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Wearable art's Walker explores personal themes in latest piece

Posted: February 16, 2012 - 12:01am
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Anna Gonwa Ramonda models David Walker's first-prize piece, "The Beast in the Beauty," during Sunday's Wearable Art Extravaganza at Centennial Hall.   Libby Stringer
Libby Stringer
Anna Gonwa Ramonda models David Walker's first-prize piece, "The Beast in the Beauty," during Sunday's Wearable Art Extravaganza at Centennial Hall.

For many artists who participate in the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council’s Wearable Arts show, preparing a piece for the runway involves getting used to a new — and often very odd — three dimensional medium.

For artist Kathy Kartchner, this year it was mussel shells (for “Lady Blue,” which won second prize); in 2010 it was plastic milk jugs (“Milk Maid”).

For Teresa Busch, this year it was panty-hose and nylons (“Painfully Beautiful”); in 2010 it was moss and bark (“Pieces of Peace”) and in 2007 it was dental wire (“Brace Yourself”).

First-time participant Larry DePute used airplane parts (“Still Flying,” which won third prize), and veteran artist Joanie Waller made use of coffee cup lids (“Solar Infusion Coffee”).

Douglas artist David Walker, who took home the top prize this year, has taken a different approach to this popular annual event. For Walker, who has participated in 10 of Juneau’s 12 shows, the creative process has involved increasing command of his chosen medium: wood, specifically wood veneer. In every show but the 2011 show, in which he worked with recycled wire, Walker has used his expertise as a furniture maker and carpenter to create exquisite works in wood that frequently wind up as audience favorites — not only in Juneau, but at the World of Wearable Art show in Wellington, New Zealand. Walker has placed in three of the four WOW shows he has entered, bringing home the “supreme winner” award in 2009 for “Lady of the Wood,” a Marie-Antoinette style ball gown. In Juneau his wood gowns have eared him a prize in every show he’s entered.

But though this year’s Juneau entry, “The Beast in the Beauty,” was also crafted of wood veneer, the piece was an entirely new experience for Walker, in that it was imbued with a personal, highly emotional meaning. The dress, crafted of birds-eye and padauk veneer, was inspired by Walker’s reaction to his wife Rene’s experiences in dealing with cancer.

“Its the first time I’ve ever put any kind of theme or any kind of emotional piece on it,” he said. “It was scary actually, to do that. It was risky.”

Walker said his wife was not thrilled with the idea at first. Though she holds a public position in the community, as a first grade teacher at Gastineau Community School, and lots of people were aware of her situation, she wasn’t sure how the piece would work as art.

“Your first impression is, ‘Oh my god you re going to do a piece on cancer. It’s going to be a total downer, it’s going to be ugly.’ But as I went through it and worked with her, and showed her what I was going to do, and that it was going to actually be a beautiful piece, ... she warmed to it.”

The couple, who met in Haines and have two children, worked together to tone down aspects that Rene thought might be a little too “in your face,” Walker said. She suggested adding the heart at the front of the bodice, for example, representative of the person within.

Though the piece includes a warrior-type helmet, and exudes strength in its elegant design, Walker said for him it isn’t primarily about fighting the disease, but about learning how to deal with the daily burdens it imposes.

“The piece is more about living with cancer, it’s more about the day to day, the monotony of going through it,” he said.

Every aspect of the design has significance for the artist — from the helmet, shaped to echo a bald head as well as a wig, to the placement of contrasting woods on the breasts and skirt, to represent the symbol for radioactivity, to the mechanical piece on the back, which includes a syringe and a knife, representing treatment and surgery.

Walker said he didn’t expect the audience to be aware of all the details he included, but he hoped that the emotion behind the work would come across.

And it did. The audience’s reaction to the piece, expertly modeled by Anna Gonwa Ramonda and accompanied by Green Day’s “I Walk Alone,” was overwhelmingly positive.

“That night, not knowing exactly how it was going to be taken, I was nervous,” Walker said. “It could have been a mistake. You just never know how people are going to react to such a thing.”

But as soon as Ramonda stepped on stage, Walker said he could tell the audience’s reaction was heartfelt.

“And afterwards, so many people came up and were so moved by it,” he said. “It did what I wanted it to do. I mean, I didn’t want people to cry, that wasn’t the purpose, but I wanted it to be an emotional piece.”

In creating the dress, Walker used a variety of techniques. Some elements, like the sleeves, were steamed into shape, while others, like the widely flared skirt, were glued on to an aluminum backing. To create the helmet, Walker pieced together more than 25 individual pieces of veneer, using a chopped up kids’ hockey helmet as a shaping guide. Then, using scotch tape as a temporary adhesive to hold the pieces in place on the outside, he glued the helmet’s pieces together with contact cement on the inside, following each seam with Tyvek paper.

For all parts of the dress he used extremely thin veneer, in this case an orangey red padauk and a light golden bird’s-eye maple, which provided strong contrast between the elements.

Working with veneer can be challenging because it has very little give, Walker said, and can change its shape depending on humidity and the weather.

“(My pieces) don’t form to the body so they have to be pretty right on to work,” he said.

The design process for Walker begins with lots of sketching. Then, after deciding what is actually feasible, he creates a prototype out of poster board, often trying it out on a dressmaker’s form. This part of the process is the longest, he said, as he often changes his design multiple times at this point, to accommodate the sometimes competing demands of wearability, durability, flow and beauty. Any pieces he plans to enter in the New Zealand show must be made to withstand quick changes and repeated wearings, and cannot be fragile or difficult to get on, he said. Over the course of about 10 shows, the event reaches more than 40,000 people, he said.

“The World of Wearable Art is like a massive Broadway production. Things have to come off and on, things have to endure multiple uses. It cant be fragile, it can’t have 20 ties on it.”

Sometimes, after the show, the pieces go on tour; one of Walker’s dresses is currently in Hong Kong, another is part of a museum display in New Zealand.

According to the World of Wearable art website (www.worldofwearableart.com), the show began in 1987 after Nelson sculptor Suzie Moncrieff organized a promotional event for a gallery, bringing together elements of art, design, movement and theater.

The Juneau show began in 2001, and Ketchikan’s stretches back 15 years earlier than that; the success of the Ketchikan show was part of the inspiration for Juneau’s event.

At some of the Juneau events over the years, Southeast artists have also created striking reminders of the fact that a different kind of wearable art has been designed and worn in our part of Alaska for thousands of years; traditional Alaska Native artforms such as Chilkat or Ravenstail weavings have been presented on the runway alongside more modern interpretations of traditional works.

One of the strengths of the show is the space it allows for artists to have their own voice, and their own inspiration, using virtually any medium they choose.

Walker said that for him, designing wearable art pieces is not that different from designing furniture.

“I’ve always really enjoyed playing with how things go together, in joinery,” he said. “So this is perfect, it’s like playing with that and making something out of nothing.”

Walker first came to Alaska from the Bay Area in the 1970s to work for the Youth Conservation Corps with the US Forest Service. He said he’s always been interested in art, but considered himself more of a craftsman than an artist.

“I’ve always enjoyed art — drawing, making jewelry, and I’ve done a little painting — but I’d never really found a niche. So this feels really good because it’s my thing. Now I do consider myself an artist.”

For now he’s happy to be building one piece a year, perfecting his unusual art form.

“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “Wearable arts has given me this outlet.”

For more on Wearable Arts in Juneau, visit www.jahc.org.

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