Fall arts preview: Carrie Walker draws inspiration from the natural world

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A sweet-natured whippet named Trooper greets visitors at the door of Carrie Walker’s East Vancouver studio. He’s immediately recognizable from the delicately rendered drawings of him that Walker created and exhibited in 2005. Still, the portraits of her pet are a bit of a blip in a body of work that explores our understanding—or misunderstanding—of nature through depictions of wild creatures. “I drew Trooper for my own pleasure, out of love for my dog,” Walker explains. “I didn’t draw him with any regard for contemporary art practice.”

Her art practice hasn’t suffered. Walker came to the attention of critics, curators, and art dealers with the series of nearly 300 pen and ink drawings of animal heads she created between 2001 and 2006. Working from photographs found in field guides and animal encyclopedias, she drew everything from bats and vultures to orangutans and shrews. “With those portraits there was for me a conscious attempt to draw animals that I thought would elicit an emotional response from people,” Walker recalls. At the same time, she focused on the less media-friendly fauna. “I was shying away from the iconic—the big animals like lions and tigers and pandas that get so much airtime.”

In part, her work critiques the judgments of an animal’s appearance or behaviour that often occur in nature books. “What I have always found interesting is the way humans write about animals,” she says, citing oddly anthropomorphic adjectives like “malicious” and “hideous”. Still, she frequently incorporates such descriptions into the titles of her drawings, creating an ironic distance between her art and her source material.

Recently, Walker has been inserting her renderings of animals into old found drawings and watercolours, often producing unsettling disjunctions by dropping, say, an African animal into a pastoral English landscape or a marine mammal onto a well-tended lawn. She also ramps up the surreal quality and alienated mood of her Found Drawing Project by greatly enlarging the scale of the animal interventions: a gopher may be the size of a mountain or a swan may threaten to consume a sailboat.

Walker seems to have smartly anticipated the contemporary art world’s surging interest in the animal as subject. Our increasing detachment from nature, she suggests, leads us to imbue wild creatures with our longings for freedom and mystery. And she doesn’t exclude herself from our growing urban removal from the natural world. “The reality is, even though I spend a ton of time reading about wild animals, I have almost no experience with them.”

This fall, Walker is participating in three exhibitions: Odd Occurrences at the Seymour Art Gallery (until October 14), Reflexive Animals at the Simon Fraser University Gallery (until October 20), and Scenes of Selves, Occasions for Ruses at the Surrey Art Gallery (from September 15 to December 16). The Surrey show reveals an entirely distinct body of work—human rather than animal portraits—but that is another story for another day.

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