A Different Stroke


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He has a new studio in Pell City, but artist Dirk Walker finds his work is untethered to geography.

By Loyd McIntosh

Famed artist Henry Matisse was once quoted as saying “creativity takes courage.” In a similar vein, his chief rival in the art world, Pablo Picasso—a man with whom Matisse rarely agreed on anything—once said, “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.” Both sentiments can easily be said to apply to artist and Birmingham native Dirk Walker, who has spent years fusing his creative vision and methods with a studied understanding of what art connoisseurs and consumers can fall in love with, as well.

v51a7339And what a long, remarkable journey it has been. Though he graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Industrial Design, Walker started out his career a banker. He was good at what he did, and it was a solid job that supported his young family well. But through it all, that life “was really putting a square peg in a round hole,” he says now. “I got into painting as a diversion from being in the corporate world, which was not a natural fit for me—I know that now; I didn’t know it then—and tapping into that creative side I knew was always there became such a relief.

“I simply loved it because it allowed me to calm my inner soul.”

So it was a blessing in disguise for Walker when the bank eliminated his position one day—almost 30 years ago now—giving him the option of relocating to a another part of the country if he wanted to stay with the bank. He didn’t. By then, he had almost managed to build a second career working late nights at the canvas.

“I was fortunate that I got picked up by a really good gallery, the Loretta Goodwin Gallery,” says Walker, who is probably best known for his Birmingham Landmark Series and cityscapes of other communities throughout the Southeast. “Ms. Goodwin was a very strong mentor towards artists, all local artists. She really created that belief in us that we could make a living and become professional artists if that desire was strong enough.

“There was a period while I was still working in the banking business where I was able to get my work out into about five or six different markets around the country, and the work was selling. People were responding. It really gave me the confidence that if I worked hard and really approached art and painting as a job—and kept learning, growing and developing my style—that maybe I could be an artist. It gave me a great deal of validation.”

img_1634Around the time he left banking for good, Walker also learned Goodwin, his original mentor, was retiring. “Her family was going to close the gallery if they couldn’t find someone who was going to step in and take over,” Walker remembers. “I still had enough of an entrepreneurial dream in my mind or heart that I wanted to be on the business side of art as well as the painting side, so I decided I would buy the gallery.” He set up a studio in the back to paint, but he also spent time with the clients who came in, helping them find pieces they would fall in love with. “I think that gave me a tremendous advantage over maybe some other artists, in finding my style,” he says. “Because I was able to paint but then also be in contact daily with our clients, with the public, and I would see and hear what people were looking for, what they responded to, and I could kind of keep my work moving on the front edge of where I felt everything was going.”

Walker ran the Loretta Goodwin Gallery for 15 years before deciding in 2014 it was time to move on. “I reached a point where the gallery needed more than I could put into it,” he says.

“I had taken it as far as I could. I didn’t want to close it, because it’s a wonderful landmark in the art community, so I brought in Beverly McNeil, who owns Portraits, Inc., and she is fabulous. She took it over and renamed it (the Beverly McNeil Gallery), and it’s my primary gallery to this day.”

But he still needed a place to paint—working out of his home has never suited Walker well—and after a few hits and misses at different settings, at the end of last year he settled into a new space in downtown Pell City. Here, he paints in a veritable fish bowl as passersby can watch him at work.

With paintbrush in hand and easels set up in the studio’s windows, Walker works on each painting as locals walk up and down Cogswell Avenue, the main artery through the city’s downtown. He wants the community to know his door is open and encourages anyone to stop by to chat about art.

“I love dealing with people and talking with people about art,” Walker says. “Original art is a little intimidating to people, I think, who have never been around it or really haven’t collected art. I’ve noticed even being here just a few days just setting up, people walk by not sure if they can come in or not.”

Walker’s new studio space puts him squarely in the middle of a thriving art scene in Pell City. Several successful artists live and work in the area, such as sculptor Nada Boner and painter Wayne Spradley, as well as up-and-comers like Sundi Hawkins, a gifted young painter working with wood and epoxy resin, and Verna Settle, an abstract-realist originally from the Philippines who only began painting three years ago at the age of 49. However, Walker has known about the community’s unheralded artistic reputation for many years. In fact, two of Walker’s earliest influences were artists with Pell City roots, John Lonergan and Tom Black, so he is well aware of the potential of the area. Long before moving his studio to the area, Walker drew inspiration from nearby Logan Martin Lake, where he and his family have had a lake home for the last 25 years. “I kind of raised my boys down on the water,” Walker says. “I’ve always (painted) things on the lake, too. Having a place down there I’ve done a lot of landscapes and pictures of the lake with sailboats and things like that.”

Despite having relocated his studio to a smaller-town setting, an increasing amount of Walker’s time is actually devoted to art commissioned for major commercial and public settings. These commissions—which have brought given Walker’s work even more widespread exposure—now comprise up to 30 to 40 percent of his work.

In a weird kind of way, it brings his career full circle—while he now works far outside the corporate world, his early understanding of it has helped him use old connections and make new ones to earn prestigious corporate clients. These include Harbert Management Corporation, Brasfield & Gorrie, Shuttlesworth International Airport, Energen Corporation, Alabama Power, Southpace Properties, Raymond James Financial Services, First Commercial Bank, and many others. One recent honor he’s particularly proud of is being selected as the only artist outside Georgia to have work commissioned for SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves.

“A lot of times if you’re painting things, it may not be a good fit for a bank or a law office or hospital or place like that,” he says. “But my style seems to fit, and I’ve been really lucky.”

Walker says he’s been asked if living almost full time on the lake and working in Pell City is going to have an impact on his subject matter. He doesn’t really think so. “I’m just going to wait to see what comes out. But I think there are some fun things that are going to happen.”

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3 Responses to “A Different Stroke”

  1. Diane bowlen says:

    I love Love this art of street scene on Southside and the Vulcan. I’m not an artist by any sense of the word but enjoy seeing good or even bad art. It depends on what’s going on with me at the time.
    Where Can Dirk Walker’s work be seen. Does he have a studio in Birmingham? I moved from Crestwood North 17 years ago, and I’m not familiar with the local art or artists any longer.
    Please email me with studio’s names that is showing his art.

  2. Sherry Whisenhunt says:

    Do you teach classes?

  3. Sherry Whisenhunt says:

    Do you teach classes? I have never submitted anything.

Leave a Reply for Sherry Whisenhunt