Remembering Artist Steve Walker

Dying at 50 shouldn't seem so terrible. After all, you've had the best of it--your best-looking years, your randiest sex years, your most fun years. Maybe even your most productive years. Yet isn't that the time of life when you expect to sit back and coast on your accomplishments, the decade you did all that hard work for?

I don't know how Steve Walker would have viewed his fifties. He'd achieved success on his own terms: his paintings were commanding respectable sums and he was living off the profits. He must have felt gratified that his work was accepted and appreciated. But Steve wasn't the type to stop and think about glory. I sometimes think all he really wanted was to be left alone to paint.

I first encountered Steve in 1990, when he was Artist in Residence at the People With AIDS foundation, and I was an editor for Xtra! Magazine. I noticed two things about him right off--one, he was very attractive in that blond, Nordic way that normally didn't appeal to me, and two, he didn't acknowledge the presence of others, even when you stared right at him.

Steve's fame grew through the '90s. The gay community was quick to claim him, even if Toronto's arts community was not. His iconographic paintings of young men appealed to the "body beautiful" mentality of gay men at the time, even as AIDS was taking its greatest toll in North America.

His work appeared on books covers and in calendar reproductions, attesting to its popularity. Despite Steve's outward success, I often saw him working in a clothing store on Yonge Street, looking embarrassed and out of place. Artists still had to pay the bills, after all.

I eventually came to count Steve as a friend and enjoyed talking to him when we ran into one another, however infrequently. We had things in common: both loners, obsessively devoted to our artistic disciplines, and both somewhat inclined to suffer fools badly. Read: anti-social. Yet that was only on the surface.

Steve wasn't the sort of person to approach you, though he was receptive if you approached him. If you had something engaging to say, he would reciprocate. I once introduced him to a friend, another painter, thinking they'd have things in common. My friend tended to the florid when discussing art. Steve was more businesslike, not given to artsy statements. He was a "mood" man. He didn't want to hear about "beauty" and "grace" and "style". Fireworks resulted.

I admired Steve's art and artistic process. He created a gay cannon with a form of super-realism. His images were indelible and easily identifiable as a "Walker." Other artists were envious of his success and quick to criticize his limitations. He seemed to paint the same piece over and over, in endless variations: young men, touching or not touching, in casual clothes, with beautiful skin tones in cool environments.

Mood was everything in a Walker painting. Well, until you stopped and noticed just how accomplished his craft was, how striking the composition and the Rembrandt lighting. "How is that original?" other artists demanded. Steve hated such questions, hated the assumption behind them that his art was somehow "less" because he painted in a tradition that included artists like Alex Coleville and Andrew Wyeth.

That was another thing we had in common: feeling isolated from what was in vogue in Toronto's arts scene. Steve seldom saw himself in a painting, while I seldom saw myself on page or stage. We both set out to change that, each in our own way. Finding greater acceptance elsewhere was partly what led Steve to Costa Rica, a bit of Latin paradise we both loved. Steve made that love a reality. I, on the other hand, continued to endure the snow at home, complaining about the weather while making frequent trips south.

The last time I saw Steve, I'd asked if he had anything appropriate for the cover of my upcoming book. I went to his studio and we mulled through his work, but nothing felt right. It's possible he was holding out on me, hiding something that would have been perfect. He was wary of publishers. His work had graced the covers of a number of well-known books and he was dissatisfied with the reproduction quality.

He showed me one of the recent publications. To my eyes it was beautiful. He shook his head impatiently. "Look at the colours!" he insisted. "They’ve leached all the warmth out of it." Then he showed me the original and I saw what he saw: a minute variation in flesh-tones, but enough to make a difference overall.

Our conversation drifted. Steve seemed relieved that I wasn’t going to press the issue of finding a cover painting. We drank and talked. I told him about a comedic passage I'd just written about opera. To my surprise, he began to recite the lyrics from Vissi d’arte, Floria Tosca's impassioned aria about living for art, living for love. I surprised him by reciting the same lyrics in Italian. (I had a greater advantage, having translated them for my book, Death In Key West.)

In all the years I'd known Steve, I had no idea he was an opera queen. "But I dislike jazz," he confided. That was Steve, always defining, always grading things. But it made sense. Jazz is freeform whereas classical music is highly structured, not unlike Steve's paintings. Yet the admission seemed to contradict his physical good looks, his quick laugh when you said something genuinely funny. Steve looked more like the guy who should be at the centre of the party or in the middle of the dance floor, soaking up the latest dance tune. In fact, Steve had no use for such things. It just wasn't him.

I left that day full of plans to visit him in Costa Rica. It never happened. I got busy; he got hard to get hold of. I last heard about him several months ago at a party. A friend of the host, another gay artist, had been raging over the fact that a Steve Walker painting had just sold for $30,000. All I could think was, "Good for Steve!" Curious, I asked the name of the artist who had been so angered. I'd never heard of him. I later looked up his work on-line and was amused to find second-rate reproductions in an Attila Lukacs style. Hardly original.

"You know why people prefer my work to photographs?" Steve once asked me. I nodded. In fact, I did know. Because it took time to create that Steve Walker look. You can erect a building in a month, given the manpower and the tools, but art takes time. And time is one thing that artists never have enough of. Oddly, Steve never complained of feeling that he wouldn't have enough time.

In an interview some years ago, Steve told writer Michael Rowe that the one thing he hoped for, what he felt an artist could aspire to, was to "chronicle the times in which he lives, and leave some sort of indelible record behind when his own time comes." Steve fulfilled his part in the bargain. Now it's up to the pundits. Or just maybe it's up to us, his appreciative friends and fans, to keep Steve Walker's images and his uniqueness alive.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto novelist and filmmaker. His most recent book, Lake On The Mountain, was published by Dundurn Books in January 2012.

Under the Havana Moon

Every few years, I fall in love with a city. Last time it was New Orleans. It wasn't love at first sight, though. I had to go back a second time to be sure. Despite Katrina's lingering devastation, it was an amazing place. The time before, it was Paris--all that splendour. So it makes sense that a cross between the two would do it for me.
Havana did.
The city's contradictions defy you at every turn: vibrant and laid-back, squalid and beautiful, rundown yet visually awesome, poor but very, very safe. Fascinating, is how I describe it.
It helps to have some Spanish at your command, as well as a reliable companion. I had both. At the airport, I met an Australian surfer. I'll call him Charlie Dingo. Charlie has a nose for adventure. He's what's known in the vernacular as a "chick magnet." Despite our disparate backgrounds, we clicked. It was like having an instant friend, only with no history. Thanks to Charlie, I met some very fun Cubans. Thanks to me, Charlie knew what they were saying. Together, it guaranteed a great time.
I like my hotels clean, spacious and quiet. El Paseo Habana in Vedado offers that and more. It's a 15-minute walk from La Rampa, a lively cultural area, and a leisurely hour from Habana Vieja, the city's main tourist destination. If you're looking for a beach, however, don't stay there. It's considerably farther from Playas del Este.
Unlike me, Charlie is not a hotel guy. He wanted una experiencia verdad--the real thing. So we set out to find him a casa particular, the new capitalist trend for Cuban families with a spare room to rent. Basically, they're government sanctioned B&Bs.
In my experience, Cubans are not naturally friendly and out-going. They're reserved, like Canadians. It's only as we went from casa to casa that we got to meet some locals. An offer of coffee here, an invitation for rum later on--and suddenly you have a social life in Havana. It can be very rewarding.
Walking is the best way to see the city. There's also a good $5 double-decker bus tour, but it's pretty fast and you won't catch much of the English commentary--grammatically correct, but spoken at breakneck speed. Just enjoy the sights then go back later and visit whatever looked interesting.
Mastering the currency might prove difficult. It bewildered me. First, there's the CUP, or moneda nacional. It's the only legitimate currency. No one wants it. The alternative is the convertible peso, or CUC. If someone seems to be asking for "cook", that's what they're talking about. It's also called "divisa", which makes it really confusing. That and the fact that the two currencies are vastly different in value.
Visitors make the mistake of thinking there are two price listings for everything and that locals pay less. Not true. If the price is listed in CUP, anyone can pay in CUP or CUC. If you pay in CUC, however, you're paying more. When the price is in CUC, there's no choice: everyone must pay in CUC. But does it really matter whether you're paying thirty cents or a dollar-twenty for a beer? Charlie might disagree, but then Australians drink a lot of beer.
As racist as it sounds, many Cubans will try to cheat you. It's a national pastime and done without malice. Ask the price first and always count your change. I've even been short-changed in the CADECAs, or Casas de Cambio, while exchanging money. On the other hand, you can always bargain for things. Charlie was better at it than me, so I let him do the "no entiendo" thing and waited to see how far he got before I entered the game to nail the price.
One of the things that may surprise you is how literate Cubans are. On Calle Obispo, Old Havana's famed market street, I came across five bookstores, as well as a gigantic used-book stall. At first I put it down to a lack of cable TV, but after visiting several Cuban homes I realized this wasn't the case. What they don't have is Internet. WiFi is all but non-existent, so everyone reads. If you're desperate, some hotels offer on-line access for up to $10 CUC per hour. It's slow, so don't expect to spend all your time checking Facebook.
Nightlife can vary. During the week, clubs tend to close around midnight, though you can always find something happening on the street, legal or otherwise. (Charlie was always good for that.) The police tend to harass the locals rather than the tourists when anything untoward happens, but keep your wits about you.
There are plenty of nightclubs. Some are fancier than others. Nearly everyone gets dressed up, however, and Cubans really know how to dance. As for music, you'd be just as entertained by stopping to listen to a free concert (you'll hear them, especially on weekends) as you would by paying to go to a jazz club. The free concerts are very impressive. In another country, some of these people would be top dollar talent.
There is almost no visible LGBT culture, and Cubans are both sexist and macho in their manner and speech. On the other hand, once you get to know them, they will happily trot out their cell phones and show you pictures of their friends and ask you to guess which of the beautiful girls are real and which not. Again, it can be confusing.
There's one big LGBT party every weekend, but it moves around to avoid being busted. Both film director Pedro Almadovar and designer Jean Paul Gaultier have been netted in raids at gay gatherings. (Presumably, they survived.) You might meet someone on the Playas del Este to tell you where to find these events, or sometimes at Cine Yara on La Rampa. I'm not a beach person so I didn't venture that far. Besides, I didn't go to Havana to spend all my time doing what I do at home.
In fact, my primary reason for going was to check out the possibility of setting one of my Bradford Fairfax comic mysteries there. Luck, and Charlie Dingo, were with me. I had some of the best adventures I've had in a long time, and most of it quickly spun itself into a plot long before I boarded my plane home. So if you're a fan, keep your eyes open for Fairfax International: Havana Club in the future. Once I get around to writing it, of course.
Hasta la vista, baby!


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