Five Things we can learn from Kara Walker

Here is another entry in my “Five Things” series.

Kara Walker is one of the most influential and successful artists working today. Her Post-Modern, multi-media work has been controversial – which is one mark of influence. She herself has attained multiple milestones of success from exhibitions in major galleries, to important international commissions, prestigious prizes, and recently election to the American Philosophical Society.

There is a plethora of images and discussions of her work online. I like this video where she talks about her own early success, and some of the ideas she tries to impart to her own students. Yes, she is also a teacher. Rather than reiterate what is available elsewhere, here are the five things I have been thinking about as I consider her impressive, and by no means over, career.

  1. Perseverance matters

Ms. Walker’s history mirrors that of many African Americans, of persevering in the face of criticism and racism. She persisted in exploring her particular interests in art, her unusual media, her thematic interests over time, evidently regardless of criticism or kudos. She seems fearless.

2.You can’t please everyone

It is futile to try to mold your practice or message to pleasing everyone. That is impossible. There will always be naysayers – who might even have a point sometimes. But it will help you to consider criticism as impetus, not impediment.

3. Study, learn, practice – become smart

Ms. Walker studied and found tremendous value in going to a college that was far from home and outside of the environment that has nonetheless informed much of her subject matter. Evidently it took a new environment to shake up her thinking and lead her in the direction that has become her life’s work. Plus she is very clever and is as verbally articulate as her art is impactful.

4. Find your style

There is a recognizable style to her work. She works in intentionally minimalist media much of the time, focusing on shape/form versus space, black and white, contrast and tones, with color a superimposed element. Her style is an indelible part of the content or theme of her work. The medium is equally with the subjects, the message.

5. If your art is personally meaningful, it will also be intriguing to others.

Kara Walker has a point of view. Agree, or not, it is clear and personal. She is intentional in her statements regardless of the scale – grand or personal – of the projects.


Further Reading:
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, December 6, 2004)