“Allow yourself to walk through this world with me. Put yourself in a frame of mind that you can allow whatever’s going to happen, happen, and be okay with it. If you walk into a room and immediately put up walls, you’ll never find the doors.”
– Brett Walker
Artist, husband, father and friend, Brett Walker is also a Mission hipster icon as one of Four Barrel’s most easily recognized baristas. He can sling shots of espresso from behind the counter while carrying on two simultaneous in-depth conversations on art or food or bicycle mechanics, while giving his daughter, Elanor, a kiss as her mother stands her up on the counter to say hello, while nodding to various other customers and receiving gifts of homegrown eggs or produce, or some other amazing little homemade object his customers gift upon him.
Walker balances his multiple identities in one seamless flow as part of his art-making practice, where he captures the cacophony of his daily life, between riding his bicycle from the outer Sunset to work in the café in the Mission, or to Berkeley, sitting stoic through crits from fellow MFA students, and all the while capturing his life in immediate and instantaneous ways.
Over the years Walker’s art has included videos, sculptures, installations and photography, and his current work is about the immediacy of capturing life as it is happening, more than any specific medium or subject matter. The honesty in his pursuit is captured in his comprehensive final graduation show, on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through June 10, titled “Getting the Big Picture,” which encapsulates photographic imagery, a work table, a broken disco ball, shelves and a self-modeled piñata. That several of the images are taken by his friends and family reflects Brett’s reluctance towards a constraining formal body of art, and shows that the practice of capturing life as it happens is all a part of the whole.
The Rumpus: How would you say your art-making began?
Brett Walker: I had always desired to “do something.” Growing up much of what I was exposed to seemed passive; the environment I came from and the activities that many people I encountered participated in only seemed to reinforce that passivity. I definitely wanted to challenge and add to the cultural landscape. I don’t think I understood this then as I do now, but from an early age I always drew and wanted to draw well. The idea of the artist was really appealing to me, but at the time I understood art-making as something that was much more concerned with a sense of skill and technical accomplishment. I don’t feel like I’ve ever had any proper skill as an artist, at least not in the classic sense. But I drew and as I got older I played music, piano and guitar and I played in really bad bands in high school. We recorded music and played shows around town. It was all really cute. I also wrote on the newspaper in high school and participated in theatre, skateboarded and went to rock shows. The usual stuff. And I of course made pictures. But it really wasn’t till I was about 20 or so, when I was going to school in Seattle doing commercial photography that I learned that there was something greater out there than what I had been exposed to before.
Rumpus: Tell me about your relationship to photography as a practice, and how your relationship with the idea of a formal body of work has changed, and ultimately allowed you more freedom to express yourself.
Walker: I initially came to make photographs through an interest stirred by how my family made pictures in the domestic setting. This wasn’t “making pictures” as a conscious act, it was just something my family, and many other families, did to document existence, to create records of travels and moments in time. Most importantly in this photographic discovery was my grandfather, Big Al, who was by most accounts an “amateur” photographer whose day job was as a business exec. I never got to fully talk photography with my Grandpa Big Al before he died, but he was always making pictures of things, and though he may not have thought of it as anything other than records of family life, his thousands of Kodachrome slides tell a different sort of story.
I had a hard time in photo school, of making sense of how one develops and finishes a body of work. I encountered a lot of rules that I didn’t agree with and that didn’t jive with how I understood the photograph. Things about formal bodies of work, where they begin and end, who the artist actually is, how a photo should look, technical things like focus and exposure, tack-sharp corners, sequencing and presentation. When I was in school in Seattle way back in the day, I presented some photographs to one of my instructors, he took one look at them and asked me what kind of camera I was shooting on. When I told him I was using a Hasselblad, he angrily told me, “Then make pictures that look like they were shot on a Hasselblad,” and tossed the prints back in my lap. I had a lot of similar moments like that all through my early schooling.
I think part of why I struggled making sense of photography during my first rounds of college was because what I was being exposed to and taught was in stark contrast to what I had learned at home, from just making pictures on a 35mm camera and having them processed into 4×6’s at the one-hour lab and then stuck in a photo album that sat on our coffee table.
Rumpus: How much is parenting a part of your practice? Or are there disparate parts of Brett Walker? Do you think about the art you’re making now, and how Elanor may interpret it later?
Walker: I am always thinking about what I am doing with regard to Elanor and my wife Kathleen. I worry more about Elanor having to live with this weird sort of archive I am creating. I believe Harry Callahan stopped making photographs of his daughter after a certain point; I think she just didn’t want to participate anymore, and I totally anticipate that happening with Elanor. I also think that the kind of work I could potentially make with her when she is 12 or 13 would be very different from the work now.
As far as the practice, I think there is something about parenting, but also just kids in general, how they learn and what seems totally natural to them, which plays a huge part in my work and thinking. For instance, we have this old wooden train set, and one day Elanor was playing with the tracks out in our living room and I went in to join her. I sat down and was watching her lay out the tracks. There is this one bridge section that has two ramps that lead up to this high bridge-like section. She had the two ramps assembled backwards so they essentially created a half pipe sort of shape. I immediately began to correct her and to try and show her how the pieces were actually meant to be assembled but suddenly caught myself and realized that there was absolutely no reason in the world why the tracks couldn’t have been assembled as she had done, and that it was only my prior knowledge of the train track set and how it should be constructed that was determining that what Elanor was doing was wrong.
Rumpus: You have several photos in your exhibit that were taken by other people, which completely dismantles the notion of the photographer as The Artist. Can you discuss how your daughter’s photos factor in to your practice? And other people’s photos?
Walker: This project has really become about making pictures, and figuring out what that means in an age of camera phones, ultra-affordable, compact, high-resolution cameras and photo sharing social media such as Twitter and Instagram and such. I was about to say “I had to relearn,” but as I think back on it, I don’t think I ever learned how to take pictures when I was in photo school to begin with, and rather what I learned in photo school only served to confuse and disrupt the natural method of picture making that I had learned just from being aware of the camera in the domestic setting growing up. I naively allowed school to teach me that the artist was the one making the photograph, but this negated the fact that the photo album sitting on my parents’ coffee table was full of pictures made by many different people. As I have come to learn and define a process of photography that works well for me, it has become important to consider and include the photographs of others and their relation to the work I am making.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about the trust aspect in your work, how the people in your life and you photos implicitly trust you, and therefore are willing to partake in your artmaking endeavors. You’ve mentioned that you would never ask anyone to do something for a photo that you yourself were not willing to do. How is this relevant in your experience of making “The Colleagues”–taking the antique sledgehammer and getting not only your friends and fellow cafe workers to take their shirts off and join you barefoot in the alley, but also customers were willing to jump in and be a part of your world/work?
Walker: I have asked this sort of question to a variety of people over the course of the last couple weeks, and have received a variety of answers. The one that stuck out to me the most was from my friend Bob who was originally a customer of mine at Four Barrel and is now a friend and participant in “The Colleagues,” which I made this past winter. Bob told me that I seem to have an ability to get people to do things that they may not have considered doing or been comfortable doing in the past.
As for exactly how I am able to do that, I am not entirely sure, trust or otherwise. I do feel blessed beyond belief to have such an amazing and diverse community of people around me who are willing to help create this weird sort of communal and cultural landscape. I am hesitant to even say it’s created, as I really feel like it’s a much more organic and unintentional act and I believe it’s less about trust, and more about a community of creative-minded people. I feel like at some point or another I have collaborated with all these people, either collectively or individually. We all have somewhat similar goals and desires and I think also an understanding of the communal environment that we all live within.
“The Colleagues” is a great example of this. Every person in that photograph I have engaged with in some sort of creative capacity outside of my own art. Additionally, with the exception of two people, all of those people have been inside my home and to some extent are pretty close friends of the family. I understand the aspect of trust, I believe, but I feel like trust is just par for the course when one builds a community around them of like-minded people.
Rumpus: How important is teaching to you? How has your experience at Berkeley getting your MFA the past few years evolved you as an artist?
Walker: Teaching is 100 percent important and valuable to me, and the one thing that I would like to do more of but am not so sure I know exactly how to do the kind of teaching I would like to do right now. That said, my opinions about teaching have changed drastically since I’ve been in school. I am trying to find a method of teaching, a pedagogy that I believe in and is adaptable to many different teaching situations. I spent the last semester of school teaching an entry-level undergrad art class called Introduction to Visual Thinking. I am going to teach the same class later this summer, and I am super excited to be able to teach the same class back to back, to be able to expand upon the ideas and methods I employed and to try and improve upon some of the parts that I felt were weak or didn’t work as well as I intended. This last semester I gave everyone in my class A’s at the beginning of the semester, and told them that all they had to do to keep the A was to maintain it. I don’t personally feel like I am in any position to judge someone’s artwork as being worth an A or a B or C, and I don’t really see how you would ascribe such a scale to something like art work. Rather I tried to judge their habits and efforts, to look for their struggles and see where they broke through. There were only a couple moments when I felt like students were taking advantage of this system, when their work didn’t display effort and practice.
Rumpus: I think calling the way somebody makes their art “their practice” sounds a little stiff, and simultaneously like it’s not the real game, like one doesn’t know what he is doing. But since we’re talking about “art” it seems appropriate to use it, since in some way your art is all about the making of it; your art IS the practice. You exude a very strong sense of self. Your practice has a self-awareness and sense of maturity that exceeds your years. Do you have any idea why?
Walker: I am pretty skeptical of anyone who uses words like practice, or when someone is talking about their work and they’re like, “My interest is in…” I don’t know if I have any solid reason for my disdain and skepticism, other than maybe I am just jealous of their overtly confident status. I mean, I am totally cocky and confident, but I rarely refer to myself as an artist.
In regards to my own self-awareness, I think part of the answer lies in my work ethic and upbringing. My dad always told me to keep my wits about me, I am not quite sure what he meant at the time, but I think this idea has had a profound shape on my growth as a person and artist. I grew up in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, that had really polar opposite sorts of demographics. There was definitely a contingent of wealthy and affluent kids who played sports and really excelled at school. Lots of big ugly new construction, shitty mansions, kids who were given cars on their 16th birthday, but then there were also kids from families who were less well off, lots of hard working blue collar sorts of families. My father and grandfather owned their own business, so we led a pretty comfortable life, but at the same time, my family was a family of trash haulers, and I spent a large part of my youth hauling garbage and there’s definitely a social stigma that comes with that line of work, but it never really bothered me at all. In fact I think that’s where some of the answer to your question lies. Working for my family like that really helped fill me with a sense of pride in my work, and what I did and how my work affected the rest of my life. When you’re 15 years old and up at 5 in the morning on a garbage truck hauling trash while the rest of your friends are at home in bed, you really begin to understand your place in the world, and it builds inside of you a confidence and pride that is really hard to shake. I think a lot of my friends sort of caught on to it as well, some of them even worked for my father on occasion.
Similarly, fast forward to the present and I am 30 years old and I work in a coffee shop. Most people work in coffee shops as part time jobs while they go to school, or because they’re lazy and have no aspirations in life. Granted, the café I happen to work in is a slightly different example, but I have absolutely no problems working in that environment and take full ownership and pride of my career. Every so often I am at a dinner party or some weird social event, and I am in the company of people with “actual” jobs or careers. Every so often I catch a hint of disdain, or scorn, when after informing me of their stellar job, I inform them that I work in a coffee shop. People always seem to have more problems with my own life than I do myself.
Rumpus: Are there times your execution trumps your original intention?
Walker: You always have to put the work before your own desires.
Rumpus: In your own words, talk about influences on your art and practice, and what other artists you have respect for, and why those particular folks come up in your thoughts and ideas about art making.
Walker: The other night Kathleen and I were having a discussion with some friends about television shows worth watching, and Kathleen was explaining how since I was now done with grad school we could finish watching the X-Files. Our friend was a little shocked that we were such X-File nerds and Kathleen replied that the X-Files were definitely part of Walker lore.
I have been thinking about this idea of lore the last couple days and I think it’s really a rather poetic way to talk about influences. It actually makes me think a lot about my family and growing up, as I feel I came from a family that had a lot of lore. My mom’s side of the family, my uncles and my Grandpa Big Al, were fascinated by these tragic public cultural figures. I remember watching documentaries on JFK with all of them on family vacations. Apparently my Grandpa Big Al drove hundreds of miles out of the way on a family vacation to photograph the farm house were the Clutter family was murdered, from In Cold Blood. He was obsessed with that story; however, I have never been able to find the pictures he made of the house. Similarly, you couldn’t peel them away from the OJ Simpson trial. Maybe these things are more family legend than lore, but these things have had much more of a lasting effect on me than any artist or artwork ever has.
To be totally honest, I am not really one to pay attention to and get really excited about much artwork that I come across out in the world. I actually feel really guilty sometimes because I have a much more visceral reaction to things like books and movies and music, than I do to Art with a capital A.
I actually think a lot of my artistic sensibilities were sort of acquired or self taught just through going to movies. I saw a Stan Brakhage screening at the University of Washington once that really opened my mind up to the idea that I too could make movies. I didn’t actually make any moving image works until I was like 21 or 22, much later than when I had started making still photographs. It wasn’t until I was half way done with art school in Maine that I actually started making short films and video works. I shot a movie in France the summer after I finished under grad; Kathleen had gotten a job as a translator for a student trip, and I forced one of the students into running a camera for me, filming some basic actions and movements. That same trip I saw a Godard retrospective at the Pompidou that just blew my mind. He had video iPods zip tied to model trains, moving all about the museum, there were televisions laying on their back showing pornos. It was wild, far crazier than anything I had experienced up to that point, and I had seen a fair bit of his movies too, of course; in fact we watched all sorts of French New Wave in Seattle, but this was all in the theatre. To see something like this in a museum just really changed the way I was thinking about the kind of work I could make.
I’ve always read a lot, and really prefer simple, shorter works. The Dave Hickey collection Air Guitar really moved me, as did much of the writing on food by John Thorne. I read Raymond Carver a ton when I was younger, I even got to meet his widow once on Valentine’s Day. I love short, simple written pieces that are full of intelligence. The Barthes collection Mythologies was always really important to me. Often times if you have steak dinner at the Walker house, depending on how much wine I have consumed I may start the meal by reading his essay on Steak and Chips. I am only realizing now the influence Barthes has had on me, yet I don’t think I am fully able to understand it just yet.
Often times people want a really straightforward, easy explanation as to where certain photographs come from or what they mean, and in all honesty, it’s near impossible to locate that one source. That’s why I feel like the idea of lore is more appropriate. It makes things less tangible and more mythical.
Brett’s show “Getting the Big Picture” is on exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum through June 10. This fall he will be included in an exhibit entitled “The Kids Are All Right” at the Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin. You can find more of Brett’s work at his website: http://www.everybodydoesntlikebrettwalker.com