Briefly describe the work you do.
!The majority of my visual artwork revolves around drawing and printmaking. I am especially interested in the vernacular history of printmaking and printed ephemera, and the sociopolitical uses of visual propaganda throughout modernity. I am also an arts educator. I teach studio courses and mentor graduate students in the visual arts at an independent arts University, and work to enlarge the arts community with workshops, public exhibitions and collaborative projects that bring together studio art practice and the study of visual culture and art history.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up with a lot of visual stimulation, mostly in the form of imagination- intensive, self-directed play time. My childhood home was surrounded by farm fields. The land spanned orchards, vegetable gardens, forests, and streams, and with strict parental rules governing my television time and an older sister who didn’t always want to play, the abandoned farm equipment in the fields provided plenty of solo adventures and daydreaming.
My upbringing was as American, whitebread, and middle class as it gets. I am the daughter of two public school educators, both born and raised in Illinois. My mother was the daughter of a Serbian-American steel mill worker and WWII veteran, and my father grew up on a farm in Norman Rockwell’s America, in North Central Illinois. Family members on both sides are veterans, home-makers, law enforcement officers, and educators. I spent a lot of time traveling across my country in the family car, and later in my own vehicle in an attempt to recreate some of the magic of those American road-trips that I experienced as a child.
Back then and today the highlights of those journeys are a cross section of National Parks and National Historic Sites, Civil War battlefields, monuments to massacres, and monuments to great men. These sites and these experiences originally instilled in me a proud and sometimes confused reverence for my origins and the history of the continent I inhabit. Today, when I watch a historic reenactment or enjoy a National Park, I enjoy a slurry of nostalgia, grief for the stories not presented, and awe at the violent confluences of forces that have shaped our nation and our national identity.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore.Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I see the work I do in my studio as sharing equal footing with the investigative work I do before a visual artwork emerges. This can be anything from talking to a fellow American about about regional barbecue hierarchies, to visiting museum archives, reading scholarly books and articles, or watching documentaries while I sketch ideas in a notebook. Sometimes I hit a block and I need to exercise, spend time alone on a hike, build a stone wall or get out the chainsaw. Of course, the time I spend in the studio actually drawing is certainly a primary ingredient in the recipe, but even more crucial is learning to pay attention to all of my experiences, especially those where I have an opportunity to be challenged by anything from an unknown history to a difficult idea to simply being quiet in the world. Wherever I am open and humble I can allow both the visual and the emotional to enter, and then find out what resonates with me. With diligence and luck, I can capture some of that in my artistic output.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
My role as a mentor has been the most notable shift in what once were my preconceived notions about how my creative life was going to play out. My own experience has proven to me that success takes many forms, and is attributable to far more than my own work ethic. It will always include those who took the time to help me define what I wanted success to look like, and those who helped me to see what was superficial and what had value. I had patient teachers and guides who helped me unpack my reasons for choosing to pursue art, and to articulate what it was I wanted to do with that privilege.
One of the most important roles I play, however, is fulfilling an obligation to strengthen and rebuild sisterhood with the women I encounter through my work. Whether or not their age or walk of life resembles mine, I can recognize when I am in a situation to give, and when I am faced with an opportunity to ask for guidance. I still need mentors, too, and I can thank my own teachers for the willingness to reach out and find them, and for my enthusiasm to be there for others.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day? Every week? Or, do you just work whenever you can?
I work best at night, though I’ve tried many times to change that cycle. I think it is biological. At this point I’ve accepted and embraced it, and it feels like a good slice of freedom to give up a fight that proved to be a lot less critical than I thought it was. I grew up presuming normal, successful people get up early, work during the day, come home in the evening, eat three square meals, shower constantly, act polite, floss and brush, etc. In addition to finding fabric softener and hair conditioner somewhat pointless, I love discovering that other social mores might be useless for me, too, and that it often pays off when I privilege my studio practice above what would appear to be other more responsible behaviors. I know there is a ceiling to this attitude, but I have yet to hit it very hard or too often.
We’ll see what the future holds, though.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
The content of my work has changed the most. Five years ago (2009) I finished my first large lithographs, in response to some turn of the century propaganda posters I had come into contact with. This really opened up a lot of avenues of inquiry for me, in terms of looking at marginalized histories and the broader relationships between our politics and economies of industry, culture, and social power.
My work is the same, though, in terms of its artifice. I have a deep bond with drawing, and the work of my hands. I utilize digital tools often, especially when it comes to iterative design processes and quick layout possibilities, but I return almost exclusively to mylar sheets, stones, crayons, hand-cut stencils and inks to realize final works.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
Running into the writings of French philosopher/Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul has certainly provided some verbal articulation around why propaganda interests me, though I would not necessarily consider his work an inspiration. More of an explanation, perhaps? At any rate, he had a lot to say on a lot of subjects, some of which include the role of different types of propaganda in society and politics.
Colleagues in critical studies and art history also fuel a lot of my investigations into socially engaged art practices, and have served as connections and inspiration to investigate decentralized and collaborative practices making art somewhat outside of the mainstream; for example, the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative.
The musical soundtrack of my youth, which included System of a Down, Pink Floyd, Rage Against the Machine, and even Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita — among others — exhibited a convergence of artistic expression and the relatively dry/rigid systems of what appeared to constitute the grown-up world: national politics, banking, WASPs, casual Christianity, things like that.
I really enjoy author Rebecca Solnit’s ability to weave together very specific stories that reveal larger pictures of the human condition, especially when it comes to self-mythologizing narratives of American history and gender relations in Western society.
Also, I adore Lady Gaga.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
Before making the decision to continue my studies as a graduate student, I was going to move out West to train as a smoke jumper and fight forest fires. That was a pretty good idea.
Probably, though, I’d join the operators union and work for a contractor somewhere in the midwest of the United States. Then, I’d take up a serious semi- professional career as a noodler.
Ericka Walker was born in Hartford, Wisconsin, USA. She received a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She currently teaches studio coursework in printmaking as an assistant professor in the Fine Arts Division at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Walker’s creative practice draws on the graphic media of late 19th and early 20th century, including propaganda, advertising, and printed ephemera. Her work has been included in numerous domestic and international exhibitions and biennials, as well as teaching and private collections in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.