Klondike Smokey City

Painter Larry Walker carries his North Memphis roots to the Memphis Hall of Mayors

Larry Walker grew up in North Memphis and attended Northside High School. He looks back to important milestones in the Klondike neighborhood that led him to success as a painter including official portraits for former mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton.

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Larry Walker loved to create, so he didn’t think too much about the requests from his art teacher to draw something in addition to the normal daily assignments.

One day she asked him to draw a room in his house. Once he finished that another assignment came, something like drawing a pair of shoes. The drawings were always in pencil. Walker was a senior at Northside High School and he jumped at every chance he came across to create art.

He never thought about those drawings. He drew the requested subject and moved on to the next assignment.

He didn’t expect what came later in the school year when his name was announced as a four-year scholarship recipient to the Memphis College of Art. There must be some mistake, he thought. He asked the principal to clear it up.

That’s when he discovered those random art assignments weren’t random at all. His teacher created a portfolio for Walker. She submitted it for the art scholarship that he won.

Painter Larry Walker outside the Kate Sexton Community Center in Klondike where he works.

That belief an art teacher at Northside High School placed in him decades ago helped push Walker to a lifelong art career. He’s made headlines also as his latest work, a portrait of former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., was recently unveiled at the Hall of Mayors at City Hall.

Today, the Klondike resident works out of a studio at the Katie Sexton Community Center adjacent to his former high school. He’s just one of a handful of artists who work in North Memphis. Walker certainly hasn’t forgotten his Northside art moment.

“As the years went on the more I realize how nice that was,” he said. “My teacher did something I still think was incredible. She took an interest in a young kid.”

Living Examples

Khara Woods is a graphic designer who calls nearby Vollintine-Evergreen home. She recently collaborated with her mother to install murals near Klondike along Jackson Avenue. She also helped the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp. operate a youth screen printing apprenticeship program for a group of eight young women who learned how to screen print a poster series and were paid for their work.

“We helped the girls figure out what they wanted to create and then shared what we do with our own brand and business,” Woods said. “They were able to settle on a project they wanted to do.”

Woods said she’s trying to find her own place in the art world. She’s especially drawn to civic-centric projects such as using art to transform a blighted space. She thinks creative placemaking plays a strategic role in turning around the city’s neighborhoods.

Larry Walker works in his studio inside the Kate Sexton Community Center.

“Creative placemaking is a powerful tool for neighborhoods especially ones that haven’t seen a lot of upkeep,” she said.

“A lot of projects are Downtown, but I think people take pride in these spaces, especially when we can transform and clean them up. It encourages similar projects and shines a spotlight in the area.”

Brittney Bullock led the youth screen printing apprenticeship program and said her goal is to continue it if funding is secured. She wants to engage more youth, including bringing boys into the mix.

“My hope is we can start to bring in more community artists and stakeholders who could help facilitate the program,” she said.

Long-term sustainability includes securing resources and a physical space where the youth of the community can have program ownership.

Artistic Mentors

Walker thinks back to his youth and how he didn’t have a lot of artists to look up to. His love of art came about more by accident. He didn’t know artists growing up, whether it was actors, dancers or visual artists. It just wasn’t part of his North Memphis childhood.

Painter Larry Walker in the Kate Sexton Community Center where he creates art.

But he did begin to take notice of one of his classmates who could draw. One day after drawing one of a Disney character he balled it up and threw it away. Walker, then a fourth grader, asked if he could have it.

He repeated the request again, and eventually Walker was a regular recipient of drawings from his classmate. Walker took a drawing home and showed his mother who thought that her son was the original artist.

“Keep in mind I’m a kid,” Walker said. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t do it. I went back to class the next day and asked him if he had any more drawings. I’d take those drawings home every day and showed them to my mom.”

Walker’s parents separated when he was in the sixth grade and he attended a different school where he was no longer around his artistic classmate. One day his mother asked him to bring home a drawing. He tried really hard and eventually brought home one he created.

“So I showed it to her. It was balled up,” he said. “She looked at it and said, ‘It will be OK.’ I think she thought because of them breaking up it must have influenced my art.”

Walker’s smiling as he recounts the story. He also admits that he wasn’t too sure about his ability to draw. But he did know he had a great appreciation for art.

Works in progress and references in Larry Walker's studio.

As he entered high school he decided to take art classes because of that appreciation. He was a C student, so when the teacher told students that she’d raise their grades one letter if they entered an art contest, he was all in.

“A weird thing happened. I won third place. I couldn’t believe it,” Walker said.

His award was a ribbon and a 3 Musketeers candy bar. He paraded around school for a month showing those awards. A classmate tried to burst his bubble.

“He said only three kids entered. I said they didn’t have to give me a ribbon and candy bar but they did,” Walker said. “So to me I was a winner.”

And from that point Walker became serious about creating art.

Fast forward to Walker’s scholarship to Memphis College of Art. Yes, he knew it was special. But he also wasn’t sure it was a path to a career that paid much money. So he decided to follow his father’s footsteps and join the Marines.

The recruiter told Walker that joining the Marines was a path to college. Walker told him that wasn’t his path; he was foregoing an art college scholarship already. So the recruiter asked Walker to bring in some of his art the next day when he returned to sign the paperwork.

The next day, as the recruiter looked through Walker’s art, he had a message for the near-recruit.

“He said, ‘I’m not supposed to say this but the Marines ain’t going nowhere,’” Walker recalled. “He said, ‘If I was you I would see what you can do with this art thing. If it doesn’t work out you can always come to me.’”

Larry Walker stands for a portrait outside the Kate Sexton Community Center.

Walker went to art school. He majored in advertising design, but his love of painting remained as he worked in the agency world after college.

That’s where his path diverted toward painting portraits, which included former Mayor Willie Herenton choosing him to paint the portrait that now hangs in the Hall of Mayors. He also painted Wharton’s portrait in the Shelby County building, and the recently unveiled portrait in the Hall of Mayors.

Not bad for someone who pretended to be an artist as a child and needed a Marine recruiter to convince him his path was indeed art school. Today, Walker finds himself in a position to encourage Klondike’s youth by working out of the Katie Sexton space.

He doesn’t teach kids; rather, he takes time for any children who happen in while he works, even if it’s to bum a buck for a drink out of the nearby machine.

Working out of the community center came about several years ago when he was between studio spaces. A friend offered up space at Gaston Community Center in South Memphis, and Walker decided to have a look.

“I looked it over and he told me they don’t have art in this area,” Walker said. “I went back to when I was a kid. I didn’t know anybody who was a professional artist. I said if it’s OK I don’t want to teach classes but I want to come in and do what I do. Children are welcome to come in and ask me questions. If they want to draw and paint I’d buy things for them.”

About two years ago Walker found his way home, so to speak. His house is close enough to walk to Katie Sexton, and he sometimes does.

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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.