Power Portraits : Art: Rarely exhibited works by the founder of the El Camino College art department--an artist whose stock in trade is boldness--are being shown at the Palos Verdes Art Center.
It is the power, the awesome technical skill, for which the drawings of Palos Verdes Estates artist Mildred K. Walker are known. If her nude studies suddenly sprang to life, they would surely stride, not walk, off the wall and out the door.
“She’s not a meek artist,” said Walker’s friend and former student Maurizio Barattucci.
Walker herself speaks boldly about her art. “I don’t have a hang(up) with whether people like what I do or not,” she said. “At this stage of things, I know what I do and it’s well done. I don’t care what people say about it.”
What people say about Walker, a gray-haired woman with a dry wit who is said to be approaching 80 but declines to tell her age, is that she is a master artist. In art education circles she has been widely known for years, having founded the art department at El Camino College in 1947.
She spent more than 30 years launching legions of students into successful art careers after studying in the 1940s with such well-known figures in Los Angeles art history as Rico LeBrun and Francis de Erdely.
“Her passion doesn’t lie in showing her art,” said Anne Morris, exhibition director at the Palos Verdes Art Center, where a rare Walker show is under way. “She’s more interested in teaching, in communicating with people,” Morris said.
What Morris called an unusually high number of visitors has been traipsing to the art center to view the exhibit, “Drawing From Life: A Retrospective of Figurative Drawings by Mildred K. Walker.”
Forty-one rarely seen drawings--including graceful studies of human and animal figures, two thematic series and a collection of satiric works mocking the vain and pompous--are on exhibit through Jan. 9.
The drawings are almost exclusively brown and black chalk renderings, save for the occasional pencil sketch and one pale, color-washed nude.
Walker professes to love both painting and color. “But, just for the whole heart and soul,” she said, raising and tensing her hands for emphasis, “I love that dark, heavy coloring.”
Figures emerge and recede into the deep, dark pools that appear in so many of her drawings, particularly the thematic ones--the Berlin Wall series, the Kafka metamorphosis series.
“I take the view that life is a constant, flowing thing,” she said during a recent interview at the gallery.
None of the drawings, though many are quite large, are under glass.
“No glass. I told them no glass,” Walker said. “I want people to feel some unity (with the work). I don’t want them to be separated by glass. I draw with power and meaning and with a calling. I have something to say.”
One of the things Walker says she always told her students at the college, and later when she taught for a time at the Palo Verdes center, is that mastering technique and subject is the key to freeing the creative juices.
Artistic success, she said, is in “large part . . . knowing so well what you’re doing, you don’t have to stop and think about it. You just do it.
“So much of this,” she said at one point, sweeping her arm about in a gesture to encompass her drawings, if not all art, “becomes a non-thinking process like dancing and walking. If you had to stop and think about it, you’d never do it.”
Walker’s skill is such that she can say, referring to a particularly beautiful drawing of a woman’s head, “That was just one of those snap-off jobs.”
It took her 20 minutes, she said, to sketch the head during a class in which her students were drawing the same model.
There was a time--as a teaching technique for herself and her students--that Walker took to recording the number of minutes it took her to complete a drawing. She would note it just below her signature.
She abandoned the practice after deciding, “Who cares? Knock it off. Do you mind?”
Willie Suzuki, a former student who now teaches art at El Camino College, said Walker used to doodle during faculty meetings, turning out hand and head sketches. “People would be looking in the wastebaskets afterward,” he said.
Suzuki said he still has a Walker drawing, one she discarded as unfit, tucked away in a storage area at the college. When students come across it, he said, they demand to know the name of the artist.
“They’re in absolute awe,” he said.
The only child of a fundamentalist preacher in the Midwest, Walker began to draw as soon as she was old enough to put pencil to paper. Her childhood drawings, she recalled, always depicted people’s legs, from the knees down to the feet.
Years later, she said, she figured out that was because lower legs are what a small child sees most often.
After graduating from a church-sponsored college, she taught high school English and art and later went to Columbia University in New York City to study art. Eventually she made her way to Los Angeles, where she earned a master of fine arts degree at USC.
Walker said she has never tried to promote her work on the gallery circuit, showing it only occasionally in response to personal requests from people who know her.
“I feel personally that my most valuable contribution to the art field is in teaching,” she said.
Barattucci called her “a very demanding teacher and, obviously, extremely serious. As an art student you could not really fool around.
“The energy she had for art, she put into teaching, giving her art, her talent, her knowledge.”
Suzuki, who also has high praise for Walker’s teaching talents, pointed out that becoming well-known in the commercial world of art means putting much of one’s energy into self-promotion. He said he has wondered over the years whether it was lack of interest or lack of self-confidence that kept Walker from promoting herself.
If an assessment by art center exhibit director Morris is any clue, it was the lack of interest in commercialism. Self-promotion is not part of Walker’s makeup, Morris said. “I had difficulty in getting her to put a value on her work for insurance purposes.”
As for Walker, she does not wonder about any of it. She says she is comfortable with her place in the art world. “I’m definitely a teacher who draws,” she said. “Teaching, that’s been my joy all along.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.