A Q&A with Norfolk-based artist Walt Taylor
The world, to Walt Taylor is an unfinished sketchbook; of real life captured with the subjects unaware. Taylor, now 72, is a respected commercial illustrator and revered cartoonist. But mostly he’s a people watcher. And if you have wandered through the Norfolk neighborhood of Ghent in the past 15 years, there’s a chance he has sketched you. Most days he can be found at his usual table at Café Stella, drinking coffee and drawing people. We caught up to him to talk art and life and what it’s like to draw people these days.
So, you are not from here originally?
No, I grew up in upstate New York, a little town called Le Roy on the way to Buffalo. Way upstate. We moved to Ohio when I was 11.
And you served in the Air Force?
Yes, it was around 1964 and I had completed about a year of college, which I screwed up badly, and when I dropped out, I immediately got a draft notice. I thought, ‘Oh God, what am I going to do?’ So I joined the Air Force, thinking that would be the least dangerous. Turns out that those four years helped me mature, and gave me the GI Bill, so I could go back to school when I got out. I went to Ohio Wesleyan University and got a degree in fine arts.
How was art school?
Well, it taught me little about art, because, really, you learn about art doing it.
Let’s back up. What is your earliest memory of doing art?
I can remember when I was 4 years old, I would draw pictures of soldiers and things like that and um, show them to my family and friends and they’d say, “Oh, that’s great. That’s great.” And then I started doing caricatures of people in my family as I got older.
When did it dawn on you that you might be good at it?
Well, I got, I got mixed signals. I mean, my parents were very good at complimenting me and showing my stuff to others, but they made it clear that I needed to keep up with my studies and I need to decide what I want to do with my life because art is not how you make a living.
And when did you start doing art for money?
My wife and I moved from Ohio, mainly to escape the cold, to Norfolk, and I took a job with an ad agency here in town, Lawler Ballard (now Lawler Ballard Van Durand). I was an art director, working with a copywriter to create ads. I did that for about 20 years.
When did you stumble onto what you are now known for – live sketches?
On a layover in an airport with nothing to do, I pulled out my sketchbook and I saw some really interesting people just lying around, and I decided to try to capture the people around me. Just drawing real people, being themselves. I remember that moment very clearly. And um, so when I got back here to Norfolk, I would go out every lunchtime from my job and just sketch people; people in the coffee shops, people in the street, people taking cigarette breaks.
What is it about sketching real people, in real time, that interests you so much?
I like to see if I can capture somebody’s personality with as few lines as possible. You know, what, what is that thing that really describes them. It always seemed to me that when somebody posed, it almost wasn’t them I was capturing. When they’re all aware that they’re being drawn, that’s not nearly as much reality.
And you do these so fast. Take us through the process.
Capturing the moment necessitates that you find some defining characteristic very quickly; what their hands look like, what
their eyes are doing, how their profile is turned and what their posture is like. You know, you gradually learn what lines to do first to capture that moment cause in a second they will be gone.
You have been watching people intensely for more than a decade. How have they changed?
Well, I can say they used to be slightly more interesting at the coffee shop. If I sit at the coffee shop and spend an hour drawing, I guarantee you that half a dozen people I draw will be going like this (looking down at his hand, like he is staring at his phone). So, you look around until you find somebody doing something different. And they will be there. You just have to look for them.
Do people ever get creeped out when you are staring at them and drawing?
Oh, sometimes, yeah. And as soon as somebody senses I’m drawing them, they change and then it’s over, you know? Fortunately, there’s such a turnover in the café, there’s always new people. And the ones that know me, I don’t worry about.
Do you do any other kinds of art?
I’ll take up oil painting every once in a while, because my friends are so good at it and I, and I wish I was better at it. For the last couple of years, I’ve been mostly drawing on my iPad, but for this last month at a drawing group, I intentionally left my iPad home and been doing water colors and charcoal and drawings at there just to, just to stimulate my thinking and stuff like that. It’s harder work, but it feels good to do that.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I am doing illustrations for a book of cat poems by a guy up in New York. I also did a book of dogs by him. And I’m working on an animated music video for some friends out in California.
How has your art changed over the years now?
It’s loosened up a bit. When I was maybe in my 40s, I would draw these very, very detailed drawings. I filled sketchbooks of highly detailed sketches of people and I’ve kind of loosened up since then. And I enjoy being looser and, well, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. So … .
Do you ever think of retiring?
I can’t. Retirement would be death to me. Making art, drawing and stuff is just what I’m compelled to do every day. I would never stop doing that. The thing about retiring is, well, you know, you’re still an artist. You’re not going to stop being an artist. So, it’s like kind of an odd thing to retire.
– Interview by Clay Barbour; condensed and edited for space and clarity.