Walking as a radical act of quiet observation
Purposeful walking as an art practice allows artists to engage with the materiality of a place, gaining empirical knowledge of the tactile and ephemeral qualities of a specific location (Lukowska 2018). For several years now, Auckland based artist Celia Walker, has been interested in this notion of walking as a process of being present and mindfully observing her environment. In March 2013 she embarked on a project creating one print per week that responded to the urban ecology of her local neighbourhood using a variety of processes and techniques, tracing the intersections between the landscape and lived histories. This resulted in the group exhibition 52 Days at Devonport’s Depot Artspace where her most recent exhibition Walking Distance is currently on show.
Her preoccupation with mapping and personal journeys can be traced back to her academic studies in Art History where she completed a doctoral thesis on the early colonial travel journals and cartographic maps of New Zealand landscape artist and explorer Charles Heaphy. However, her work is equally concerned with raising awareness about environmental issues, in particular those relating to climate change. A recent finalist for the New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award 2020, her work Warning: Failing Coal (2020) criticises the coal mining industry in northern Waikato. Having completed a Graduate Diploma in Environmental Science, she feels it’s urgent for individuals to look more closely at what they are doing for the climate at a local level including voting for leaders who care about and feel responsible for the environment. She has coordinated many grass roots community initiatives taking action against the climate crisis. Walking as a process is to some extent a political statement of consciously moving through your environment without relying on a car and adding to global emissions.
Walking Distance – a local response to a global pandemic
For many of us, walking became a daily ritual during the lockdown, an escape from the confines of our house, an excuse to go outside and catch a glimpse of other human life. For Walker, it was the beginning of another project. On her daily walks she recorded details in the urban landscape with her camera that would otherwise go unnoticed, such as a power pole, an abandoned supermarket trolley and a stack of traffic cones. Back in her studio she then composed tiny black and white prints, numbering each one to mark the passing days. Together Lockdown Prints (2020) bring to mind a collection of polaroids, a snap shot of forgotten corners, evoking a quiet, sombre atmosphere.
A subsequent set of larger prints, Walking Notes (2020) grew from this original series, this time depicting some of the waste generated by the pandemic which have become powerful symbols of our time; a discarded mask, a crumpled glove. Placed alongside each other, the prints create an overall effect of paving stones, containing visual cues of social distancing: stop signs, arrows and black crosses guiding us through danger in an attempt to protect the public from the spread of the pandemic. Yet, it also raises the question – in protecting ourselves, are we doing so at the expense of our natural environment? Although an interest in altered landscapes and modified places underpins much of Walker’s work, nature is not portrayed as passive in its relationship with humans. Instead, her work documents natures powerful ability to fight back. In Random Surfaces (2020) industrial objects and walls are depicted as eroded and weathered by the elements, encroached by colourful moss, lichen and ferocious weeds.
Visually, these prints employ her signature style of heavily textured and tonal works, layering several plates to build up a complex surface texture using a combination of monoprint, collagraph, stencil and drypoint techniques. Walker was introduced to printmaking ten years ago when she attended a collagraph workshop with Carol Shepherd at Te Kowhai Print Trust Studio in Whangarei. The indirect nature of the printmaking process that allows for chance to intervene at every stage instantly appealed to her. There is a certain distance between the artist’s mark and the final print that she finds to be a somewhat liberating experience. She is also fascinated by the endless possibilities of incorporating found objects into her monoprints. Preferring to use random objects rather than making plates with resource intensive materials, she likes the idea of making prints literally from “bits of rubbish”.
With the pandemic still at the forefront of most of our daily thoughts, interactions and communication, Walking Distance offers an alternative view of the visual material in our local neighbourhoods, and how, through closer observation, it is possible to develop an appreciation of elements of the landscape that we may not have previously considered.
Collaborative projects to build community
Walking Distance coincides with Distant Conversations, a print exchange also organised and curated by Walker. Just before the first lockdown, she contacted sixteen artists from across the country, proposing the project as an antidote to feelings of isolation and disconnectedness from the impending border closures and travel restrictions. The resulting collection is a time capsule of the artist’s reflections on the pandemic, including dreams, hopes and feelings of loss and longing.
Collaborative projects are an important aspect of her work, providing an exciting way to connect with printmakers from New Zealand and around the world. Early on in her career she was involved in several international projects, including the Flyway Print Exchange organised by Melbourne based artist Kate Gorringe-Smith. Twenty printmakers from nine countries along the flight path of migratory shorebirds from New Zealand to arctic Russia created work to raise awareness of these bird’s shrinking habitat. Similarly, the Bimblebox 153 Birds project, curated by Queensland artist Jill Sampson, features prints of the 153 bird species residing in the Bimblebox Nature Refuge currently under threat from private coal mining companies.
Being involved in these projects inspired Walker to do something similar locally to engage communities with local environment issues. One of these was Forest has the Blues, a collaborative print installation by local printmakers and high school students from the Auckland region to promote biodiversity in the urban environment. To Walker’s delight, the project grew and evolved, as ideas were shared and more groups got involved, travelling to several galleries in the region. During the exhibition seedlings of native trees were gifted to local residents and planted in local reserves. Three years on, she is still hearing from residents how the trees are flourishing, adding joy and colour to their backyard and the surrounding neighbourhood.
New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award:
Te Kowhai Print Trust:
Flyway Print Exchange:
Bimblebox Art Project:
LUKOWSKA, M.M (2018) Encountering Place: Investigating the Materiality of Place Through Printmaking Practice. Thesis for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Curtin University.