Una Walker was born in Belfast on January 18, 1955. Before marrying, her mother ran a dress design business in Dublin and her father painted, exhibiting regularly in department stores and other available venues. He later rebelled against his parent’s ambition for him to go to art school by following his father in to the shipyard where he worked as an engineering draftsman.
The skills and talents of both parents are evidenced in the art of their daughter who, at the age of four, began making her own dolls’ clothes and two years later started drawing. By the age of ten she had decided to follow either the vocation of a nun or an artist.
Her parents were probably relieved to hear of her choice of career and supported her under the misconception that she would paint conventional landscapes. Walker found the fine art course at Belfast College of Art and Design to be non-traditional. She says, Conceptualism in the late 70s was reflected in the college’s teaching and general practice. Consequently, Walker followed this route although she continued to make precise linear drawings that took her interest in mathematics as their starting point. She made her first installation works at college involving formal geometric drawings described with thread tacked onto the wall.
On graduating in 1978, Walker continued her art school praxis and methodology by making observational drawings and basing projects on intense periods of research that crammed her consciousness with a subject. From this concentrated process of absorption a title would evolve to crystallise the work. Titles were precisely fixed placing the work within determined parameters of her experience and environment.
Walker’s early work was hard-edged and mathematically unyielding but motherhood and the experience of having two children brought about a switch from hard to soft tactile materials. The installations Crannog, 1985, and Harvest, 1986, show the artist working with plants, clay and branches. Her concerns being focused on fertility and the internal and external pastoral landscape. Living in a rural area combined with economic considerations also influenced her choice of materials. A lack of studio provision locally, along with childcare duties, brought about a decision to work from home. Walker’s art was not commercial so income was restricted. However, prudent domestic management and self-discipline ensured that art-making was balanced with life’s needs. Her art practice has never been product-based so she has had to rely on gallery fees and arts council funding to realise projects.
In 1990 Walker embarked on a voyage of historical discovery when she began to research the small village of Audleystown near Strangford, Co Down. Sited within the grounds of Audley’s Castle, the population were under the ‘protection’ of the Bangor family who evicted 24 families and 200 souls on October 28, 1852, and deported them on the Rose to America. Walker’s meticulous research was presented as Patterns of Survival, an installation in the Arts Council Gallery, Belfast, in 1992. The installation brought together architectural drawings of Gothic arches on the gallery walls, passages of sawdust evoking the beechwood that was planted on the cleared ground, potshards, portraits and the family names of victims.
The thought-provoking sensitivity of Walker’s art is further evidenced in Reliquary, informed by the artist’s reassessment of Catholic imagery: the brutality of the crucifixion, the confusing iconography of the Stations of the Cross, the pagan symbolism of young girls taking their first communion dressed in white like sacrificial victims. Reliquary had two different forms and presentations: the first being the Espace Exhibition, 1991, in the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, the second in 2000 as part of the Troubled Exhibition in the Pitshanger Manor Gallery, London.
In its first realisation, Reliquary was contained within a free-standing structure resembling an archway. This was clad in dark fabric and lined with black satin. For Walker it invoked the confessional yet its presence was feminine, womblike, of the body rather than of the soul. Inside various hand-made objects were displayed these included 24 effigies of mummified babies – doll-like figures evolved from Crannog and Harvest.
In 1999/2000 Walker developed an interest in video, extending her technical skills to digital media. This was stimulated by a commission from the International Institute of Visual Arts (InIVA), London, under a programme called x-space, to produce a website.
Metaphor is the Key, was achieved by collaborating with Peter Richards, a partnership that was later responsible for Surveiller. Video is now central to Walker’s presentation of visual data. She has, since the early 1980s, progressed from creating occupied spaces containing precise technical drawings and constructed objects to installing video works that document real life situations, The Depot, 2002. Interface 1 & 2, combines edited footage of the Crumlin Road area of Belfast with that of a deserted village in Co Monaghan to create a personal interpretation of history. Her own history comes into focus in Memory, 2004.
Currently Walker has a studentship at the University of Ulster in Belfast, a practice-led PhD in fine art, that will build upon her last major installation, Surveiller, at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, 2004. Her research for this work was based on the period of the Troubles from 25th March 1968 to 2001 and took the form of a database of all the art exhibitions that occurred in Belfast at that time. Surveiller was presented as an office with desk, chair, computer and filing cabinet under the constant eye of a CCTV camera. On the walls was a series of perspex panels each one representing a year, its size being determined by the amount of exhibitions listed in bold text. The line of panels of differing sizes resembled a bar graph or soundwave of artistic activity in the city during this era of civil war.
Una Walker embodies the post-modern development of art through her philosophy of ‘practice’. Her use and meaning of the word is holistic and pluralistic. It encompasses everything that the artist does, be it research, drawing, sewing, constructing or administering to her community of fellow artists. None of these activities can be separated from the whole – that which is known as art practice.
Her involvement in such bodies as the Artists Association of Ireland and the International Association of Artists is integral to her practice with the result that the process of art-making is extended from social, historical and political commentary to active engagement, correspondence and collaboration. It is no longer necessary, therefore, for an artist to produce a commodity. The artist is free to be an enabler, catalyst or maker if s/he so chooses.
By Peter Haining
Art, Politics and Ireland (1996) by Brian McAvera, Open Air; Thinking Long (1996) by Liam Kelly, Gandon Press.