The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Youngest-Ever MacArthur “Genius” Fills Vollum

Vollum was bursting at the seams on Tuesday, October 2 as both Reed students and other Portland community members crammed into the lecture hall for artist Kara Walker’s highly-anticipated lecture as a guest for the Stephen E. Ostrow Distinguished Visitors in the Arts series. Walker graduated with an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994 and became the youngest person ever to receive the MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 1997 at the age of 28. Both the lecture hall and the Vollum Lounge were so full that many were away due to lack of available seating.

The roots of Walker’s work lie in her childhood, which was defined by her move from California to Atlanta, Georgia when she was thirteen. “[T]he schism between being a child of the 70s in California with a kind of fairly nice attitude or a nice set of expectations about who I am as a person, that I am a person, was kind of contrasted with a different set of mythologies that were present in the South,” she said. “I think that the pervasive attitude of the place I grew up was a sense of possibility, that I could have a range of different friends of different ethnicities and we could all just get along. And this was not the case when I got to Georgia.”

Understanding the narrative of Walker’s work is just as important as understanding its content. “What I like about narrative… or what I find impossible for me to resolve about narrative is that I keep wanting to begin. That I never arrive at a conclusion. So here is another beginning,” she said.

In one of Walker’s most recognized pieces, a cyclorama with a curved wall with black cut-paper silhouettes displayed on the inside, she inserts characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin into the narrative of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Walker titled the piece “Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or ‘Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life).” In this life-size exhibit, Walker forces the viewer to experience her mixed narrative differently than they would interpret the separate texts as works of literature. “The panorama and cyclorama are the grand history painting gone completely awry and it’s completely drunk on its own power to convey truth and the reality of ‘you are in this place now and it is happening to you’ it predates cinema but it’s so bombastic that it falls outside the terrain of fine art,” she said.

Reed students and faculty were excited to discuss Walker’s lecture and its implications. Art major, Kira Jacobson ’15 says, “Because her work reaches such relevant and challenging questions and strives to open more up rather than answer them, it really is powerful and important, which is something that not all art is.” Marissa Katz ’15, an art history student says, “This is interesting because in my art history class we were talking about how it’s necessary to hear the artist’s perspective…After seeing her work and then being able to hear her talk about her own work it was really insightful. I really like to hear people talk about their motivations and inspirations for why they do things. For me, art is really personal.”

“Attendance at Walker’s Tuesday evening lecture was a testament to her importance and stature in contemporary American art,” says Dean for Institutional Diversity Crystal Williams. “As with all good art, Walker’s work causes viewers to interrogate what it means to be human and then, specifically, what it means to live in a country in which the construction and manipulation of race has and continues to be a pressing concern.”

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