by Janine Milbourne
As I approached the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center (ECC) at University of Washington, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The building hovers quietly over the corner of Brooklyn Ave. and 40th. It’s a new concrete and wooden construction, complete with slick modern edges and plenty of glass. The corner feels heavy; the weight of its history is in the air. Once inside the easy, open, colorful space, you get the distinct feeling of coming home. Mounted from the rafters above are several murals. The central piece is a poignant tribute to black women– a portrait of a beautiful face in layers of browns and yellow ochre with the faces of other brown women painted like whispers in her rich mahogany afro. This is the work of native Seattle artist and activist, Eddie Ray Walker.
In 1968, Eddie, and a group of like-minded UW students formed the Black Student Union and staged a sit-in at the President’s office to demand a minority education program, support and representation for ethnic groups on campus. Eddie, a precocious visual arts undergrad at the time, was the first Minister of Arts and Culture. He sought to create a space in which all of the ethnic groups on campus could organize and celebrate, and hence helped birth the ECC.
Eddie is a small man with a big a laugh and long, paint splattered nails. His eyes are soft under his fisherman’s cap, but he gently commands immediate respect. I would learn that his roots as a community organizer in Seattle are thick, but more importantly, I would learn about the fire that drives him to paint and continue to spark revolution with his work.
Tell me about growing up here in Seattle.
I was born to an unwed, black, mother, which at the time in the 50’s was very rough. People didn’t like to see that. The only people who ever made my mother cry were from a church that wouldn’t allow her to go to a conference because she was a single mom. Because of that, I get more upset about class than I do about race.
I lived in the Central Area and my mom was a good woman. She worked hard as a cleaning lady so I was a latchkey kid, but she took me to church three times a week. We went to New Hope Baptist. But I was on my own a lot. I was cutting school and sneaking into jazz clubs at 14, wearing a blazer and carrying a fake ID. Before computers and all that, one thing good about being an artist was you could forge anything.
When did you discover painting?
I wanted to be an artist since I was 5 years old. I had an uncle that came up from Louisiana who showed me cartooning and I was hooked. Then at Cleveland High School, I had a teacher who taught me martial arts and Asian brush painting. I was learning how to defend myself with my hands.
What influences your art work?
I’ve always been in love with people who do people. I like abstract art, but I didn’t want to paint that because it’s elitist. I swore I would never do art that my mom wouldn’t hang. I started off with impressionism. I was into pointillism. The murals I did of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass at the Douglass-Truth Library in the Central Area were all dots. I had to give up the dots though because they’ll drive you crazy. I was working on one 52 panel piece for a year, drinking Thunderbird. After that I said, ‘No more Thunderbird and no more dots!”
I’m also influenced by the bright colors and movement of Africa and Jazz. Overtime, I’ve evolved to incorporate Asian brush stroke techniques. So I’m not Degas. I don’t want to be Seurat or Van Gogh even though I like all those guys. I’m distinct. I’m Eddie.
Talk a bit about the cross-section of your work as an activist and your art.
I understood the futility of the system at an early age. I’m an agitator by default. I studied the revolutionaries. I was reading Camus, Sartre, Che Guevara, and Trotsky. I used to walk around campus with a loaded 9mm from 1966-72, holster showing and everything. We formed the BSU and ousted the Afro-American Student Society because they were just imitating the white people. They were patient about revolution. I’m a Malcolm X fan. What we were saying is “Revolution NOW! If not now, then there will be trouble.” We were about persuading people by providing positive alternatives, like the ECC.
I’ve never been much of a leader. I wanted to organize the people to lead themselves. I’m anti-establishment, but I’m not anti-money. I believe that without making money a revolution cannot sustain itself. People were always trying to get money from this place or that place. My whole thing was, if you create something of value, then you can make the money yourself.
I used to sell my portraits out on 23rd and Union for five bucks a pop so I could feed my wife and two kids. My professors used to tell me that I was limiting myself by painting black people. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wait a minute. Asian people paint Asian people. White people paint white people. One of us is crazy and it ain’t me because I’ve got the money in my hand. I want to put positive images of blackness into the world.
I got into murals because like Diego Rivera said, they are a revolutionary medium. I actually did the first mural at Cleveland High School. Murals can last a long time or just a short while, but they effect a lot of people and they don’t cost a lot of money to create. Art isn’t just some sociocultural after school program. That’s not what I do.
In the 80’s I stopped doing community organizing and became a full-time artist. I was living on the streets. I couldn’t be a part of the arts establishment because galleries that could have launched my career wanted too much money and too much control. There is no difference between an iron collar, a blue-collar, and a white-collar. They’re all collars.
You’ve traveled all over the world. How has what you saw abroad influenced your work?
I’ve been to China, Israel, Greece, Bali, Portugal, all over. It’s funny to me because all my life growing up in the Central Area, my closest friends were multi-ethnic. They were NW Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, German, Jewish. I’ve been experiencing different cultures since I can remember. I’ve always been an adventurer. I would hop on my bike and just ride around the city just to make sure that I could get out of the neighborhood I was so-called “stuck in”. I refused to be ghetto-centric. I became a professional tourist.
The thing that struck me most while traveling was that we’re all mostly trying to do the same things. Raise our families and be good people. The experience is the same no matter where you go. I used to call myself a Black artist to press the point. But these days I consider myself a universal artist.
What’s your advice for burgeoning artists?
Besides being able to create, you have to be able to promote yourself and manage your own career.
What’s next for you?
I don’t really do one-man shows anymore. I’m working on a retrospective and lecture to present at the Douglass-Truth library and I’m developing a live art experience where I do Tai Chi and paint while talking about my evolution as an artist. I want to take that to universities around the world. I want to teach young artists that by centering their breathing, mind, body and spirit that they can create anything. People can see my work at Lucid Jazz Lounge on Friday, Sept. 6.
Eddie and I sat on that couch in the U-District chatting comfortably as if we were old friends. Recluse to recluse. Two space cadets reporting for duty. We were Zen Buddhists, radical agents of change, poets, painters, and historians with a keen hope for the future. But isn’t that the mark, measure and ultimate power of the real deal revolutionary– the ability to draw the people in and (re)spark within them the fire for a new day?