Carrie Walker spoke to me about her path to contemporary art making and the curiosity that continues to drive her work. Walker’s art practice explores the fraught relationship between humans and non-human animals by looking at how humans write about, photograph and paint non-human animals. She uses original drawing, photography and video, as well as found and appropriated materials such as text, paintings and photographs. Humour and playfulness are a vital part of her work.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your passion for art?
Some of my most frustrating times as an artist was when I didn’t have the time or money to pursue my art career. There wasn’t a pivotal moment, it was more a case that abandoning my art was inconceivable.
Can you tell me about the process of making your work?
Most of my projects are a means to understand or learn about something. Not technique but knowledge. I like the idea of the “essay” from the French essayer. To try. Looking at art-making this way prevents me from worrying about successful outcomes. My projects are just tries. Even when I am doubtful of ideas I have for projects (in particular, the Robert Bateman project), I usually have to go ahead anyway because I need to see what happens or to understand something I’ve been wondering about.
Carrie Walker, Almost impossible to see (The Effect of Space Exhibition), watercolour, 22″ x 30″
We presented your exhibition “The Effect of Space” based on the Robert Bateman project and it was a great success. Did this encourage further exploration or tries?
It did. Prior to beginning that project, I had been drawing animals in a realistic style. When I would describe my work to people, they would say, oh, like Robert Bateman and I would reply, or at least think to myself, no, absolutely not like Robert Bateman. I needed to answer for myself clearly what distinguished what I was doing with animal imagery from what he does. I figured this could be done by looking closely at his work.
I bought a coffee table book of his paintings from the thrift store and started copying his paintings. I painted them the same size as the originals. I left out the landscape leaving patches of negative space on the animal figure where tree branches or rocks or something had been. I used watercolour on paper instead of oil or acrylic on canvas. What I came to understand was that my tendency to leave a lot of blank space in my work or to only draw the head of an animal, as I had often done, leaves room for the viewer’s imagination. I also enjoyed this project as Robert Bateman’s fortune was made by selling prints of his work. I found it comical to spend so much time copying one of his paintings by hand when prints of his work are so readily available.
This project raised other questions around the value of art and how original art functions versus a print. I have a burgeoning interest in visual literacy, or the lack thereof, in society. While there is no question of the value of literacy in our society, I feel that teaching literacy in materials is neglected.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Having the first solo show of my career in New York City was pretty exciting.
What is your favourite museum or gallery that you’ve visited?
I loved visiting the Musée d’Orsay. I was like, oh, that’s why they showed us this painting in art history. In particular seeing The Floor Scrapers, 1875, by Gustave Caillbotte in real life. It was so beautiful. I just finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tratt, a novel which features an actual 17 C. painting of the same name. The narrator makes an argument toward the end of the book that a reproduction of a painting can be very meaningful to someone. I wouldn’t argue against that, however, original art is untouchable.
I’d rather live with a lesser work of original art than a reproduction of a master. An original piece of art is like having a view of an entire other mind. I have art in my house that I don’t understand and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Looking at the marks someone made that they felt were important and that are utterly incomprehensible to me. That is a gift. To have the unknowable and you can look at it every day. It is a reminder that you are not the centre of the universe.
In reflecting back on your career what is the most useful advice you have received?
It’s okay to draw small, Carrie, just do it on bigger paper.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on an enterprise revolving completely around my dog, Guess. The first part is a YouTube channel and Instagram feed featuring videos of her carrying large sticks around the park. This is something she does on many of our daily walks. The project is called Guess with Sticks. I want to take the idea of the hilarious dog video and make it absurd through repetition.
From that came another idea which was to paint dogs that follow my dog on Instagram. Many people don’t know this but there are thousands of dog owners who have Instagram feeds for their dogs. The humans write in the dog’s voice. The whole feed is from the dog’s perspective. I created an account called My Dog’s Followers, @mydogsfollowers. I look at these Instagram feeds, find a dog I’d like to paint, paint its portrait, post it to my site and tag the dog. Then their human sees it and is surprised, usually pleasantly, sometimes ecstatically. I like the idea of spending more than an instant, spending hours instead, looking at a stranger’s dog.
What materials do you like to use and why?
I like pencil, pen and ink, watercolour, gouache, video. I like simplicity.
Do you interact with technology in your work?
I’ve been using social media platforms lately. I don’t use them as a means of promoting work I’ve done in the studio, but as a medium in themselves. I’m interested in the way language develops specifically for these platforms and more recently the growth of a dialect that is spoken by dogs on Instagram.
What single ethical question most impacts the decisions you make as an artist?
I’m concerned about climate change and I try to minimize my use of new materials as much as possible. Watercolour and gouache paints go a long way. I’ve been using the same set of paints I bought ten years ago. I’m averse to using solvents and any large quantity of any new material.
What advice would you give to a young person following in your footsteps?
I’d play for them the song that Lou Reed and John Cale wrote about Andy Warhol called, “WORK“. (click to view recording)
What is the book that you keep going back to that inspires you?
In the art writing department, for a long time it was John Berger’s essay, Why Look at Animals? Lately, it’s been Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. Her ideas are so slippery I could hardly tell you what she writes about except that she has argued that writing about dogs is a branch of feminist writing and that, in general, the relationship between dogs and people is something to be taken seriously.
If you could pick a work of art to live with, what would it be?
I’d like the Goldfinch painting by Carel Fabritius painted in 1654.
What do you hope people will experience when they look at one of your works?
Curiosity, mostly. I also like to make people laugh.
Carrie Walker recorded a video about My Dog’s Followers for this interview. You can follow her projects on instagram and her website: @mydogsfollowers carriewalker.ca