Painting, says John R. Walker, comes from the soul – it’s just what he does. But every so often he is treated to a glimpse of how it affects other people, a moment that inspires him to stay the course in a lonely profession.
Over the past 30 years, the works of this Braidwood artist have been collected and exhibited all over the world: from the National Gallery of Australia and Parliament House in Canberra to leading private collections.
But it was in a regional gallery in NSW where he received one of the clearest insights into how his work can affect its audience.
“Some years ago I had a work in the Orange Regional Gallery. It was a millennium drought piece; it was a big all corrugated iron and dried mud thing,” he says.
“They ended up putting it up at the Orange Hospital and one day I saw this old bushie in front of it. He was crying.
“The thing is, he got it … It was just so sincere.
“It’s not that I want to make people cry with my work; I just want to make people feel what the work is all about.”
A broad audience has just experienced one of John’s pieces – Eagle Spirit, Vathiwarta, which was honoured as a finalist in the 2022 Wynne Prize.
The artist is no newcomer to such honours. His name has been associated with the top art prizes, like the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne throughout his long career.
He will also be the first to tell you that where he lives affects what he puts down on his large canvases. For more than 20 years John has resided in Braidwood with his partner, freelance curator and writer Anne Sanders. As sometimes happens if you’re lucky, homes find their humans. The couple, formerly from Sydney, had visited the Braidwood district regularly to see friends.
“We were looking for somewhere to live outside Sydney,” John says.
“My work focuses on the land so I wanted to live in it.
“We ended up buying a place on the main street of town.”
The “awkward sort of block” they chose was bigger than most, giving John and Anne the perfect new home and room for a large studio for him out the back and an adjacent office for her.
“It was the first time I’d had a proper studio, not some derelict old factory,” John says.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘I could really work here’.
“If we hadn’t moved here I’ve no doubt I would have painted differently. I’m like a sponge, taking it in wherever I am.”
Most of John’s works are large scale. Vast landscapes that take up walls, all telling stories of a particular time and place, of country.
His preferred technique is to work on the canvas on the floor.
“I can tread on it whilst it’s on the floor but no one else can,” he says.
He then hangs it up on the wall to dry.
John reckons he had a dream start as an artist. A relatively unknown painter in Sydney at age 23, invitations went out for his first show in the western suburb of Leichardt.
As fate would have it, a better known English artist, of the same name had just moved to Sydney – and most of the invitees thought they were going to see “the other guy”, so a big crowd turned up at the Leichardt gallery.
“I don’t think all those people would have caught a taxi to Leichardt if they hadn’t thought I was him,” John says.
“Luckily they liked my stuff.
The show was a sell-out including one sale to the National Gallery of Victoria.
John and Anne have just returned from Sydney after seeing his work Eagle Spirit, Vathiwarta hanging in the 2022 Wynne exhibition.
It is part of a body of work he was inspired to paint after returning from a month in the northern Flinders Ranges and Pitcairn Station near Nakara in the arid lands of South Australia.
This body of work will be presented in his next exhibition Deep Time Painting at Utopia Art in Sydney next month.
The Wynne Prize exhibition is at the Art Gallery of NSW until 28 August 2022.
Deep Time Painting opens at Utopia Art Studio, Sydney on 4 June and will run until 25 August.