Artist Frank Walker captures the value of human life

Frank Walker’s studio is full of artwork, art supplies, frames and hundreds of military models: soldiers, guns, ammunition, tanks and uniforms. A historian of both African American history and American military history, the Army veteran is a stickler for accuracy. This week, he’ll build a window display in honor of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion. Photo by Sanjay Suchak Frank Walker’s studio is full of artwork, art supplies, frames and hundreds of military models: soldiers, guns, ammunition, tanks and uniforms. A historian of both African American history and American military history, the Army veteran is a stickler for accuracy. This week, he’ll build a window display in honor of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

It’s a humid but not hot Saturday evening in early May. Jazz floats through the auditorium of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, filling in the spaces between laughter, delighted gasps and conversational murmurs in the next room.

Dressed in brown slip-on shoes, relaxed fit jeans, a short-sleeved chambray shirt and a dark blue Kangol cap, local artist and lifelong Charlottesville resident Frank Walker can’t take two steps without someone congratulating him on his newest paintings and drawings.

As individual conversations quiet before his “Frank Walker: New Work” artist talk begins, Walker bends down and picks up a sizable wooden disc that’s been sitting on the floor at the gallery entrance.

A painted brown eye peers through a rectangle cut out of the center of the disc. Around the rectangle, an outline of the continental United States burned into the wood, surrounded by barbed wire and a hangman’s noose. “I Seen What U Done” is burned in above it all. Walker hoists it up and hangs it around his neck, letting it dangle near his abdomen from a rope.

“This is my wearable art,” Walker announces to the group, grinning. Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and the show’s curator, wouldn’t let him put it in the show so he’s wearing it instead. The crowd of a few dozen laughs at his act of loose defiance and Walker looks pleased.

He explains that the piece is a commentary on how, if America were to be tried in the World Court, it would be found guilty of many crimes against its people: for slavery, peonage, Jim Crow laws and more. America condemned the Nazis’ mass killing of Jewish people in the early 20th century, but America refuses to see its own history of genocide, beginning (but not ending) with the American Indians, he says.

As the artist describes each of the 13 works in the show—the lynching of Bootjack McDaniels, the faces drawn on crumpled paper bags, a bow tie-wearing Ku Klux Klansman—the eye watches the people watching Walker and his art, making them aware of their place among these works, these ideas, this history…and how some of this history has been obscured.

“There is always a witness” to your actions, Walker wants his viewers to know. Either someone else sees you, or God sees you, and, at the very least, you yourself know what you’ve done.

It goes back to a Bible parable about hypocrisy, he says: “Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye?”

Seeing history

Eyes are all over Walker’s Starr Hill studio—they’re drawn on scraps of paper strewn among books, magazines, newspapers and at least one Bible, and scattered atop the drafting table he uses as a desk. Family photos cover the walls—of his three children and nine grandchildren, his wife, his mother, his brother, photos of Walker as a younger man, his blue eyes even more striking beneath dark, curly hair.

“All my favorite junk is in here,” says Walker, who now wears dark, round-framed glasses, referring to his Redskins football helmets, manila folders full of family photos, his model soldiers and military paraphernalia—there’s a huge model tank in the front window of the studio, complete with soldiers and their gear.

X-acto knives rest on a blue pad, not far from a jelly jar one quarter full of brown liquid, a pickle jar with brushes, tips up, in another. There are easels, empty frames, half-painted canvases and fully rendered figures as well as paintings Walker’s exhibited in previous shows. Fluorescent tube lights buzz quietly overhead.

“This is my element,” Walker says, sitting back in his desk chair. “This is my dream since I was a child, to have a studio and do artwork. I have worked for 40-something years to get to this place, and when I’m here, if I want to burp, I don’t have to say ‘Excuse me’ to nobody! This is a great place to be,” he says, laughing.

Photos by Sanjay Suchak

“Most people know Frank from hangin’ in the street, because he’s just a regular guy who likes to hang with his friends,” says Douglas, who got to know Walker while curating two of his previous art shows. Others know his family’s legacy—Jackson-Via Elementary School is named in part for his great-grandmother, longtime public school teacher Nannie Cox Jackson; another relative, Cox Jackson, built what would become one of the largest advertising companies in Charlottesville in the first half of the 20th century, doing the playbills for the Jefferson Theater and more.

Known for his sense of humor—Douglas says “he’s funny as hell”—Walker cracks up when telling stories of how he and his brother, Bo, used to take flying leaps into a sand pit at the end of Fifth and Sixth streets, and jokes about how his work will never be as valuable as Picasso’s but it might make it onto “Antiques Roadshow.” He nearly loses it when describing an anatomically correct genitalia door knocker that Bo, who grew up to become a sculptor, once made. When he finds out this article publishes just a few days after his 65th birthday and on D-Day, to boot, he can’t stop smiling. “I love it. I love it,” he says, slapping his desk with his hand. “I love it!”

“Frank lets you be whomever you feel like being in the moment, when you’re talking to him,” adds Douglas.

That sort of relationship has been particularly important to Jae Jae Johnson, Walker’s nephew by marriage and a fellow artist who considers Walker his mentor. When Walker told Johnson he had “an eye” for portraiture, he started taking his work more seriously.

“The idea that we can be whatever we want to be in this world is a powerful thing…no artist really becomes something unless they are nurtured in that way.” Andrea Douglas

It’s hard to drop by Walker’s studio for a quick visit, says Johnson. Stop in to say hello and it’s likely you’ll stay for three hours, perhaps talking about the U.S. Army’s Red Ball Express, a trucking outfit of predominantly black soldiers that moved supplies during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, making sure American troops didn’t run out of food, ammunition and gasoline (and yet, they’re rarely mentioned in Hollywood movies). “It doesn’t infuriate me” that these stories are left out of the narrative, Walker says, “but it makes me want to go find these stories and tell them even more, because I know what had happened.”

Walker’s knowledge of the history of Charlottesville is “unrivaled,” says Johnson, 30, who also grew up in the city. “I haven’t met anybody else who knows the inner workings of Charlottesville from the past 50 years” like Walker does, he says. “It makes his art stand out more, because he actually knows a lot of the people” he paints and draws.

Walker’s seen the history himself, and he wants us to see it, too.

A mighty pencil

Franklin Walker was born June 3, 1953, in the basement of the University of Virginia hospital to Henderson “Kat” Walker and Teresa Jackson Walker (now Teresa Price). “That’s where colored folks were born,” says Walker. He grew up in the Starr Hill neighborhood, and he and Bo played “all over,” in their own neighborhood, up and down West Main Street and Vinegar Hill

As a boy, Walker loved comic books, especially “Sgt. Rock” and “The Haunted Tank,” both of which eventually included black characters in their storylines, which Walker found exciting. He copied scenes from the comic books with paper and pencils, drawing the figures and weaponry in great detail.

He had his first art show in the summer of 1967, in the Nalle Street backyard of local folk artist and civil rights activist Frances Brand. “We called her The Purple Lady, because everything she wore was purple,” Walker recalls. Walker, Bo and their friends Earl Gordon and Gerald Mitchell all pinned their artwork to a clothesline stretched across the yard: Altogether, they earned a little more than $23 and spent it on candy (Walker choose Mary Janes).

All four grew up to have art-related careers: Bo became a sculptor, Gordon a collage artist and art teacher, Mitchell an artist and gallery owner.  “We all chose that career because someone thought enough of some black children to expose them to things of that nature,” says Walker, the only one of the four who is still alive.

“Frank’s mother, to keep him quiet, gave him paper and pencil so that she could get on with her stuff,” says Douglas. “The idea that we can be whatever we want to be in this world is a powerful thing…no artist really becomes something unless they are nurtured in that way.”

Shown here in a photo taken by local photographer Kenneth Allen, Bo (left) and Frank Walker would both grow up to be artists.

After graduating from Lane High School in 1971, Walker earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University before enlisting in the U.S. Army.

“In my lifetime, it’s like everywhere I’ve been I’ve had an art-related experience that got me from one place to another,” says Walker. As a small arms repairman stationed at Hohenfels, Germany, he drew weapons in his downtime and hung the pictures up in his bunk. One day, the colonel came through, saw the work and reassigned Walker to an engineering unit as a draftsman.

Walker later worked in the graphics department at Fort McPherson in Atlanta before returning to Charlottesville in the late 1970s. A retired Marine hired Walker as a medical illustrator in the department of art, photography and television at the University of Virginia Medical Center. There, his attention to detail continued to serve him well. “You can’t mistakenly illustrate a body part” for medical students, for practicing physicians, surgeons and anesthetists, Walker says; the consequences can be deadly.

He enjoyed the work, strange as it was, though the job wasn’t always easy. Once, he and another artist had to go to the morgue, snap on gloves and with the smell of formaldehyde in their noses, look through bags of legs to find an example of compartment syndrome.

Walker was the only person of color in the department, and he remembers arriving one morning to a group of white women crying. “What in the world happened?” Walker asked.

“Nigger got hit by a car,” one teary-eyed woman replied.

Walker didn’t quite believe what he was seeing, and hearing. “What? Nigger got hit by a car?” he asked to clarify. He hadn’t seen white folks so upset over the death of a black person.

Turns out, “Nigger” was the name of someone’s black cocker spaniel.

“I guess that was supposed to slide off my back,” Walker says, adding that he never mentioned the incident—or his feelings about it—to anyone at the time. “It felt [like] I didn’t mean much, maybe, to them,” Walker says. “But it never stopped me from being aggressive in my work. I didn’t have a degree in medical illustration, but I got to do it. Sheer talent.”

Walker worked as a medical illustrator for more than 19 years, until the university closed the department. He’d been doing odd jobs painting signs for local businesses and drawing portraits for local families, so he eventually went into business for himself, opening Walker’s Ink. When computer programs like Adobe Photoshop—which Walker considers “brilliant”—made it easier for companies to do their own graphics, Walker closed his shop and went to work for a paint store, then for Northrop Grumman building computers and making detailed drawings of said computers when the digitally rendered diagrams weren’t clear enough.

Now retired, Walker paints and draws when he feels like it. He does so while taking care of his “very spirited” 92-year-old mother, a retired schoolteacher. “I paint for Frank. I don’t paint for anybody else,” he says.

And while he doesn’t paint for anybody else, it’s clear that there’s always someone on his mind when he makes art: his brother.

Bond of brothers

Henderson Day “Bo” Walker was just a year and a half older than Frank, and the two were inseparable. They played together, created together, and when both grew up to become artists, they talked art.

Bo’s work is “significant,” says Douglas, who notes that one of Bo’s sculptures, “Frederick Douglass Ikenga,” is in the collection of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and it’s impossible to not wonder what his art career would have looked like had he not died of pneumonia at age 35, in July 1986. His New York Times obituary declared him “a sculptor known for his commemorative bronzes of black political and cultural leaders.”

One of Bo Walker’s sculptures, “Frederick Douglass Ikenga,” is in the collection of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

When Bo died, Walker cleaned out his brother’s Brooklyn studio. It smelled of clay, Walker says, and he managed to keep on task until he opened a drawer full of photos of the two brothers. That was the moment Walker realized he would never see Bo again. “And then the tears came,” he says. “I howled, screamed.”

Walker lives in the home he and Bo grew up in, a house built by their grandfather. Now, he shares it with his wife, Cece, and it functions as Walker’s personal gallery, its walls covered in some of his most treasured pieces—a drawing of his oldest grandson, a black Jesus, a drawing of a woman in shattered glass that represents a battered woman, a drawing of his paternal grandmother and her sisters, and many others. His portrait of Malcolm X hangs near a corner occupied by one of Bo’s sculptures of the same subject. In the living room and dining room, the brothers’ works mingle, Walker’s paintings and drawings among his reinvigoration of Bo’s maquettes, which were done in plaster before Walker spray-painted them black and then copper.

In Walker’s studio, just one street over, there’s a black-and-white childhood photograph tacked on the side of a bookshelf—Bo on the left, Frank on the right, wearing crisp light shirts and dark shorts, their faces clean and their legs filthy. “We loved dirt,” Walker says, laughing as he remembers how his mother washed their faces and changed their shirts only, not thinking that the photographer might go for a full-length shot. Walker says the photo is evidence of what they’d become: Two men who loved getting their hands dirty.

Bodies of work

Anyone new to Walker’s work will notice that he paints and draws African American people almost exclusively, in great detail and usually (but not always) without a specific setting or a background. “I like for my figure to stand out,” he says.

When asked why he draws people, Walker replies with a smile: “I’ve always been drawn to people.”

He’s always revered the human body, how it’s at once quite powerful and quite vulnerable. What also amazes him is how some people treat bodies—black bodies, especially—as if they are nothing. And so the way in which Walker depicts in his art African American people is significant, says Douglas.

“If you spend your time looking at Frank Walker’s work, what you’d be looking at are hands and eyes,” says the Jefferson School’s Douglas. “I think that has to do with his desire to create psychology and speak to the notion of labor, simultaneously, in the body.” Douglas says that each of the pieces in Walker’s current show at the Jefferson School “do hard work, and they come from hard work.”

It’s evident perhaps most clearly in “Working Hands,” in which Walker has painted from a photograph a black woman wearing a maid’s white uniform, sitting in a chair, hands resting in her lap, hands rendered with such care that one can almost feel her pulse through her visible veins. Walker says he was compelled to paint this woman because of her hands, how strong they look and how they show all of the hard work that she’s done throughout her life.

“Frank Walker: New Work” is on view at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center contemporary gallery through July 7. The exhibit includes “Untitled (Woman in Window),” shown here.
Individually, the 13 works in the show (including “Working Hands,” shown here) explore themes of labor, watchfulness, who guns and gun laws actually protect, how slavery continued by another name even after abolition and much more.
“About the Recycle Bin” is another of the pieces on view in Walker’s current show. Overall, the show looks at how black bodies are treated as erasable, disposable and replaceable in America.

That notion of work, of labor, speaks to the physical labor African Americans have done for centuries, from picking cotton to cleaning houses, and to the emotional labor of, among other things, fighting for equality and civil rights. And then there’s the way that Walker himself has labored to depict this woman’s body and her story.

Over and over Douglas refers to Walker’s figures as “heroic,” because black bodies are inherently heroic, for all that they have endured, Douglas says, from the beginnings of African slavery in the Americas in the 1500s to the deadly police brutality of present day.

Walker puts all of his care and detail into the figure, into the folds of the fabric or the curve of a button. And while he sometimes includes sculptural elements, they never detract from the figure. In Walker’s work, “there’s a suggestion that we’re going somewhere,” says Douglas.

A vicious cycle

Walker’s current show in many ways represents an evolution for the artist. He’s long been known in the community as a portraitist (he and Johnson had a joint show, “Visage,” at New City Arts in April), but in recent years, his work has become more political.

Douglas chalks that up to an urge to respond to what’s happening in his world.

Walker says that’s part of it, yes, but the other part is that he’s been reading more—books like Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America have helped him understand a much broader, more complete and thus more complicated narrative of race in America. He feels far more informed now than when he was a kid on a class trip to Monticello, where the tour guides told the children that the enslaved people loved what they did at Monticello and were happy working for Mr. Jefferson. “We almost bought into it,” Walker says, until they learned what slavery was really about.

A handful of the pieces in “New Work” explore the idea of African Americans as “throwaway people” through faces drawn on brown paper bags. The idea is a brown paper bag is a common item; you use one to carry your lunch, and once it’s served its purpose, the bag is crushed, thrown in the trash. The following day, the process is repeated, just with a different brown paper bag.

Walker painted the smiling face of his longtime friend Sunny (who died a few years ago) onto one of these bags for “Sunny’s Fried Chicken,” where Walker imagines Sunny as the mascot for a fried chicken joint. “He had a hard life,” Walker says, and while Sunny was a unique person, his story isn’t. Sunny was hit by a dump truck as a kid and nearly killed; at age 8, he was caught stealing from a grocery store, arrested and tossed into jail (there was no juvenile system at the time). It was the first of many such incidents for Sunny, who Walker says spent most of his life in prison, where he was stabbed and where he read voraciously. As an artist in his own right, Sunny could make pastels look like paint.

Unraveling painful threads

Walker’s images, especially the ones currently at the Jefferson School, are provocative, and each one contains a different, though related, message about how African Americans are treated in the United States. This particular show addresses the idea that in America, black bodies can be (and have been) erased in all manner of ways. “It’s blatant and it’s subtle,” says Douglas of the way in which Walker presents these ideas.

And while the pieces are serious, there’s tenderness in the way Walker has rendered the figures and the faces (an exception might be the Ku Klux Klansman, painted in an unflattering cartoony fashion).

At the exhibition opening, a young black girl stood in front of “The Lynching of Bootjack McDaniels” and asked a black woman, “What’s a lynching?” The woman explained how it might happen physically—it’s when a group of people kills someone, maybe hangs them by the neck from a tree—before the little girl asked, “Why would anyone want to do that?” The woman took a long pause, perhaps trying to figure out which thread of the complicated story to hand her. Before the woman could answer, the girl’s father called for her and she left; the woman seemed either relieved or disappointed that she didn’t have the chance to answer.

A couple stood in front of one of the “throwaway people” pictures and wiped away tears.

Across the room, three older white folks discussed the formal quality of Walker’s work, talking about the extraordinary detail paid to “Working Hands.” He’s too good to be in Charlottesville, they declared.

And while it’s true that Walker’s work could be exhibited anywhere, Douglas later says this sort of comment irks her. “He’s exactly where he’s supposed to be,” she says.

Charlottesville resident Barbara Yager, who serves as the health and wellness consultant for City of Promise, wanted her living room to be a place for conversation and contemplation, and filled it with a painting by a Japanese artist on one wall and a painting by a Nepalese artist on another. There’s a large rug depicting a fertility scene woven by a Navajo artist, and on the opposite wall, a Frank Walker painting of an African American woman dressed in aubergine, skirt and apron swinging as she walks, steadying with both hands a basket of cotton atop her head.

Yager finds it interesting how many visitors to her home don’t see the woman, even though the four-foot tall painting on board is displayed prominently and lit from beneath with a lamp. As is the case with black women in too many other settings, “she’s invisible,” says Yager. But this woman in purple, “she reminds me to get up and do something.”

Piecing it together

Walker’s not entirely sure what direction his work is taking, though he’s certain it’ll continue to be political, influenced by history with an eye to what the future might be. Picasso, Walker’s favorite artist, followed the rules until he didn’t, painting traditional figures, then pulling them apart into cubes and putting them back together in a different, but still effective, evocative way. Walker gets the sense that he, too, is ready to break some rules, and while he’s not sure what that will look like, he knows what he wants to say.

“Look at all the hyphenation we’ve been through in America,” Walker says. “Colored…negro…Afro-American, African-American. What I want everyone to feel is American.” (Not that he wants people to forget the African part; he’s not for erasing history.) “And black people have earned that right. They are part of the soil, [a physical] part of this country. Their DNA is in the soil. It’s at the bottom of the ocean. It is here; it is not going anywhere,” he says.

Walker hopes that those who view his work “will get a sense of value for human beings.” He wants people to look at Bootjack McDaniels, chained to a tree, shot and burned to death for a murder he was never tried for, and ask themselves how anybody could be cruel enough to do that to another person. How can anyone shoot a child with no gun in her hand? Ignore the hard work done by a maid’s hands? To look at Sunny, know his life story, and not feel a pang of sympathy for him?

What is it going to take for society to value black and brown lives in the same way we value white lives? This is the question Walker’s work poses to its viewer.

“I hope that peace will find everybody in America,” says Walker. “I hope that America lives up to its name,” the United States, he says. “I have already tried to do my part by doing it through art, through [military] service.”

He poses this question in his work in part for his children and grandchildren. “I want them to be educated, I want them to have a fair shot at life. I’m at the end of human life—this is the back side for me,” he says. “What I can do is tell my story and my history through art. That’s my way of fighting back. I don’t care if somebody likes what I do, or don’t like what I do. I’m gon’ tell it,” he exclaims with a laugh. “I’m gon’ tell it, and I seen what you done!”

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