Walter W. Barker was an instructor in Washington University’s School of Art for 12 years and a 1948 alumnus of the school. He died May 13, 2004, of pancreatic cancer at his home in Greensboro, N.C., at the age of 82. One of Barker’s former students, Gene Markowski (BFA60), shares his memories of Barker’s influence on his own development as an artist.
REMEMBERING WALTER BARKER (WALLY)
August 1921 - May 2004
Born in Germany, Wally and his family immigrated to the United States when he was quite young. The family settled in St. Louis, and Wally eventually became professor of second-year painting in the BFA Program. Max Beckmann, who was also teaching painting in the program, became good friends with Wally, bonding through their German heritage. Their friendship lasted until Beckmann’s death.
In 1959 as a second-year painting major, I met Wally for the first time in his painting class. Physically he was an impressive man: over six feet tall, thin, bright blue eyes, engaging smile, bald except for a fringe of hair, and soft-spoken. He walked slightly bent over at the shoulders, as though he was trying to diminish his height.
His studio teaching methodology was quite different from the other art school faculty, and was one that I responded to and for the most part have used in my own studio teaching today. Painting assignments were given and open to individual interpretation; criticisms and encouragement alternated throughout the painting session along with lessons in painting technique. If a student got bogged down with technique, Wally would step up to the easel and quickly demonstrate solutions. Assignments were always an intellectual exercise as well as an exploration into painting beyond fundamentals. It was through these methods that I quickly learned to coordinate content strategies with stylistic development.
From time to time, Wally organized class parties held in his painting studio, which was located at the intersection of Olive and Boyle Streets. It was at these parties that I got to know Wally the man and the artist, and here that I saw one of his paintings for the first time. At that time his work was abstract landscape impressionism; the craftsmanship was stunning, the color delicate without being obvious or predictable. The impact of his work upon me was so powerful that for many years after graduating from Washington University, my own painting reflected the rich qualities of Wally’s.
The social gatherings that Wally organized were an important aspect of my time at Washington University, as they grounded me while there; but more importantly, they offered insight into the life of an artist and what it really consisted of outside the art school setting.
After graduating from Washington University and later from graduate school, I kept in touch with Wally until his death. He purchased a summer house in Maine, and I eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where he would stop on his way to Maine during the summers. His two- or three-day stays in Washington were always a delight, as we would spend time together at the National Gallery of Art, The Phillips Collection, or the National Portrait Gallery, engaged in long discussions about art. He never stopped giving me the support I needed, or showing interest in what my current work was like.
A student is lucky if by chance he happens to meet a teacher who makes a life-altering difference, and Wally did for me. When I look back at the years at the School of Art at Washington University, I can say that the legacy the School gave me was Wally Barker. His death from pancreatic cancer came as a complete shock to me, and although I no longer have the pleasure of his company, encouragement, and advice, his spirit lives on through my own teaching and advising of young artists. From time to time I find myself using some of Wally’s studio teaching methods in my own painting classes, and smile to myself remembering how lucky I was to have an artist like Wally teaching me at the School of Art at Washington University.