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Cleveland Institute of Art student Derek Walker discovers his voice as a painter

Some of Derek Walker’s earliest memories include learning how to draw from his father and cousin. Walker loved to draw cars, particularly Lamborghinis, as a boy.

Today the Cleveland of Institute of Art senior is establishing his voice as an artist in Cleveland with his paintings featuring hometown images and iconography.

Walker is a graduate of the Cleveland School of the Arts and received a unique opportunity when the school moved into its new building.

“My class of students were one of the first students to actually enroll into the building, because it was newly built and they wanted to make the school a bit more welcoming to the students,” Walker said. “So, they invited several artists of the school to create murals on all of the blank walls.”

For his mural, Walker took inspiration from African American artist Kehinde Wiley known for his portraits of people like Barack and Michelle Obama.

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Ygal Kaufman
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Ideastream Public Media
Derek Walker and Cleveland School of the Arts English teacher Elizabeth Telich discuss Walker's mural in the school's cafeteria.

“[Wiley] takes African American figures and inserts them into traditional and art historical paintings. At the beginning of [my] mural is from a "Girl with a Pearl Earring," by Johannes Vermeer,” Walker said.

The mural impressed one of Walker’s mentors at Cleveland School of the Arts, English teacher Elizabeth Telich, who recognized his empathy as an artist and ability to tell a story in his work.

“[‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’] notoriously features a very white woman, and he repainted it with an African American,” Telich said. “So, in the same way that I saw him reinvent or take history in context and tell his own story through it, he made a giant mural in Cleveland School of the Arts cafeteria.”

More recently at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Walker continued painting portraits with his award-winning “Let the Cape Fly” series inspired by the Black hair garment the durag.

“I was thinking like, ‘Hey, I think I should [make] paintings of my high school friends wearing durags.’" Walker said. “[I] haven't seen it in painting before, and I thought it would be a refreshing thing to include with these old traditional conventions of painting.”

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Derek Walker
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"Remain Myself" by Derek Walker

Walker’s drive and passion for painting has impressed his CIA professor Lane Cooper.

“He's very considered about how other people are going to understand his work and what it's going to carry out into the world,” Cooper said. “Those are really mature ways of thinking about being an artist that you don't often see in a person so young.”

For his BFA, Walker is exploring ideas of commuting in Cleveland as he’s often walking or taking a Cleveland RTA bus in his travels around town.

“For my piece titled ‘Late Bus,’ I wanted to make a painting about a bus... better for it to be late than early,” Walker said. “A figure is looking at his watch. No bus is in sight. And several other figures are in the background just exploring the night,” Walker said.

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Derek Walker
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"Late Bus" by Derek Walker

In his final year at CIA, Walker said he hopes to get creative director position and also is considering graduate school.

“I’ll still be painting,” Walker adds.

“I expect that he's going to do extraordinarily well,” Cooper said. “I think that we're going to be hearing about him for a very long time.”

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.