Art ‘en plein air’

Imagine standing at the edge of a tidal basin in Seal Point, Maine, during early spring – the muddy season. In the distance, the sun peeks out over the horizon, its morning rays causing the water and mud in the harbor to pick up an unexpected array of colors. Now imagine an oil painting that captures this facet of nature’s elegance perfectly. Paintings and prints such as this are the essence of “John Walker: Works on Paper, 1990-2004,” now on display in the School of Media and Public Affairs building’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.

John Walker, a master at printmaking, recreates the American landscape on paper. Two of his most notable works in the exhibit are “Box Canyon I and II.” For these large-scale etchings, Walker uses a printmaking technique known as carborundum aquatint, where he mixes grits of different textures with an adhesive and then applies them to a plate. Inking the plate and printing it on paper results in an expressive, spontaneous relief image reminiscent of what it is meant to represent: a rocky stream in Colorado.

Walker spent his childhood in Birmingham, England, and has lived in Maine for 30 years.

“It took me 15 years before I could see what I wanted to paint, and all it took was just sitting down,” he said in an interview at the exhibit.

Maine is, of course, a huge inspiration for the artist, but there are also hints of Goya and Rembrandt’s work in the 24 pieces included in the exhibit. This is evident in the way Walker plays upon luminosity, manipulating colors until they mimic natural light exactly. Taking a stroll through the gallery is like walking through the wild and primitive landscapes of America.

Also evident in Walker’s prints is the impact of a relatively obscure type of artwork. Walker has included bark paintings of Australian aborigines in his long list of artistic influences. This influence is perhaps most apparent in “The Forge,” which is made from a series of woodcuts, or designs cut into blocks of wood. Ink is applied to the raised surfaces of the wood, which is pressed onto the paper. Four of “The Forge” series are on display in the gallery. It is possible to see how Walker left the grain and texture of the wood visible in these final prints.

Walker, who teaches painting to graduate students at Boston University, believes in painting “en plein air,” which means going outside to paint what is in front of the paper.

“I take my students to Maine at the end of September. We are outside from seven in the morning until seven at night painting,” Walker said.

This is evident particularly in Walker’s smaller oil paintings on display in the gallery. The heavy application of paint is representative of the thick mud in Maine’s shoreline in the spring. Walker is also known for using unexpected materials in his paintings and prints. He has even used mud from Maine in some of his pieces. This combination of expected materials, like oil, and unexpected materials, such as mud, in his printmaking technique gives his work an organic quality that manages to more closely link his prints with nature.

The combination of a long list of artists and artistic genres that have influenced Walker and the willingness to combine classic materials with startling ones make his work truly unique. Simply standing in front of his paintings and prints and squinting ones eyes can help the viewer see exactly what Walker saw when he created these 24 works. He has a unique way of taking the beauties of nature that often slip under the radar and preserving them in all their primitive majesty.

“John Walker: Works on Paper” will be at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery on the second floor of the School of Media and Public Affairs building until Oct. 30. The gallery is open Tuesday – Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

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