Roger Walker is in one of his spots. The local artist sits on the park bench outside the Gold Dust Building on North 1st Street, facing the railroad tracks, and rolls a cigarette from a pouch of Bugler tobacco. You can tell this is one of Walker’s spots because the spilled tobacco shreds from his smokes fill the cracks of the pavement beneath his seat and spread across the patio like cut hair on a barber’s floor.
How often do you come out here? “At least 10 times a day,” Walker says.
Do you ever do your drawings out here? “Do ’em all in the apartment.”
He takes a drag from his cigarette and breaks into a smile.
Do you get any inspiration from being outside? “Not really.”
What does inspire your artwork? “Don’t know.”
Does it help you to clear your head out here? “Nope.”
An interview with Walker is a game, except nobody’s really competing. He’s an agreeable host, smiles easily and never seems rushed. But expounding on things is not what he’s about. He doesn’t guess, refuses to extrapolate and yet always answers; an entire day could be spent in this sort of quick, pleasant exchange. It’s as if the interviewer and Walker are both fishing for the right question to spark an avalanche of words and thoughts.
A resident of Walker’s building just may have the trick for getting him to open up. She sticks her head out of the Gold Dust’s entrance and yells in Walker’s direction: “I hear you’re going to be famous, Roger! We love you!”
He turns, blushes slightly and takes another drag from his cigarette. If facial expressions were words, Walker would be loquacious.
So, are you going to be famous?
“Not yet.” And that smile creeps back as he adds wryly, “Soon maybe.”
For an artist whose work is displayed across the country, in at least six galleries from Santa Fe to New York City—not to mention an exhibit in Munich, Germany, that showcases his abstract ballpoint pen drawings—Walker’s style of communication is strangely refreshing. He may be on the road to celebrity, but for now he’s simply excited about his second local exhibition, an audacious floor-to-ceiling presentation of more than 250 recent drawings going up this week at the Missoula Art Museum.
“I’ll be there,” he says, acknowledging the importance of the occasion.
Walker was “discovered” almost three years ago by Wes Mills, another local artist and former owner of the farm art space. Mills stumbled across Walker when he was sleeping under a plastic bag near the highway and passing time in the warm confines of the Missoula Public Library by sketching over crossword puzzles with a ballpoint pen. Mills saw art in Walker’s ink—brilliant, methodical, abstract pieces that seemed intensely pure; “drawing for drawing’s sake.” He became Walker’s art dealer and hosted his first-ever show at farm art. Since then, the art community’s appreciation of Walker has grown even if the artist’s verbosity hasn’t.
“It’s been my mission to get him in as many galleries as I can,” says Mills. “Being an artist and trying to do something you absolutely believe in, to see Roger come from the places he was, where he didn’t have a lot to hold onto, the one thing he kept working on was his drawings. His belief in doing that is such a wonderful thing.”
Mills has used his professional connections and contacts with collectors to generate upwards of $20,000 in sales of Walker’s work, all of which has gone to the artist. The partnership—which includes Mills purchasing the drawings directly from Walker (he personally owns over 2,000 pieces) before consigning them to galleries—has allowed Walker to move into the Gold Dust and enjoy a relatively steady flow of income. The attention and financial gain, however, haven’t changed the artist’s demeanor.
“I didn’t know when he got that first $100 check what he would do with it,” says Mills. “I definitely kept a close eye on him. But when I handed him the first check he just kind of took it and walked away. That’s Roger, you know? He did the same thing with the last check I gave him—just kind of took it and moved on. I haven’t seen him change at all over the last few years. I’ve only seen the drawings improve.”
Later, Walker is in another of his spots—his apartment. He leans against his kitchen counter, across from a weathered red office chair on wheels tucked under a folding card table. This is where he works. There’s not much else that stands out in the room—a small television set, pads of paper, a coffee maker that looks well used. There’s nothing hanging on the walls. His room is exactly two stories above the bench where he smokes his hand-rolled cigarettes, his window offering a different angle of the same view.
How much time do you spend working? “Don’t know, really.”
Have you been working today? “Yup. Six hours.”
Will you do more work today? “Maybe later. One more piece.”
Walker reaches up to the top of his refrigerator and grabs a drawing he finished earlier in the day. The paper buckles under the weight of the ink, a repetition of vertical black and red marks. There’s a small border on the white page; otherwise Walker’s ballpoint pen has covered everything with what looks from a distance like shimmering crimson.
Do you think what you do is art? “I do now.”
Why? “The art shows.”
How did you see your drawings before the art shows? “Don’t know.”
Were you surprised when Mills approached you as an artist? “I’ve said it before, but I was actually wondering what the hell he was smoking.”
Mills has received disparaging remarks from some for embracing Walker. He mentions the University crowd, believing they’re prejudiced about his working with an artist with no formal training and, as Walker admits, very little interest in art overall.
“One time I was criticized for sort of making his shows all about me,” says Mills. “The answer to that is that these drawings are very much about me. When I first saw these I thought they were great drawings and I wanted people to see them. I’ve made it my mission to share them with as many people as possible, to get his drawings into important collections. There’s an honesty and an intensity with his work that I cherish.”
Walker is appreciative of his relationship with Mills. He likes that Mills acts as a part-time spokesman and has networked him across the world. Mills handles all of Walker’s gallery interactions.
Do you have any contact with the staff at MAM? “Nope. It’s just Wes,” Walker says. He adds after a pause: “For now.”
For now? Is that going to change? “Don’t know. I don’t know when it’ll change but I know at some point I’ll have to work the shows myself. That’s how it is.”
Are you looking forward to that change? “Mixed emotions on that one. In some ways I don’t want to, in some ways I do.”
What are the ways that appeal to you? “I want to travel.”
Where? “All over.”
And Walker smiles again, breaks out his pack of Bugler and rolls another cigarette on the bench below his apartment. He’s traveled a long way to this spot.
Roger Walker: Drawings goes on display at the Missoula Art Museum Friday, May 27, and will hang through Saturday, June 11.