Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bad Girls

“I just draw by my own mission, you know. I just sit down and start to drawing.”
-Inez Nathaniel Walker

Inez Nathaniel Walker (née Stedman) was born in Sumter, South Carolina in 1911. Her mother died when she was two; her father was killed when she was 12 or 13. Inez moved north as a teenager and worked in food processing plants, settling in Philadelphia and later Port Byron, New York. She married in her teens and had four children. Around 1969 she was convicted of the “criminally negligent homicide” of a man who had allegedly abused her. She was sentenced to prison time at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford, New York in 1971 and was released by early 1973. It was during her time in prison that Inez began to draw, she said, to protect herself from the “bad girls.”

Walker worked exclusively in portraiture, using colored and lead pencils, crayons, pens, and markers to create her images. When she first began to draw she worked on the back of whatever paper she could get her hands on, from the prison newsletter, to training leaflets. Their similar palette, the forward-facing subject, and the similarities in the facial features, particularly the eyes, characterize her earlier works.

Elizabeth Bayley, a teacher in the prison, discovered Walker’s drawings after a class one day. Bayley “was struck by their originality, their humor and their amazing attention to detail.” Convinced of Walker’s talent, she showed the drawings to her friend Pat Parsons, who owned a gallery in town. Parsons quickly took an interest in Inez and the two became good friends. She encouraged Walker’s drawing, and provided her with better quality supplies. Parsons also put on Walker’s first exhibition, in her gallery in 1972.

Walker was known for her use of lines and patterns, often filling the page with them. The subjects of her drawings – it is not clear whether they depict the “bad girls” who surrounded her in prison – are rendered in a compelling and curious manner with an extraordinary attention to detail, something typical of folk artists. One of the most striking aspects of a Walker drawing is the eye. The vast majority of her subjects possess the same oversized eye that faces forward, regardless of the direction the body faces. The eye dominates the page in part because Walker always began by drawing the face and head, and then worked her way out until she ran out of page. The collection of the Fenimore Art Museum contains three of Inez Nathaniel Walker’s drawings: Man with Cigarette, Woman, and Woman with Hat.

Walker disappeared from society around 1980. Sadly, Pat Parson found her several years later, in the Willard Psychiatric Center in Willard, New York. Walker was in and out of the center for the last four years of her life, and died there in 1990. She left behind a collection of work remarkable in its size and consistency as well as in the remarkable manner in which the eyes engage the viewer. Clearly that is where the artist looked first to take the measure of a person.

This post was written by Johanna Blume of the Cooperstown Graduate Program as part of my elective course in American folk Art.

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