I begin this guest-post at a long white desk nestled between the racks of the New York art gallery where I am spending my summer. To my right is a painting composed of geometric shapes in black and white, behind me is a work piled high with earth tones, and upstairs a nude canvas with gestural stripes down the middle is waiting to be purchased. All by celebrated 20th century figures, each work is priced higher than four years of college at Penn. However, no matter the economic value placed on these works, each started with an artist in a studio surround by his tools.
The late Philadelphia sculptor Bill Walton highlighted this truth by allowing his tools and his art to become almost interchangeable. In Walton’s domain hammers and wrenches served as models, and in his hands stacks of plywood became eloquent monuments. Back in April Rachel Pastan wrote on this blog that Walton’s work “make[s] you look closer, think harder, press yourself against the question of the world and art and how to think about the difference between them.” As an ICA intern, I spent last semester packing and cataloguing the Spring Garden Street studio where Walton created his art, built a collection of tools, hid cigarette butts in used coffee cups, and listened to Sunday in the Park with George on cassette tape.
In an upcoming ICA exhibition, Bill Walton’s Studio, this space will be recreated in the museum’s Project Space, but for months Walton’s windowless studio was my Friday hideaway. Far from Penn’s campus, I spent much of my time there listening to classic rock on my iPod and considering my struggles and triumphs in life and love. But for a part of each visit and in the hours after, Walton’s personal space — complete with dirt and emotional debris — consumed my imagination. I slowly pieced together his process and found myself speculating on his character. A pair of green and blue slippers told me this was a man who valued comfort (and perhaps worked late into the night). A browning roll of masking tape with the phrase “TILL THE FEAR IN ME SUBSIDES – MRS HERMIT LOVES MR HERMIT – 2 MOs. – FRANK S. HERMIT” inscribed in pencil on its side introduced me to a romantic. (After smiling at this find, swaddling it in bubble wrap and telling all my Twitter followers about it, I learned that this roll of masking tape may be a sculpture, even if it started life as a roll of masking tape.)
Virtually everything I know about Walton I know through his space. While I hope to one day learn more of the facts, as it stands I lay claim to a unique and beautiful portrait of a man I will never meet but relate to nonetheless. The exhibition that will open to the public on September 7 will not be beautiful only in the traditional aesthetic sense. The deeper beauty of this project comes from the fact that each visitor will experience a miniature version of my time on Spring Garden Street.
Or perhaps it is more apt to say that I experienced a heightened version of each museum goer’s visit. I have my own version of Bill Walton, and soon each visitor will have her’s.
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Samantha Sharf is beginning her senior year at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an English major with a History of Art minor.
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