Roger Walker is a quiet man, sparing with his words to the point where people who know him start laughing at the junctures in conversation where probably any artist but Walker might like to interject a few carefully chosen words about his art. In recent weeks, Walker has gotten used to hearing plenty of people talk about him and his art like he isn’t standing there, even when he is. He just stands there, amused as anybody when all eyes turn to him and he doesn’t have anything he particularly feels like adding. Put four questions to him and three of them go down with one slug: Yup. Nope. Don’t know.
“Roger doesn’t have a whole spiel about his art,” laughs Wes Mills, fellow artist and owner of the Farm Art Space on the Hammond block of Higgins. “It’s kind of refreshing to meet someone like him. I had him come into the gallery one day to get some more information on him. I had a whole list of questions, and he pretty much had a one-word answer for each of them.”
Mills, whose gallery will feature the first-ever exhibition of Walker’s pen drawings this month, seems pleased to act as Walker’s spokesman and mouthpiece. It’s one of life’s pleasant little mysteries that the talkative Mills and the taciturn Walker have arrived at this understanding, and even Walker favors the arrangement with an uncharacteristically wordy utterance.
“That’s what I need,” he shrugs. “Especially when it comes to galleries and dealing with the art world.”
Walker doesn’t have much experience with the art world. He might even tell you he doesn’t have much experience with art period—at least until Wes Mills came along and told him he thought what Walker was doing was art. For the past two years, Walker has been living—partly through necessity and partly by choice, apparently—under a black plastic bag on a bare patch of ground a few hundred feet off the highway between Missoula and East Missoula. To pass the time during the day, he still does what he’s been doing for the last 20 years: finding a quiet place to sit for a few hours and draw over newsprint pages torn out of books of numerical crossword puzzles. He does the puzzles first, in ballpoint pen (with few mistakes), methodically ticking off the vertical and horizontal clues with uniform diagonal strokes. Then he draws over the puzzles with the same pen, one mark at a time, until the page is nearly or completely filled with black ink.
“I first met Roger,” recalls Mills, “when I kind of looked over his shoulder and asked if I could look at the drawings he was working on. I saw some similarities between what he was doing and my work—mostly in the obsessiveness of it—and I thought we could communicate a little bit about what he was drawing. He seemed like he was very committed to what he was doing, and there was a nice consistency to all his work.”
Consistency, indeed: Before Mills began encouraging Walker to invest in a few different colored pens and acid-free paper to make his drawings on, Walker says he produced several thousand puzzle-page drawings using the several dozen identical black Bic ballpoints that he still carries around in a Ziploc freezer bag. Walker might have a few more colors in his palette these days, but old habits still die hard.
“Paper I’ve been buying,” he says, pointing at several dozen drawings on identical sheets of square drawing paper laid out on the floor along the south wall of Farm. “Pens I use when I find them.”
Most of the drawings Walker produced over the past 20 years were solid fields of ink or various configurations of vertical bands of ink and bare newsprint. And all were thrown away by the artist shortly after he’d finished them. Walker doesn’t seem very sentimental about it. Asked whether he ever gets attached to his drawings, he replies with a characteristic “Nope.” Pressed a little further, he seems somewhat bemused that Mills would attach any importance himself, or find something so meaningful in drawings that, by the artist’s own admission, he merely does as a way to pass the time.
“I’ve been doing these puzzle pages for twenty years,” he says, “before somebody finally called it art.”
What does Mills see in the drawings, some 20 of which he’s selected for the display from the nearly 300 (all made in the last six months!) Roger has left in his care? Lots. He raves over the carefully worked borders. Marvels at the textures and the sometimes peaceful, sometimes uneasy coexistence of different colored fields on the same plane. Discerns suggestive shapes where Walker admittedly intended none. Runs a finger lovingly over a seam of herringbone prickles where the paper shows through a methodically etched field of black. Loves the fact that by the time Walker finishes a drawing, it’s often so saturated that the paper buckles and shines with a bronzelike sheen from so much concentrated ballpoint ink.
“If you first look at something and don’t understand it,” Mills ventures, “if there’s that consistency to it, you need to take a second look right off because there’s obviously something there that you’re not getting. The more I looked at these drawings, the more I saw that each one was so unique. There’s a really nice balance between Roger’s making the same mark over and over and his desire of what he wants each drawing to be.”
Not that Walker is particularly tormented by his desire, either. Asked whether he’s reaching in his art for something he hasn’t been able to express yet, he says this (and it’s a virtual inaugural address by Walker standards!):
“It can get frustrating when they’re not coming out as good I want them to while I’m drawing. But sometimes they come out better when I’m finished.”
But, adds Mills: “In the whole long history of art, that’s always been the struggle, the desire for it to be the way you want it, and the way it really is.”
Has it been getting any easier for Walker to close the gap between what he wants to create with a drawing and how it actually turns out? Maybe, he admits, although seeing as how he’s been creating his art in a virtual vacuum for the past 20 years, at this point it’s pretty much a matter of routine.
“It’s easy as long as it’s nice and quiet,” he reflects. “Library’s nice and quiet, although there’s always small children running around. But that doesn’t bother me.”
Walker’s living situation has changed somewhat—most would say for the better—in recent weeks. In late January, Mills sold four of Walker’s drawings to a Florida collector, and from the proceeds Walker has been able to move into a hotel pending further arrangements for a permanent residence. At the end of this month, Mills will bring another batch of Walker’s drawings down to a pair of galleries in New Mexico, where he hopes they’ll be met with the same interest he found in Florida.
In the event of success in New Mexico, it seems unlikely to spoil Roger Walker. And neither does anything else. Walker’s art, says Mills, seems to have matured beyond any danger of influence by the possibility of financial gain—however modest those gains may turn out to be.
“People often judge an artist’s maturity by their career history,” Mills says. “Roger’s been making drawings for twenty years, so his drawings are very mature, but careerwise, there’s nothing. His work is very mature and nobody has seen it. It’s just really fresh.”
Walker, for his part, seems gratified that the art world—in Missoula, at least—has taken an interest in him, but it’s clear he’s still taking it one day at a time. He’s still thinking about it.
“They’re calling it art,” he muses. “But there’s times when I’m not too sure about it. I still just do them to pass the time.”
An exhibition of Roger Walker’s drawings, called A Time Not Here, will go up at Farm Art Space, 119 South Higgins, Friday, Feb. 7. The opening reception will take place on Saturday, Feb. 8, at. 11a.m. Call 721-0227 for more information.