HERMAN WALKER: Dealing with "the way it is" in a waning world on canvas, capturing the land and the legacy of the cowboy life
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Big skies, big country, the cowboy, his horse and the cattle he drives. In essence, that is what Western artist Herman Walker brings to the table; painting that lifestyle in a realistic, traditional style that is his very recognizable “brand” of Western art.
For the seventh consecutive year, several of Walker’s oil paintings made it to the final judging round of the Bosque Arts Center’s prestigious 35th Annual Bosque Art Classic Exhibition and Sale – a tribute to the appreciation and quality of his work. In 2017, his “Quittin’ Time” won the coveted John Steven Jones Purchase Award.
This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions and health concerns, the 35th Annual Bosque Art Classic Exhibition and Sale was presented on line only, with a live virtual Awards Ceremony through Facebook.
“It’s been a horrible year,” Walker said speaking of the effects the pandemic has had on all aspects of life, but specifically on art sales. “Sales are down a lot. People want to stand in front of art; they want to experience it in person. And my clientele are not on the internet so much.”
But laid back as he is, he also says, “It is the way it is,” and he is doing what he can to adapt to the changing promotion of his work, using social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.
Walker had three shows in museums planned in 2020. Two were presented virtually.
Walker feels blessed that the Museum of Western Art Show in his hometown Kerrville is being presented as planned, with an opening night reception and the museum open to the public to view the show. Two of Walker’s paintings were sold on opening night and “found a new home.” “Drifting Along” which was used in the Roundup Art Show promotion, and “What’s Happening.”
The MOWA show – which has over 100 works in different media, including sculpture, also includes works from Teal Blake, Nancy Boren, Tyler Crow, Mikel Donahue, George Hallmark, Jason Scull and Xiang Zhang – runs until Oct. 31.
The link connects to the show’s catalogue: https://online.fliphtml5.com/heeqi/ejih/#p=1.
Amid spectacular landscapes, the horses and their riders herd the cattle on Texas’ large ranches. They are – in Walker’s mind – the right stuff, the real deal; the way it’s supposed to be – with character, with determination, with gumption, one with God’s creation. The increasing emergence of ATV’s and helicopters on the range just does not fit his classic brand of painting, of life. His world is about the saddled-up horse behind the yearlings on the trailer; of the cowboy living it up on a Saturday night, only to be up at the crack of dawn to hit the trails again.
It might make them miss the Sunday service, but the cowboys experience church and God’s presence in nature, every single day on the range. Like the painting “Headed Down,” – three vaqueros on their mounts, headed towards the valley to the herd they are driving. Or in “Tomorrow’s Ride,” in which a cowboy has his hand on his steed, the late sun hitting its hind quarters, anticipating the long day ahead tomorrow - you can nearly hear the cicadas chirping in the warm, gentle evening breeze.
Walker is not concerned about hiding a cowboy’s face behind his hat or painting the back side of a horse. He paints them as they are at work, concentrated on the task at hand, whether it cinching a saddle, tightening the latigo or roping the remuda horses. It’s life on the range, and there is no time to look at the camera, as it were – that’s just the way it is.
And Walker shows the story in the details, how the agitated horse’s ears are laid back, of the weariness just before quitting time, the specific color in a distant thunder cloud.
But the true image is not always what the people expect it to be – like that chubby cowboy.
“Hollywood and ranch reality are two entirely different things,” Walker said before going into a story of a boisterous young man imagining an elegant crossing of a stock pond – Walker by the way calls it “tank.” Instead of taking the film-indoctrinated youth safely across to the point of keeping his shirt dry, the horse sank; much to his dismay and merriment of the more experienced dudes watching the reality check.
“You have to be true to yourself and your morals, because how do you otherwise know what’s right and what’s wrong?” And as such, integrity is the word Walker would use to describe himself.
“I portray the authenticity of the working cowboy,” Walker said. “And I want it to be correct and recognizable. People want to see the tack in the right place.”
His paintings usually have a wide horizon, but every so often Walker creates a detail – of a saddle on the rail, chaps hanging off them, ready for another day. To Walker “Ranch Mama” was “just a neat ol’ cow” he saw and photographed on one of his visits to the J&J Cattle Company. He was surprised when owner Johnny Ferguson, requested a print of the painting.
“I know that cow, I know her well, she’s been around for 4-5 years,” Ferguson said, explaining his request.
“This is a man who is around cattle all day, every day, and I didn’t expect him to notice a particular animal, let alone want a print,” Walker said.
“The essence of my work centered around the ranch life of Texas,” Walker said, who grew up in Sonora. “Having grown up on a large ranch, my art reflects the values and traditions of the cowboy. They live, work and play, putting their brand on the land we call Texas.”
Walker spent his formative years in the ranching country of West Texas, feeling the closeness of the land, the forces of nature, the camaraderie of a cowboy crew. Many of his paintings are of the crew – the guys in their element – during different parts of their ranching day like saddling up after a rest in the live oak’s shade; the veteran hand leaning forward on his saddle horn, waiting for the herd to settle, trailing along with the herd, leading the horses to a water tank for a water break, the young gun wrestling with his bucking horse in the early morning – what a way to start the day.
At the tender age of 10, Walker has vivid memories of living on the ranch, being around the cowboys. One of the memories is the crew coming home at the end of the afternoon, coming through the rye, leaning forward on their saddles, wearied by the long day under the sun. For Walker, that was a Remington painting in real life.
And then the colorful Hispanic vaqueros – men with special character, foot loose and fancy free that lived by the motto “work hard, play hard.”
Lots of stories to tell there, of his adventures with the “tough as a boot” cowboys with a heritage dating back to the Mexican indigenous Indian people intermingling with Buffalo Soldiers. As a young teenager, just 14, his dad would make him round up the vaqueros who hadn’t made it home yet, like the straggling cows. Walker remembers having to talk down an inebriated, knife-wielding gentleman off a bar table, before convincing him to get in the truck back to the ranch.
In general, the Mexican vaqueros on the ranches had specific ways of handling cattle bringing with them words like chaps – from chaparreras, Spanish for leather leggings, rodeo – from rodear, Spanish for to surround, or remuda – from remudar, Spanish for exchange. Even cattle branding migrated north from Mexico.
Walker received his degree in Animal Science from Texas Tech University. Considered one of their illustrious alumni, Walker just recently was honored with an article in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources annual publication Landmarks, highlighting his career and works.
While at Tech, Walker was “bit by the sculpting bug,” specifically metal sculpting with sand and lost wax techniques. In high school he had been bitten by the love bug – finding the love of his life, his wife Deanne. After graduation, he worked for a manufacturing firm and in his spare time concentrated on learning casting techniques.
In 1973, Herman and his family moved to Kerrville and opened a gallery and foundry. It was in Kerrville that Walker’s art career began to blossom and he began painting, because he wanted some color in his work and let’s face it, apart from some patina, sculpting is colorless. And on the practical side, paintings were easier to transport across the country to different art shows and museum exhibits.
In 1978, the family moved back to the ranch country near Eldorado to be close to Herman’s subject matter.
After a decade in the art field, Herman’s work was well known and in many collections throughout the country. Just when it seemed that his career was about to reach a new plateau, the art market took a serious downturn with the economy of the mid to late 80’s. With two children in college and the art market growing increasingly fickle, Walker started doing construction work to offset some of his expenses. The demand for his skills increased and soon he was doing remodels but new construction as well.
In that time, Walker even remodeled the ranch he grew up on. The third generation ranchers wanted to bring the old ranch into the present, while preserving the essence of its origins. He continued with this business for the next 20 years.
In 2008, the couple moved back to Kerrville to be near the grandkids. That was when Walker picked up the paint brushes once again and rekindled his never-forgotten love of painting.
“I’ve been at this a long time,” Walker said, about honing his skills, learning the tricks of the trade. He’s paid his dues traveling across the nation showing his work, meeting show deadlines, pulling all-nighters. He now can work at a less frantic pace, enjoying some hunting and fishing, going to museums, galleries and art shows. There is finally time follow the grand kids games and activities, be active in their church. And when he wants a change of creative activity, he turns to woodworking nowadays.
For Walker, a painting is often a conglomeration of moments, images – a face here, a tree there, a certain horse, a different rider. Walker loves the rough, arid, prickly-pear country of West Texas, as much as he enjoys the hill country hills and live oak; his work switches between the two landscapes.
“I’m banging down this familiar path, but this is what I know and love,” Walker said. “I’ve tried doing some strictly landscapes, but then I think ‘I need some cows in there.’ I just have this affinity for animals.”
Over the years the faces may have changed and many of the old large ranches are no longer in existence, but the people, the animals, the land remain.
“I paint here because of the people, this land and my feeling for it,” Walker said.”Ranch life is lived on the cutting edge. In this region, nature doesn’t always deal kindly with man. The men and women who live on this land must be strong in character and able to face adversity. There is joy, beauty and satisfaction of the good times as well as the agony, loneliness and desolation of the bad times. A force and strength within the people, the animals and the land itself is so vibrant. I try to paint this and hope that those who know will be able to say, ‘That’s the way it is’.”
For the past 10 years, Walker has dedicated his time to telling their story through his paintings, documenting that lifestyle, which is fading and disappearing. Collecting spurs, bits, coffee cans, traps and Indian artifacts falls in line with wanting to preserve a waning world.
Walker received one of the most rewarding compliments from a young Native American who was moved to tears by Walker’s sculpture on exhibit. The sculpture was of a Native American Indian, with a buffalo, eagle talons around his neck and the United States flag. According to the young man, the sculpture expressed the feelings he had about being torn between the old and the new; something no one else had been able to express. Walker had captured it in his work.
“I try to capture the relationship between man, animals and nature,” Walker said. “The symbiosis, but also the conflict. It is so alive; the source of life. You win, you lose or you die. The adrenaline is always pumping. And the day never goes the way you want.”
Through Walker’s art, you can experience that life on the ranch; feel the determination, the strength of man and beast. You can nearly smell the wild sage and rosemary as the horses and their humble, rough-and-ready riders on the range kick up the dust. You catch a whiff of leather as the cowboys saddle-up, feel the heat of the sun as it warms up the day, or experience the chill of the early evening as they settle in for the night around a fire with coffee, beans, rice and beef jerky.
And as long as cattle are raised in big Texas ranches so will the life and legacy of the cowboy and the Hispanic vaquero endure. And as long as he can, Herman Walker will be painting them and their lifestyle, striving for that perfect day as much as he can - a day where he accomplishes his initial vision in a painting he’s working on at the easel.
“The memories run deep,” Walker said. “The beauty still remains and entices us to ride over that next hill and see what we came here for.”
Walker’s art can be viewed on his website http://www.hermanwalker.com/, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100007385567896 and Instagram at HermanWalker3105.
A force and strength within the people, the animals and the land itself is so vibrant. I try to paint this and hope that those who know will be able to say, ‘That’s the way it is.’
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS & courtesy of HERMAN WALKER
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