[Correction (Saturday, Feb. 9): A previous version of this article stated that Lombino referred to Walker and her art as “primitive.” In fact, Lombino called neither the artist nor her art “primitive.” Instead, she expressed the idea that many labels have been used by insiders to refer to artists working outside the academy, and she explained that, due to its accuracy and specificity, her preferred term is “self-taught.”]
As a young man, Henri Matisse went to Paris to study law, passing his bar exam with distinction. From there, his grain merchant father secured a clerk position for him. Matisse did not like law. At 21, he contracted appendicitis, and his mother gifted him art supplies to keep him occupied while he was bedridden. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,” said the artist. “I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves” (Spurling, “Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, the Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954,” 2007). Two years later, he went to Paris again—this time to study art. (Matisse: Life and Painting, “The Personal Life of Henri Matisse,” 2001).
As a young woman, Inez Nathaniel Walker went to Philadelphia to escape the “muck” of farm work in her native Sumter, NC. Born into poverty, orphaned early and married with four children before age 20, she had already lived lifetimes before migrating North. In the 1970s, she was charged with killing her abuser and imprisoned in Westchester County, NY. There, she attended classes with the prison’s English teacher, Elizabeth Bayley. One day, Bayley noticed that Walker had left a pile of drawings in the classroom. The teacher started buying pieces, which Walker produced prolifically. Usually her subjects were “bad girls”—fellow inmates, some posed, others candid, but all capturing banal prison interactions. She drew on the backs of newsletters and mimeographed forms until her “discovery” by the Bedford Hills teachers, when she started filling up sketchbooks and construction paper with the vigor of a blossoming artist.
Pat O’Brien Parsons, an art dealer and Class of 1951 Vassar graduate, saw Walker’s art and met with her at Bedford Hills. This was to be their only face-to-face meeting, but the beginning of a long partnership, as well as Parsons’s career in collecting self-taught art. Parsons left Walker art supplies, and the latter promised to send her work. The two exchanged letters, in which Walker affectionately referred to Parsons as “Mrs. Pat.” The collector later donated 15 pieces to Vassar, comprising 25 percent of Walker’s first one-person museum exhibition, “Freehand: Drawings by Inez Nathaniel Walker.”
On Friday, Feb. 1, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center hosted the exhibit’s opening reception, which included a lecture by Curator of the Loeb Mary-Kay Lombino. Lombino described Walker and her art as “self-taught,” a term that she prefers due to its accuracy and specificity. She compared the artist to others, including Martin Ramirez (diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized), who started drawing in his sixties and sometimes binded pieces with mashed potatoes and saliva; Dwight Mackintosh (institutionalized for over 50 years), who exhibited an “obsessive need to fill the blankness of the paper” with pattern and swirling loose lines; and Lee Godie (homeless, diagnosed with dementia), who sold portraits in Chicago. Lombino said that self-taught art is often a product of trauma, coming from people with “unconventional” lifestyles. Details of these artists’ lives proved inseparable from their work.
I wondered if that was offensive to their artistry. Walker had an incredible eye for detail, a hand that not only reproduced her surroundings but also invigorated them with pattern, personality and elements of her imagination. Her unfinished sketches are evidence of process and a consistent stylistic approach. The furniture, teacups and dollar bills in her interiors are small relative to the people, highlighting gestures, stances, faces, clothing and jewelry (as a seamstress, she meticulously captured her subjects’ outfits). Consequently, her drawings depict social structure and status. Is it underplaying her graphic sensibilities to treat her art solely as products of trauma, as a means of coping with prison? Self-taught art is often stigmatized, as much of it comes from stigmatized people: the mentally ill, the old, the incarcerated. To tragedize the lives of these artists evokes the idea that their art is less valuable than the works of formal trainees—that it is shaped by trauma rather than skill.
However, discussing Walker in biographical context compels me to further appreciate outsider art. Lombino pointed out that she never drew for commercial purposes; she drew to cope, capture and fulfill her fantasies. “Freehand” feels like a diary rather than a portfolio. The dissatisfied lawyer Matisse was passionate about art before any formal training. Walker’s own ardor and openness enliven her portraits.