltimore, hover over swirling grounds of color.

Walker does not merely settle for two-dimensional works, and often incorporates the physical act of carving into relief sculptures. In her Fish Scale and Dahlia Flower Series, she builds on classical architectural references in repetitive, rhythmic marks—working in a meditative state, like a yoga practice. Some she leaves white, the color of the plaster, but others are embellished with blue-green and bronze to resemble a natural patina. At times, she tints them with washes of hot pink and other warm tones, where the color seeps into the recessed spaces and the light petal forms push forward.

 

I loved being around other creatives in Baltimore and it immediately felt like home.
Kelly Walker

Material exploration lies at the heart of all the visual artwork that Walker produces. It’s the emphasis of the Heavy Metal Series, which form grids of large canvases and are literally her heaviest works. Inspired by the grit of the city, Walker applies asphalt onto canvas, forging granular surfaces that brim with activity, and then adds a layer of gold leaf. For the artist, the asphalt represents common building materials used in city streets and the gold leaf is a symbol of opulence. Marrying the two materials represents the duality of living in Baltimore, where the combination of rebellion and courage, style and grit, come together to represent a subjective but ideal version of  beauty.

Walker is originally from Evansville, Indiana, also the birthplace of Halston, the world-renowned clothing designer from the 1970s. The 46-year-old describes her childhood self as unsettled and adventurous, a time full of roaming and activity. When her family moved to St. Louis, MO, Walker experienced a city for the very first time and cites the graffiti and abandoned buildings she saw downtown as a formative aesthetic experience, one that both intimidated and entranced her.

After that, Walker’s family moved to North Carolina, where the lifestyle was suburban and proper. “It was homogenized for me there,” she recalls. “I never felt comfortable.” As a restless gay teenager, Walker found friendships in the shadows, developing a serious drinking and drug habit that ended up in multiple rehab stints.

At this point, art became therapy for Walker, who has not had a drink in 28 years. She cites the ceramics and weaving classes offered in rehab as a way to finally quiet and focus her racing brain, giving her a sense of purpose and stillness. She knew that she loved making art and being around artists, but believed that she wasn’t a one because she didn’t know how to draw.

Walker hitchhiked to Baltimore at age 18 and fell in love with the architecture and culture of the city immediately. “I loved being around other creatives in Baltimore and it immediately felt like home,” she says. “I was working in restaurants and surrounded by gay men.” The first piece of art Walker ever made was for a restaurant co-worker named Leroy: a collaged shadowbox full of faux fur and pornography that the recipient kept on display in the restaurant.

The piece earned Walker accolades and encouraged her to make more work, and her subsequent employment at artsy food venues like Sascha’s and Louie’s Bookstore Cafe on Charles Street helped her to make new artist friends, many who continue to inspire her.

 

Since 2002, Walker has built her life around painting—balancing her commercial, decorative painting business and many employees with her own private creative practice. In 2013, she moved into a former auto body shop in Mount Vernon and transformed a garage space into a gorgeous home and workspace, filling it with art by her peers including Emma Childs, Penn Eastburn, Bobby Coleman, Chad Pettit, Greg Minah, Lania D’Agostino, Rene Trevino, Emily Dierkes, James Sigwald, Katie Pumphrey, Sandra Jones, Joe LaMattina, and others.

At a creative and professional level, Walker knows that she can match any color, texture, or surface, anywhere, and her artwork reflects her own restless desire for new challenges, materials, and ideas, as well as her love of exercise. “I make art like an athlete,” says Walker. “I like to sweat when I’m working.”

The result is a vigorous physical experience for the artist and viewer, with disparate but linked bodies of visual work that are energetic and searching, but satisfying to live with.

 

 

Upcoming Exhibit: Defaced / Enshrined: Rosa Leff + Kelly Walker
Rally Artspace

October 7 – November 27, 2022 // Gallery 1
Baltimore based artists Kelly Walker and Rosa Leff present an exhibition inspired by street art in urban Baltimore. Leff’s intricate paper cuts provide a delicate contrast to Kelly’s mixed media paintings, encouraging viewers to reconsider the role of graffiti in our daily lives.

 

 

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