Our graphic past glorifies labour. Artist Ericka Walker shows us just how complicated an idea that is
Walker's new print recognizes that agriculture is tied up in environmental destruction — and colonialism
Eight Canadian artists have returned to the famed lithography workshop at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, to work with a master and create some fresh prints. Print's Not Dead follows these artists through the process — how they're making their works and the thinking that informed them.
Ericka Walker's work revolves around historical images valorizing work and physical labour for a reason — the Halifax-based artist has American roots and family ties to the subject. As she explains: "My father grew up in Norman Rockwell's America. He was a farm boy. He went to college on the G.I. bill after he got back from Vietnam. My mother was the daughter of a Chicago steel mill worker and a World War Two vet." So there's a lot of pride wound up in Walker's images that throw back to an historical era that centred work as part of its graphic tradition.
Walker's respect for farming, in particular, is paramount. As she says, "I think what happens in rural areas of North America is extremely important. Agriculture, for one — we all rely on it to survive." At the same time, as you'll see in this video made by filmmaker Marcia Connolly, the history is complicated and Walker is opening up some questions by making her own images and murals about work and agriculture.
Watch the video:
The work she's just completed is part of a revival of NSCAD University's famed lithography workshop, to which many international artists flocked in the 1970s. In 2017, the school invited eight artists to come back to the workshop and continue its legacy. Walker made her print, From Time to Time, with references to a Canadian Pacific Railway poster that encouraged settlers to explore the land, continuing colonial expansion. The print includes a turbine, which enabled the building of hydro dams in lands that belonged to Indigenous peoples, causing environmental damage and violating treaty rights. "I definitely wanted something that involved a Canadian conversation around resource extraction and the sort of continuity between the era around settlement and Confederation and now in this contemporary moment," says Walker.
"That man standing in front of the landscape and sometimes gesturing out to it — 'this new land that's ours for the taking' — it's a really problematic way to look at lands that have already been occupied. Combining this hydroelectric turbine with that idea, that ghost of colonialism — I'm kind of drawing a connection between those ideals and ideas and how they've manifested today, using the land in a way that is really literally funnelling it into our energy needs."
This video is part of a new CBC Arts series called Print's Not Dead documenting eight artists working in NSCAD's lithography workshop in the present day. You can see the exhibition of these artists' works at NSCAD Lithography Workshop: Contemporary Editions, on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until April 26, 2020.