Ken Walker with his art

Artist Ken Walker draws inspiration from research, academia and life

What is art? CAM alumnus answers ‘the great question’

September 8, 2016

It may have taken Ken Walker 17 years to earn his Bachelor of Fine Arts from CU Denver, but he didn’t have to wait that long to become an artist. For Walker, who has served as firefighter/EMT for 29 years, earning his BFA was a way to enhance his understanding of art. It also helped him feel a new level of authenticity as an artist.

Artist Ken Walker
Walker’s art is often full of mystery and surprise. The cube he is holding contains the answer to the question, “What is art?” The self-portrait opens to reveal several layers, including his diploma from CU Denver.

“I can’t say enough about the history and the intellect I gained through studying at CU Denver,” Walker (’13) said. “To go to college and study art from an academic point of view enabled me to hone my understanding.”

No single style

Walker uses acrylics, wax, wood, metal and any other media imaginable to create works designed to inspire conversations on religion, spirituality, culture, gender and race. His goal is not to decorate, but to cause his audiences to contemplate.

Ken Walker home
Walker built his home to serve as a studio and a place for his audience to enjoy his creations. His work spans topics from history and culture to gender and the human experience.

“I want people to walk up to my art and have a conversation,” Walker said. “So much of my art is self-referential, but it is also about the audience—our culture, our experiences.”

Walker’s home, which he built as a space to create and display his art, is adorned throughout with his works, which draw from his research, education and innate curiosity.

Currently in his studio, Walker has put the finishing touches on a series of five pieces inspired by stolen artwork. The pieces, which share a similar motif, all hail to famous works, such as Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

“My goal was to give the series a very comfortable, historical feel,” Walker said. “It is a way to pay homage to great artists before me and reintroduce the works of art into the world.”

One of the most innocuous of the pieces in Walker’s home/studio, at least in comparison to works that can be described as beautiful, outrageous and emotional, is a small black cube that answers the great question: What is art?

The cube may be simple, but it is not ordinary. While the outside is wood, the inside is lined with lead. Inside that lining is another wooden box. That interior wooden box contains the answer to the great question, according to Walker.

Ken Walker Studio
Walker’s studio holds art of a wide variety of styles and genres.

“Whatever is in there, which I put in there or didn’t put in there, is the answer to ‘what is art?’” Walker said. “So the concept behind this piece is that if anyone wanted to answer the question, it is in this cube. I look at the answer like Schrodinger’s cat. Should anyone with technological means to look inside the box or physically cut it open, the answer dies. To live, it has to remain in a state of flux and agreement.”

Drawing from life experience

A BFA does not typically take 17 years to complete, but Walker is not a typical student. After graduating high school, Walker served three years in the Army, during which he spent time stationed in Europe. As Walker puts it, his time in Europe was a “wonderful cultural experience for a kid from Montana.” He has continued to build on that cultural experience independently through researching great artists, their lives and works.

After serving in the Army, Walker added several professional and personal achievements to his personal resume, including private pilot, third-degree black belt and underwater welder. His professions and experiences often find their way into Walker’s art, as does the intense curiosity that drove Walker to pursue them in the first place.

“I’ve saturated my mind with art and art history, and it lives with me,” Walker said. “My experiences find their way into my art as well. You cannot isolate them.”

Ken Walker studio
Walker uses a variety of materials and objects in his art. He keeps anything and everything on hand since he never knows when inspiration will strike.

Art on campus

Walker’s latest art installation, which is on display in the Dean’s Alumni Gallery at the Arts Building, began years ago when he started collecting milk cartons. He could not say why he started the collection, only that he felt he would use them at some point. That day came earlier this year when he was invited to display some of his work on campus.

“On those pieces I took something ordinary and reframed it,” Walker said. “It doesn’t necessarily matter if people understand my art. More importantly, I want to make people think and give them something to talk about.”

Not only is Walker not concerned with whether audiences fully understand his art, he hopes people will ridicule his creations, which are composed of old milk cartons and fabric, covered in hot wax and singed with fire. It is a part of his artist statement:

Truth goes through three phases, first it is ridiculed, second it is violently attacked, third it is accepted as self-evident. I sincerely hope you laugh at me and my work.

“I always hope people seeing my work will own the work emotionally,” Walker said. “It is intended to be for, and reflect, you.”