Whimsical Storyteller

03 Sep 2022

Mary Walker’s reimagines classic tales on the canvas

By Liesel Schmidt

What you see in Mary Walker’s paintings isn’t an adherence to technique or even any sort of stilted obeyance to the expected. It’s unbridled creativity and imagination, a chaotic interpretation of so many familiar stories as told by someone who takes great joy in the retelling, in the reinterpretation through paint and carving, on canvas and in wood. The colors are loud and bold, the shapes abstract and representational. But in them all, she’s telling a story through a narrative that lets her imagination soar. 

How she got to this place of art and storytelling is as abstract as her pieces. Walker’s career path had her firmly set on something more cerebral than creative, and until 1975, she was teaching high school math.

But classes she took at The Art Students League of New York opened her eyes to her as-yet-unexplored artistic side, and her “aha moment” came. Naturally, she left her teaching career after finishing out the school year and turned her attention to her art.

What resulted was her very distinctive style and her trademark of reinterpreting well-known ballads, poems, operas, plays and mythology. Shakespeare is a source of great inspiration for her imagination, finding new life in only a way that Walker can achieve. 

“I love Shakespeare,” she says. “His work is the best. I've done King Lear; The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is hysterical; A Comedy of Errors; Merchant of Venice. I'd like to do more (interpretations) of his plays and sonnets, but I haven't figured out how to do all of them yet. I used to be stricter about staying with the original narrative of whatever story or play or ballad I'm using, but I've loosened up. As I've worked over the years, certain characters have appeared in my paintings, and they may have been something I've seen somewhere or something from my imagination. So now I'm more apt to have the story develop out of the paintings. The characters will show up, and then they'll start interacting.”

Walker isn’t shy about taking creative license, and she doesn’t treat the original tale as too precious to embellish upon. Rather, she makes it her own, adding her own sense of whimsy—which is precisely what draws people to her work. Cats, birds, dead trees…All are frequent players in her pieces, and Walker has a particular penchant for those dead trees. Nothing is out of bounds in her paintings and prints, not even a fish taking a walk across the canvas. Still, there are moments when Walker creates a political narrative—Jim Crowe being one of her most frequently visited subjects. 

Out of her home studio on Johns Island, Walker paints and carves wooden presses that are used to create her prints, happily creating whatever springs to life in her imagination without concern for whether it will sell. Hers is almost a visceral need to paint or carve, to see the images take shape and become more than the image in her mind’s eye. She takes joy in it and escapes into it. “I'm methodical with print making,” says Walker. “I have an idea of the image, and I paint the board either brown or blue so I can see where I'm going when I carve. It also gives contrast to the white pencil I use for sketching. All of it requires me to be really organized. You have to get the paper ready and have the registration so that all your prints hit the paper in the same place.” 

As disciplined as she is with her print making, however, all rules are thrown out the window when she has a brush in her hand.

“Painting is pretty much madness from beginning to end,” she laughs. “I start off with an idea and then get to a place where confusion reigns and chaos ensues. I have friends who have a plan and stick to it, but I kind of like my way better.”

A self-proclaimed art supply addict, Walker admits to having more than a few sets of carving tools—and no qualms about getting a few more, should her current implements find themselves becoming too dull. She says this almost gleefully, as though she may possibly be plotting her next set. It’s a peek into her absolute and unapologetic love for her craft. And, of course, the mischievous mind that creates such quirky pieces. Walker’s work is represented by the Corrigan Gallery in Charleston as well as the Julie Heller Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts and can be found online at www.marywalkerart.com.

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