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I Just Make People Up: Ramblings with Clark Walker

By: Foster Dickson
Reviewed by: Julia Oliver
NewSouth Books, 2009
$45, Hardcover

This is a gorgeous coffee table book. Elegantly square, not the most comfortable shape to hold, it might be more perused than read—which would be a shame, as Foster Dickson’s narrative biography of Clark Walker is a triumph of the as-told-to style of writing.

The subject, who grew up in Selma and Montgomery in the 1940s and ’50s to become one of this region’s most gifted and well-known artists, is also a raconteur of note. The project that began several years ago involved taping conversations between the two men who at one time had been neighbors. Dickson also interviewed some of their mutual friends and acquaintances. In addition to interesting highlights of his personal odyssey, Walker’s “ramblings” provide droll, colorful, and sometimes nostalgic anecdotes about “Old Montgomery.”

According to Dickson, an early mentor, native-born Montgomerian Charles Shannon (1914-1996), taught Walker in an art class at the University of Alabama’s Extension Center. On his way to the Center, Shannon’s protégé would gather up old boxes that had been thrown away at a local dress shop. Walker states, “I did lots of paintings on old dress boxes, because I didn’t have paint canvases.” With Shannon’s influence and encouragement, Walker became a student at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Art in Maine. That course was interrupted by a tour of military duty in Germany, but he returned to Skowhegan on scholarship after he got out of the Army.

Of the decision (or lack of decision) not to leave Montgomery for greener artistic pastures, Walker says, “Here I am still pushing that brush around, but I’m not in New York. Do I have regrets? I don’t know. You can paint anywhere.... Painting is not where you are, it’s what you do.”

The last fifty pages (of 127) feature photographs by Valerie Downes of Walker’s paintings. Those who have watched Clark Walker’s style evolve over many years may be disappointed in the scope and range of this retrospective. He has stated that he did not do the choosing, and he wishes he’d been consulted more on this phase. In addition to the owners’ names (and they are few in number), the selections are labeled by title, year of composition, medium, and dimensions.

On a personal note: In the late 1950s, when a very young Clark Walker had what was then called a sidewalk show at Normandale Mall, I made my first purchase of original art, a monochromatic sketch of a pensive girl. I asked who she was. He said he “made her up.” A local connoisseur told me a few years ago that of all Clark’s work he’d seen, that one was his favorite. In 1968, Clark said he’d like to paint my four-year-old, who reminded him of children in old paintings by Flemish masters. I commissioned him on the spot. He didn’t want her to sit for him, or for me to see the work in progress. I gave him some photos of her. He painted the image against a design he said was suggested by an oriental rug, and he called me when the canvas was finished. When I got to his house, the portrait was on the porch with a note: “Take this if you like it.” He didn’t want to see the expression on my face if I wasn’t pleased. He needn’t have worried on that score. Forty-one years later, I still love it.

This book makes me aware of how much I treasure some possessions I see every day that are signed in a modest, unobtrusive, almost illegible scrawl: Clark Walker. Feb 2009

Julia Oliver also writes as Judy Oliver.
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