Portrait

A walk through the home studio of abstract artist Jake Walker. By Romy Ash.

Artist Jake Walker

Inside Jake Walker’s studio, a black cat is tracing figure eights around his legs. She gives a soft purring meow as she rubs up against his calves. Walker pays her no mind and, without a pat, she eventually gives up and flops into the sunshine at the studio doors. Outside, the lawn is strewn with plastic bikes, scooters and balls.

“I guess being here, and having kids and having lots of other stuff to do, I’m trying to work out ways to make paintings more quickly or efficiently. For years, and it still is a huge part of my painting process, painting was about obliterating imagery, as much as making imagery. So I’m always, in the back of my mind thinking, wondering, if what I’m making is going to be painted over,” says Walker. He’s an abstract painter, living in what he refers to as the “provinces” of New Zealand. His studio is a converted, weatherboard garage. An outboard motor hangs from a beam overhead. There are golf clubs, photography equipment in a corner. These things compete for space with the canvases piled over every surface. The bigger ones lean against each other. Some of the paintings look heavy, a sedimentary offering of paint. Many are in ceramic frames that Walker has crafted himself. On the other side of town, he has a pottery studio attached to an old butter factory.

“I think, ultimately, I’m an obsessive person,” Walker says, “There’s essentially a build-up of surfaces of my work. I set out to make something, grow tired of it and paint over it, and so on and so on. It might take years with some paintings.” He shows me a drop sheet painting that he’s been working on for three years. “But yeah, there’s a certain freshness if you don’t do that, which I’m interested in, doing things in one layer now.”

“[The paintings] work well when I’m being as casual as possible. Of course, human beings aren’t casual animals, as far as animals go. I’m forever just trying to leave things alone,” he says. We hear crying in the background and the murmurings of comfort. There’s the sweet voices of little kids.

“It’s been useful having children because you get called away a lot – having the studio at home – there’s a lot of paintings that hang around and get dry whilst I’m doing other things.”

Walker shows me a painting that’s mostly white. “I make a lot of paintings that are monochromatic. White paintings that are about the beginning of painting. That potential of the white canvas and that exciting moment where you think you might be going to make something magnificent, which might be the highest realisation of that painting.”

Another he shows me is a textured black – the black paint mixed with river sand covers a previous and colourful iteration of the painting. He tells me now the painting is black, it becomes more about texture and surface rather than colour and form, how it becomes an object rather than a painting.

I ask about the paintbrushes that are collected in jars, half-washed on a workbench. He says, “I’ve never been particularly kind to my brushes, they’re more like scrubbing brushes than paintbrushes. They don’t get to make lovely little light marks, I usually just scrub paint around with them.”

There’s also an egg carton, thrown atop a pile of canvases, colourful and playful. Walker painted it with his older daughter. “It’s been in my studio for probably 12 months now, I’m working out whether or not I might want to paint on egg cartons.”

“Seeing how kids approach art making, it’s just very natural and unencumbered by all this adult stuff that we know,” Walker says.

“People say kids make the best art, but I genuinely believe that. I don’t think that’s just a cute thing to say. I think they just do.”

“Look at this beautiful photo of your girls,” I say, picking up a black-and-white print that’s been smeared with a bright green daub of paint. In it, his oldest daughter washes his youngest.

“It’s a cool picture,” he says. “Did you see the painting I did of that in the living room?”

“Is that a rare thing for you to do, a painting that’s representational, figurative?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says, simply.

We go and look at the work, walking through the garden, up the wide wooden stairs, across the deck and into the house.

“It’s quite hard to find a bit of floor that doesn’t have Duplo on it,” he says, scraping a space over the exposed wooden floorboards so we can stand and look at the painting, bright in colour, big gestural marks on the canvas.

“It was an abstract painting underneath but I painted over it. This picture was done in a couple of hours – easy,” he says and laughs. “It’s not. A lot of times those pictures don’t work out, but when they do it feels pretty easy.”

The house is eerily quiet. “I think I might pick some Duplo up, what do you reckon? Where did everyone go?” he says. He crouches down in front of the painting and starts gathering toys together and dumping them in a basket.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "Beneath the layers". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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