Brian Walker – A Studio Visit
Entering Brian Walker’s studio, just beyond his house on the Long Lake Road outside of Whitehorse, gives the impression of walking into a warm wood-heated cabin. As your eyes adjust, you take in the contents of the space – tables piled high with books on Northwest Coast art, collections of tools covering every horizontal surface, and copper vessels of all shapes and sizes, their hammered surfaces catching the light.
In 1958, Walker met Bill Reid, who at the time was beginning his first commission for the University of British Columbia. Fascinated with the carving, stories and history he was exposed to at Reid’s studio, Walker spent two years showing up there on weekends, evenings and summer breaks, bringing Reid and the other carvers home-baked pies from his mother and wandering through sheds of historic totem poles. He learned about symbols and designs, preparing for Reid’s pop quizzes on Northwest Coast crests and their meanings. Not a typical way for a twelve-year-old to spend his spare time, this was the beginning of a lifelong interest in First Nations art and history.
The studio was constructed to accommodate the growing scale of Walker’s work, which he began creating in the basement of the home he shares with his wife Ann Smith, a well-known Ravenstail weaver. The studio is a haven for Walker who, along with Smith, is the centre of a large extended family and a respected Elder in his adoptive First Nation of Kwanlin Dün. Here he can be immersed in creating, moving back and forth between works-in-progress, as inspiration or deadlines dictate.
By the glow of an articulated photography lamp (gifted from a good friend), Walker peers at his work through his jeweler’s glasses, carefully tapping and hammering along the lines of his designs and coaxing them into three dimensions. The work is substantial – technically and physically. Walker’s drive to work at a larger scale means that attention must be paid when selecting the gauge of material used for each piece, considering the end use as well as the physical limits of the material. He holds up a large disc measuring four feet in diameter featuring a large central face and four smaller ones radiating from it. The piece, called Children of the Sun, is one of the largest he has created to date. Weighing over thirty pounds, it takes some effort to manipulate as he works on different areas of the surface.
Everything Walker creates has some precedent in Yukon First Nations culture – copper was a historically significant material and trade-good that came from the White River area. There are stories of people packing copper nuggets, trading them for a variety of goods, and using copper knives. First Nations stories fascinate Walker, and while he doesn’t consider himself to be storyteller, he is passionate about researching and interpreting them. He waits for a story to capture him, then designs a piece based on the meaning or imagery. He is intrigued by the way stories are constructed with different parts and episodes represented in each paragraph. Many stories were traditionally told over periods of time so that people could absorb them. This approach might also be employed when experiencing Walker work, which contains rich layers of meaning beyond the sparkling surfaces.
As an artist of non-Aboriginal descent, Walker prefers to respond to questions about his use of First Nation symbols and designs, rather than initiating them. He wants to let people experience the work and then come to their own conclusions. Walker’s approach during his journey as an artist has been cautious and humble. Often happy to remain in the background and conscious of being respectful and supportive of the Yukon artistic and cultural community, he has steadily developed his skills by creating gifts, ceremonial items and working on collaborations with other artists.
Over the years he has perfected his technique and has become more at ease with his work, due in part to acceptance and support from his contemporaries. Artists who see Walker’s dedication and his devotion to developing his skills, practice and knowledge often recommend his work to collectors and gallery owners. They speak about Walker with a reverence reserved for senior artists in their field.
The artwork itself is stunning. The intricacy of Walker’s designs somehow have the ability to translate from very small works to monumental ones. The pieces are extraordinary not only in terms of their uniqueness, but because of the scale and level of technique that he achieves. The design of his vessels and sculptures are so perfect in their execution that they give the impression of emerging from within, rather than being applied to the surfaces. Walker, who has pursued his path as an artist for close to 60 years, still feels that there are new things to learn and new stories to tell. Sitting in the studio talking with Walker, you can almost feel them taking form.
- Credit: Garnet Muething, Art Curator, Yukon Government Department of Tourism and Culture - April, 2016.