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An artist’s perspective

June 17, 2010
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U-M Art and Design graduate finds his place in the world

In Cuenca, Ecuador, there’s a great stone staircase known as la escalinata that connects the city’s upper and lower barrios. On a corner near the base of the stairs is an internet cafe, where John Daniel Walters would go to check his email during the year he lived in Cuenca, studying Spanish and sculpture.

John Walters One day Walters walked out of the cafe and heard a loud rumble coming from the direction of la escalinata. His gaze took in a man on a motorcycle who was riding a wheelie all the way up the stairs, forcing pedestrians young and old to step aside or be plowed over in his ascent. Some glared, disgusted by his audacity; others watched, amazed at his skill. When he got to the top, he rode back down and started over. Walters says the man amused himself all day riding wheelies up the stairs.

For Walters, a lifelong Midwesterner from Nebraska, there was something about the scene that summed up the experience of living in South America and the Caribbean.

“It’s like the Wild West,” he said. “Things are able to happen (there) that wouldn’t happen here. You’re a bit more reliant on your wits and your personal perception instead of a series of laws that you feel provide security. In an environment like that I feel a bit more alive.”

Walters would return to the States and continue his arts education – eventually enrolling in the highly selective Masters of Fine Arts program in the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. At Michigan he’s applied his own innovative spirit, metaphorically riding motorcycles up stairs by embarking on ambitious, non-traditional projects that encourage people to open their eyes and pay attention.

“It’s about perception – how you choose to view your place within the world,” said Walters, who graduated in April. “It’s about seeing another perspective, and maybe appreciating what you already have instead of trying to acquire more. To be ignorant of your surroundings is really to be unappreciative of them.”

john walters with engine sculptureMake and learn

Walters grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska and earned a BFA in sculpture and ceramics from the University of Nebraska. His father, a soil scientist and erstwhile home handyman, taught him the value of a job well done and encouraged an early interest in cars and their inner workings.

The idea of mobility – and the machines and tools that make it possible – is deeply embedded in Walters’ life, and a frequent theme in his art.

When he turned 16, he and his dad fixed up a rusted Toyota Corolla and the automotive timeline of Walters’ life began. Every major event since is marked in his memory by the car he was driving at the time.

He cut his artistic teeth restoring classic European cars, and at one point interviewed with General Motors for a job sculpting automobiles. The centerpiece of his masters thesis project, an installation called “Neo-pastoral,” is a sculpture based on an industrial diesel engine. Like everything else he does it’s meticulously crafted and made to professional standards.

After returning from Ecuador, Walters worked as a diesel mechanic for a local cement company to pay off his debts while moonlighting as artist in residence at the Lux Center for the Arts in Lincoln. Then he started a mobile engine repair business. The business did well, but the work didn’t challenge him creatively.

Taking up an offer by one of his former professors, Walters worked in the foundry at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, New Mexico in exchange for classes in metal fabrication and foundry techniques. What he learned there finally allowed him to link his passions for sculpture and cars.

truckWalters had bought a 1992 Dodge truck and converted its turbo diesel engine it to burn waste vegetable oil – the stuff restaurants dump out of their deep fryers. Over time he added lots of aluminum and steel detailing to the big three-quarter ton pickup.

“Whatever it takes,” said Brad Smith, associate dean of the school of Art and Design’s graduate program. “He will find the experts, find the funding, find the equipment. He lets the idea drive him, rather than what’s at his fingertips. He finds what it takes to make it happen, and to make it happen the way it should.”

Walters put more than 80,000 miles on the truck, driving it all over the southwest. It engaged people in a way the meticulously restored show cars restorations didn’t – not least because they were allowed to touch it – and encouraged people to talk and think about transportation choices and sustainability.

“I have never met a person who has had, on one hand, extremely acute knowledge of contemporary art and critical theory… but at the same time have this passion for machines and objects that he has actually built,” said associate professor of art and design Endi Poskovic, one of Walters’ advisors. “It’s remarkable. I can’t change a tire. Are there people like him out there? I’m sure there are, but I have never encountered any.”

The broad view

earthmoverThe U-M School of Art and Design supports a three to five-week international experience for all graduate students during the summer after their first or second year. As a U-M student, Walters has use his international experiences to explore new creative and cultural avenues and approach familiar avenues from unfamiliar angles.

“He’s extremely open-minded” said Poskovic. “He has this desire to not merely visit places but be a participant in places and cultures, to be part of a larger fabric and see how that would affect his work.”

In 2008 he went to Chile to analyze the environmental and social impacts of mining copper ore – the main component of the bronze he uses in his sculptural work – and to Easter Island

to examine the effects ofresource mismanagement in a very finite ecosystem.Then he visited Thamkrabok Monastery in Thailand, where monks have concocted a formula for molten basalt (lava) that’s much less resource-intensive than bronze. The labor involved in casting the large deity figures is part of the monastery’s unique drug rehabilitation program, giving Walters a non-Western perspective on substance abuse management, which had been a theme in past work.

In 2009, with support from a Smucker-Wagstaff Creative Work Research Grant and a fellowship from U-M Global Health Research and Training, Walters spent two months in Havana, Cuba, interviewing people for a documentary film titled La Solidaridad. It examines Cubans’ relationship to their surroundings – and in particular their access to healthcare – through the lens of personal mobility.

He came away deeply impressed with the resourcefulness he saw – from the woman who’d repeatedly patched her broken prosthetic leg with baling wire, to the men he watched repair a broken tie rod – the part of the car that keeps the front wheels parallel to each other – in the middle for the street, in the middle of rush hour, without any welding tools.

Walters wonders sometimes how well people understand the objects they rely upon, but in Cuba there was no question. The film is in its final editing phase, almost ready for the film festival circuit.

“The hope is that (when people look at my art) a change of perspective will happen,” he said. “I hope that people who do have the things they need will recognize that the reason they have that isn’t that they’re deserving or that was made for them. The system or structure in which they live has provided that. And those things are finite and can be exhausted, especially if you don’t understand to the fullest potential what they are and where they come from.”

Amy E. Whitesall is a freelance writer/editor for the University of Michigan’s Explore web magazine.

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