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Artists in their own words: John Isiah Walton


John Isiah Walton (Photo credit: Tammy Mercure )

Who: John Isiah Walton

What: Painter

Where: Algiers

Artists chosen location for interview: Mojo Coffee on Magazine where a fly was interested in his cinnamon roll and a white pigeon was interested in puffing up her feathers and catching his eye

Q: What is the most interesting state of existence?

JIW: Virtual reality. You can be alive but also be dead at the same time, which is fascinating. It is all cerebral. You have to put yourself in the space you are reading or feeling, and you have to absorb that feeling as reality even though you never actually experienced–fully–that situation.

There’s virtual reality for video games, for your phone, soon there will be self-driving cars, so you won’t even talk to your driver…they are slowly phasing out the social aspects of life. I know people find this scary, but a computer is nothing to be afraid of. Although, we are destroying the planet with this technology, and maybe that Terminator scenario isn’t so far off. If the computer decides it needs to kill the humans in order to survive, we’re screwed.

Even with new rap where people are using technology on their voices, it gets people upset, but that’s the point of art. It’s not necessarily supposed to get you all the way upset, but it should get some type of emotion out of you–if it’s good. If the art is not so great, then it goes just for the shock value.

That’s the thing about pop art and Warhol or Rothko and Picasso. It was crazy at the time and then it becomes something that we see as being copied. You have five to ten years of the work being fresh, and you have the vanguards in that area. Give it a decade and then you have people copying that work.

When it comes to computers, we are all embracing it now because everything we do is on the computer. Although, let’s be real. We are still trying to keep coal mining around as well. We can pump the brakes on the flying cars and other cool sci-fi stuff cause we still have coal mining.

Q: Who is someone you’d want as a roommate?

JIW: I am going to give you multiple answers. I would say my brother because we get along so well. In fact, we still live in the same house. [Laughing].

Anyone from The Front or Level. I would share an apartment with Horton Humble. We shared a studio space, and it was awesome.

I have a high tolerance for people, except when someone is cooking cabbage every night. The smell. If someone is making the house smell terrible every night, that’s not going to work.

I would love to have a wrestler as a roommate, but only because I’d want him to get me free tickets to Wrestlemania. Or someone who runs a movie theater. You don’t want a roommate who owns Mercedes because you know they’re not going to give you a car, but if it’s a low overhead item like tickets, then they’d most likely slide you those because you’re their roommate.

So the answer to this question is: I want to live with someone who has free tickets. I could even deal with the cabbage smell if I got to hang out with Jay-Z for free at the end of the night.

Q: What is something you remember vividly from your grandparents house?

JIW: My grandmother lived with my mom, so there are a couple of things I remember. One was this old sculpture–I think it was made out of plaster–of a woman holding a bunch of grapes, but I always thought they looked like a baby.

The other item is a painting that my mom still keeps in the house. It’s a southern looking painting with a waterscape and a barn. It reminds me of a flood. I always looked at that painting when I was a kid and wondered, ‘Why is there water there? Did someone forget that the ground is made of dirt and not water?’ Maybe it’s a situation that water is easier to paint than ground.

Because that can be a thing. Sometimes people can’t draw certain parts, like someone who can’t draw hands so everyone in their paintings always has their hands in their pockets.

The thing is, you can create your own universe when you are an artist, so the hands don’t have to look like hands. You can make them whatever you want. Your art teacher is not going to pop up when you are working in your professional studio and call you out on painting a bad hand.

Q: Where would you like to find one of your paintings?

JIW: I would say that I would like to find it somewhere safe. I want it in a museum because I want art to be shared with the public. Although, I go back and forth on this because if someone wants to have a private collection of art, they should be allowed to do that. It’s strange because we constantly tell people that they need to share the art that they buy or collect, but I’m not going to tell someone who bought a playstation with a particular game that there’s only one copy of that they need to let everyone in the neighborhood play it.

Sometimes with art, we feel like it is historic so we feel this need to have it and give it to the public.

Q: When is it time to be rigid?

JIW: I think being rigid has to be part of your regular routine. You have to be rigid. Although, you can’t be careful all the time. Nobody wants to date a careful person. You don’t want to go to bed with someone who is careful. You want to try some crazy shit sometimes, so you don’t want everything to be smooth and easy.

So being rigid is a part of learning things. Being out of the box is an interesting way to live. You don’t know what you will do next, but you know that it’s not going to be so incredibly dangerous. It’s about being a barometer of knowing where to push the limits and knowing where the pushing becomes negative.

I was trying to do paintings at one point in my life in a careful way, and it didn’t work. If I was careful, I wouldn’t be doing shows. I wouldn’t be put in galleries. It’s like when you’re riding a bike. You have these training wheels, and you want to get out of them because you don’t want to look like a complete goofass. You take them off, you fall, you scrape your knees, your friends laugh at you, but soon you are riding with no hands and you can ride with someone else on the handlebars.

This happens with art as well. The first time I showed the Zulu works in 2012 I was told ‘We are going to do a show about Mardi Gras.’ I didn’t want to do anything cliche, so I thought about how I experienced Mardi Gras as a kid. I remember eating hot dogs while the Zulu parade went by, and I always wondered who was beneath the masks and paint. The wild part is that when we think about New Orleans, we know that Zulu is something you are born with. It’s a part of the parades and Mardi Gras. When people started making it about race, I was really confused because I grew up with the parade where people were painted black. People call it black face, and I thought of it as Zulu paint.

That, of course, goes into this Zulu series–these thoughts. I have had my work taken down because people are offended. When that happens, I take the work with me because once the work is down, it’s out the door. Two of the pieces in my show that was taken down were bought by people, so I can’t have anything happen to those. I want my work to be in a safe space, and that is what galleries are supposed to be–safe spaces for provocative art.


John Isiah Walton’s exhibit “Zulu Series” will be displayed at McKenna Museum of African American Art (2003 Carondelet Street). The opening of “Zulu Series” will be on May 5, 2017 from 6:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. He also has a show on at the Second Story Gallery called “Doom: How To Survive A Neo Pop Surreal Southern Apocalyptic Terrorism Extinction Level Event – Episode 1,” coming up at the end of May. To learn more about John Isiah Walton, you can check out his website or follow him on Instagram, and Twitter.


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