If you’ve taken an international flight out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the past decade, you’ve probably seen James Island artist Joe Walters’ work. Walters’ sculptures depicting Georgia’s native animal species — raccoons, crabs, turtles, dolphins — are located at gate E-28, a small zoo waiting to welcome foreigners abroad and nationals home. The work was installed in 1996 when the terminal was built for the Atlanta Olympics, incidentally coinciding with Walters focus’ on fauna. Now, after years fixating on crafting metal and clay into nests, he’s returning to this earlier animal work for a show at Corrigan Gallery titled Look Back.
“It’s kind of a re-examining of some notions I had a few years ago,” he says. “I’m finding old things and old ideas and playing with them in my current state.” For the show, Walters has taken pieces he’s kept in old cardboard boxes for the past 15 or more years and adjusted and changed them into new work. “It’s personal archeology,” he says.
The archeological task begins with taking a close look at some of his vintage sculptures. “A piece doesn’t need to be fired again, just recomposed,” he says. In some instances that means adding a new creature to an old sculpture, or adjusting existing work into a larger grouping.
Walters’ technique involves joining steel rods by a process called brazing. He makes a skeleton model of an animal or shape and, over the top of that, coats it in polymer and cures it in a standard oven in his studio at 275 degrees. Adding a layer of carpenter’s glue and sand before spraying it with flat black enamel spray paint and various coats of acrylic, he creates rust-colored, crusted creatures frozen in time as if excavated from a sandy cave.
“What I’m going to have in the show are panel pieces which are wooden with individual flora or fauna composed on them,” Walters says. “I usually stick to one ecosystem. But these are a mishmash, there could be a penguin, a camel, or a squirrel.”
And in Walters’ world, scale is subjective. A porpoise might be the same size as a fox, composed side by side. “The animal imagery is important, but the formal aspect is important too. The animal form is an element within an abstract composition. I can do an insect that’s the same size as a large mammal.”
And to choose what critters to add for Look Back, Walters need only wander into his backyard. His James Island home and studio look out onto a salt marsh, an area filled with coastal creatures. “I get lot of inspiration from that,” he says.
But the exhibit won’t just be all animals, Walters paper arts will also be on display as well. “There’s going to be some drawings or things that started out as drawings that I’ve punched with holes and stained with tea,” he says. “There’s a physical element to my graphic art.”
But with all of the Look Back exhibit, be it a sandy dragonfly or Earl Grey-coated piece of paper, the focus is on reflection. “You look at things you did 15 years ago and it’s a revisitation,” says Walters. “It’s not like I abandoned an idea entirely. This is an opportunity to see what an old notion was and decide how I would approach it today.”
And while Walters’ reputation extends far beyond Charleston — he has installations in the Miami Zoo, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo., and Istanbul, Turkey — the piece he just commissioned for a huge development in Costa Rica uses the same technique as the collection he’s re-purposed for this show. Each opportunity provides Walters with a chance to reexamine his perspective on the natural world through steel and clay and sand. He says, “I don’t consider my work precious.”