Travis Walker | A Fresh Eye

Travis Walker captures familiar western scenes with a new vision

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Travis Walker, American Family, oil, 16 x 20.

Travis Walker, American Family, oil, 16 x 20.

This story was featured in the July 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

A buffalo falls off a cliff, captured in mid-air. Another perches at the edge. An ominous recreational vehicle stands close by. Travis Walker’s painting, BUFFALO JUMP, often causes viewers to puzzle over the scene. What is happening here? Are the vehicle and the wild animals connected to a narrative?

The Wyoming-based artist says that yes, indeed, there is a story. “BUFFALO JUMP is based on my experiences with tourists in our area and their often tragic, comedic interaction with nature and wildlife,” he says. “The recreational vehicle symbolizes the historic pioneering spirit of this country and also how we have lost our way in modern times, often at the expense of our natural environment.”

Tourist activity in the West is a subject intimately familiar to Walker. For the past 16 years he has made his home in Jackson, WY. Visitors from around the world flock to this picturesque mountain town that serves as a gateway to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. About 10,000 people live in Jackson, but it sees 2.6 million visitors a year who come to ski, hike, and otherwise experience the area’s splendid natural attractions.

BUFFALO JUMP is one of several Walker works on display in a group show at Visions West Contemporary in Livingston, MT, this month. Gallery owner Nikki Todd says the artist’s signature element in a piece like this one is his penchant for imbuing ordinary western landscapes with a mysterious quality. “Whether it’s a simple townscape of Livingston or an old car launching off a cliff, he manages to create drama and tension in the works,” Todd says. “There is a striking authenticity to his paintings even though there is a bit of surreal, tongue-in-cheek humor.”

Indeed, Walker has an imaginative take on today’s West. As he has noted, his works sometimes meet at the intersection of comedy and tragedy. For example, in DANGER MOOSE [see page 63], a tourist points at a 1,000-pound moose from inches away. Other times his works are layered with subtle metaphor and meaning. For example, in BUFFALO JUMP, the artist seems to suggest that the ubiquitous RVs are driving wild creatures off the planet, invading the domain the buffalo once owned. The RV could be thought of much like a military tank rolling through the terrain and conquering its unsuspecting inhabitants. Perhaps the buffalo preferred to take a leap of faith off the cliff rather than live with the invaders.

“Travis is adept at articulating a quirky regionalism in his paintings,” Todd says. “He is a wildly inventive artist, and that rings out resoundingly in his ability to take on this place, the West, with a fresh eye.”

Walker was born in 1976 on an American military base in Tokyo. The son of a U.S. Air Force pilot, he grew up in the typical military mode: Every two years or so his family pulled up stakes and moved to a new base. Soon the family was on the road to Okinawa and the Philippines. They then returned to the U.S., where the future artist came of age in Delaware, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Pennsylvania in neighborhoods he describes as “flat suburbia. The bases were located in some of the most uninspiring places,” Walker says.

As a youngster, Walker never thought about becoming an artist, although he did enjoy drawing. Instead, when it came time for college, he focused on a practical career path, majoring in environmental science at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, VA. Then one semester he signed up for a life-drawing class as an elective. The instructor took the students to her mountain home to paint a model on location, and from that day forward, Walker was hooked. Not only did he relish the idea of painting on location, but also seeing the lifestyle that the artist created with her husband, who was also an artist, made a lasting impression. The couple’s home overflowed with artworks created by their friends and students. “It seemed like an interesting life,” Walker says. “And I just did not want to study environmental science and dirt anymore.”

He transferred across the state to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, earning a fine-arts degree in 1999. After graduation he began to look for a place to settle and become part of a community, preferably in the mountains. His search for the right spot led him to Santa Fe, Sun Valley, and Boulder, among other places.

In 2001, while living in Kansas City, he heard some good things about Jackson, but he still didn’t know precisely where it was located. So he looked it up online, and up popped an Ansel Adams photograph, SNAKE RIVER OVERLOOK, an iconic view of a bend in the Snake River beneath the Teton mountains. For Walker, it was an aha moment. When he was in high school, a poster of the very same image had hung on his wall, fueling his dream of living in the mountains. When he realized that Jackson was nestled in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, he thought, “This is it.”

One of the first things Walker noticed when he moved to Jackson in 2002 was the lack of affordable studio space for artists. Within a few years, he helped remedy the situation when he established the Teton Artlab, a nonprofit organization housed in a former chainsaw repair shop downtown. Today the colorful red-and-yellow structure provides studio space for seven artists as well as a monthlong residency program for artists visiting from far-flung places like Brazil and South Korea.

Walker serves as executive director, and when he’s not at the Artlab, he is painting and sketching in the wild country—the streams, valleys, creeks, and mountain peaks not too far from his front door. He is equally comfortable portraying the man-made elements in his daily universe, including vintage trailer parks, funky fences made of skis, and the landmark Million Dollar Cowboy Bar on Jackson’s town square.

In the painting A LONE COWBOY, Walker portrays a figure on a deserted Jackson street. The man, wearing a cowboy hat, appears lost in thought as he stands in the middle of the road and stares toward the mountains. The mountains form a backdrop to a neon sign featuring a cowboy on a high-kicking horse that sits on the roof of the Cowboy Bar. The painting evokes a sense of loneliness or isolation reminiscent of works by Edward Hopper. Like Hopper, Walker displays a knack for injecting a touch of surrealism into this and other works, thanks in part to dreamy, almost otherworldly lighting.

Bold, flat planes of color in the tradition of Japanese master printmakers are another theme in Walker’s landscapes. Sensuous shapes are abundant, too—undulating rivers, serpentine trails, and voluptuous rolling hills come together to create spare, minimalist works that sometimes border on abstraction. “I love the way the Japanese compose without using traditional western perspective,” the artist says. “And I love the sparse, effective use of color. I want to capture the essence of a scene, what really matters. Not minute detail.”

Mark Tarrant, owner of Altamira Fine Art, says what grabbed his attention when he first saw the artist’s work a decade ago were Walker’s minimalist compositions and original, contemporary vision. “He is clearly from a new generation of painters working in the West,” Tarrant says. “Where realism was once required, he has an Edward Hopper approach.”

For composition ideas, Walker may turn to the cinema for inspiration. He studies the angles and perspectives the cinematographer or director has chosen. On occasion, Walker says, he even lifts characters from the silver screen and transplants them into a Jackson landscape.

The artist has revisited the 1990 movie Thelma & Louise several times in artworks. In CANYON JUMP he depicts the classic turquoise convertible in the movie’s final scene as it plunges off a cliff into the abyss. “Initially when I saw Thelma & Louise in the late ’90s, I figured the car exploded into a fiery ball when they drove off the cliff,” Walker says. “But recently I began to wonder if they didn’t just soar across to the other side and land, Evel Knievel-style. You never really know what happens in the last few minutes. I love that ambiguity.”

In the past few years, Walker has started to add more figures to his scenes. In WATCHERS NO. 1, a cadre of Indian women dressed in bright, multicolored saris stand transfixed in front of Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s iconic geyser. Walker is fascinated by the variety of people who travel here from around the world. “Old Faithful will often have different races and cultures standing side by side, people who may rarely intersect otherwise,” he says. “Yet they all marvel at the power of nature.”

It’s interesting to think that, as a youngster, Walker traveled around the world, and now, as an adult, the world comes to him. “It’s invigorating to live here,” he says. The artist also considers Wyoming one of the last great landscapes left in America. He appreciates what he calls the “elevated perspective” of the area and the grand scale of the terrain. “It makes you and your problems seem small. You are not so wrapped up in yourself,” he says. “Moving out here allowed my soul to settle. I am grateful I followed my dream.”

Visions West Contemporary, Denver, CO, Livingston and Bozeman, MT; Altamira Fine Art, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ.

This story was featured in the July 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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