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.

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