The Transfiguration of Bill Walton’s Studio

If you walked into ICA last Sunday afternoon and went up to the second floor, you would have seen a small crowd around the installation Bill Walton’s Studio. Completing the exhibition together, people shared remembrances of the late sculptor and printmaker who touched so many in the Philadelphia art community over the last half-century. Others talked about their feelings about Bill’s work and the studio on view.
Miranda: Group-shotA

Photo: Jenna Weiss

Artist Paul Swenbeck, for example, who has been busy working on an exhibition of his own, described his envy of the “calm and zen” in Bill’s studio. Molly Dougherty, executive director of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, told how, at a difficult time in her life, Bill issued an invitation: “There’s a class going on in West Philadelphia—Argentine Tango. Are you in?”

Some people who spoke, like the young woman going off to apprentice with a woodworker in Maine, hadn’t known Bill at all, but what lingered of him here touched them too. Samantha Sharf, a Penn senior who worked on the exhibition, talked about what a strong sense of the man she’d acquired through his space. A young man who had used his grandfather’s tools to build a guitar made a connection to that experience; he had never known his grandfather, but his closeness to him grew through using the tools.

In return for their words, each speaker got to choose a piece of the installation to take home: a drill bit, a painted block of wood, an old red chair. Paul Swenbeck, for example, took home a log. Sam Sharf took home a tiny skeleton key.

Curator Richard Torchia quoted Brancusi: “Things are not difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them.” Then he added, “I think standing here makes anyone who isn’t an artist want to be an artist.” Richard took a jar of pencils.
Miranda: Woman-with-drill-bitsA

Photo: Jenna Weiss

Pretty much the only things people couldn’t take were the artworks themselves—not that it was always easy to tell what was art and what wasn’t. As exhibition curator Ingrid Schaffner said, pointing to the workbench, “One of those c-clamps is a work of art, and the others are just c-clamps…There’s some Duchampian terrain to navigate here.” Later, Ingrid took a jar of sticks.

Painter Jane Irish, one of the conduits who made the exhibition possible, told how one time Bill, who was her neighbor, came into her studio when Jane was working on a drawing involving a shower of gold. Having trouble getting the drawing right, she’d made a model for herself: “I took a silver lampshade and I put plaster on it, and I poured my penny jar over it so that the pennies stuck in the plaster. And Bill said, ‘That’s the best thing you’ve ever made!’” Jane took some palette knives.

A young artist just setting up his own first studio spoke. A friend of a fishing buddy of Bill’s spoke. A colleague at Moore College of Art to whom Bill taught letterpress told how she and Bill traded sculptures: “I look at his piece every morning when I have breakfast,” she said. Bill’s first Philadelphia gallerist spoke, as did his last.

Bill’s daughter told us how she used to play on and around the big artworks her dad had in the yard, sliding down them, or having the dog jump through them. She also used to go into his studio and move things around: “That would make him so mad!” A little later, when someone extolled the economical quality of Bill’s work, she spoke up again: “It’s nice you used that word, ‘economical.’ We called it cheap.” Everybody laughed.

Artist Sarah McEneaney brought her dog. “Bill loved Trixie, and she loved him,” she said. Bill’s last home was in the building above Sarah’s office, and Trixie used to go upstairs to nap in the room near him. “She still goes up, there,” Sarah said, though the room is empty.
Miranda: Dog-on-floorA

Photo: Jenna Weiss

We hope visitors to ICA exhibitions always go home with something they didn’t have when they came in—an idea, an image, an inspiration. This wasn’t so different, really, just that this time those inspirations were condensed into things. For a few hours that afternoon everyone in the room played their part, and the moment that had been suspended because of the exhibition—the moment for the dispersal of Bill’s material possessions—took place at last. It was a strange alchemy, words building up a picture of the man even as the objects he had touched and made were taken up by other hands.

The many artists in the room mostly took away talismans that were also useful: a jar of brushes, a wood plane, a T-square, a ball peen hammer. Tools that will keep on doing work, only in someone else’s studio now.

To sign up for Miranda’s mailing list, email