Seeking Spirits with J. Michael Walker

Jun 24, 2013

JMichael_PhotobyKatWard_AA lot goes on in J. Michael Walker’s work. You need time, a moment, maybe a little stillness and quiet to take it all in, to hear the birds, to feel the rustle of the wind, the ache of years, the magic of life, to be infused by the characters and souls he nurtures to life with his pencils.

J. Michael walker can do big. Like real big. His current canvas is 10 feet wide, 15 feet wide? I was so distracted I forgot to ask (or more probably, I can’t find that small notation in my novella of notes).

He is a subject in his drawing and is being led—eyes closed as sight is to be turned inward—by a Bahiana woman on his left and by Yemenja, Queen of the Ocean, on his right.

But, let’s begin with the events that sparked this image. In January 2011, J. Michael was offered an international artists residency through the Sacatar Foundation, which is headquartered in Pasadena. For two months he would be offered a room, meals, space, and a studio in which to create—on the island of Itaparica in the state of Bahia in the country of Brazil.

Bahia was the center for the African Diaspora in Brazil—”the dispersal through slave trading [that] represents the largest forced migration in human history.” Some five million Africans from Sub-Sahara Africa were kidnapped and enslaved. The culture, spiritualism, and religion they brought with them can still be seen today, and even more so, J. Michael contends, on the island of Itaparica, which is about six and a half miles from the mainland.

Photo courtesy of J. Michael Walker

Exu Tranca Ruas; photo courtesy of J. Michael Walker

The Sacatar Foundation has converted a girls school into a sanctuary for writers, painters, photographers, woodworkers, ceramicists, and musicians. The organization’s purpose, as stated on its website, is to provide artists with a place to live and create; generate opportunities for artists to interact and collaborate with the local community; and to “encourage art that returns us to where art began—to a wordless silence before all of creation.”

I’m not sure what that last purpose means, and I wish I’d read the Sacatar website before the interview with J. Michael so that I could’ve asked him about it, as he does have an ability to explain things comprehensibly to those outside the artistic realm. I know, though, having heard the tales, that J. Michael took purpose #2 (interact and collaborate with the local community) to heart and achieved great success.

Soon after his arrival, J. Michael came upon a “little church on a pie-slice of land.” He watched as old ladies pulled out pews so that they could sweep, mop, and clean. Bird-like women, he said. He helped them sweep cobwebs out of corners, helping to prepare the church for the evening’s cleansing or lavagem. And then the Bahiana women arrived, wearing traditional 19th century dress with headwraps, long necklaces, huge white skirts, and colorful blouses. “Very regal.”

The older women began singing. Perfumed water was used to wash the steps. J. Michael was entranced and enchanted. He was invited to join in the hours-long procession that proceeded through town. “I was swept into its enthusiasm and welcomed with glowing smiles, embraces, and shared draughts of beer.”

Filha de Yemenja; photo courtesy of J. Michael Walker

Filha de Yemenja; photo courtesy of J. Michael Walker

After another processional experience the following weekend, the community asked if he would consider painting a mural on the side of the neighborhood church. He readily agreed. Now he just had to wait for the supplies to arrive. It turned out this would take some time. Until then, J. Michael drew, made friends, drew, drew, immersed himself in the people and life of the community, drew, ate, drank, socialized, and drew some more.

All artists are told to pack lightly, but bring what you need. Well, paper is heavy, J. Michael reminds me. What should he bring? Pads, reams, sketch books? And then, he remembers—twenty years prior, stepping into a used bookstore that was going out of business. He found a disheveled book, rather large in size (12″ x 18″) and bought it. O Brazil Holandês by Gaspar Barléu, a 1940 re-publication of a 17th century text documenting the Dutch empire in Brazil. J. Michael has no explanation for why he made this purchase on that day. Being told the story, one of his new island acquaintances, Rosa, remarked, “Of course! The book was wanting you to come here.” He had found his “canvas.”

The paper used to make the pages in this book is fine Verge. Initially, paper Verge was made by hand in huge vats, and it still has the feel of handmade paper. J. Michael says that cotton pulp was laid over screens, so there is texture and horizontal lines to the finished product which he appreciates as it adds another dimension to the drawings. He also tacked the paper up on his studio wall, which was made of pressed wood, adding another wonderfully unexpected dimension.

The book’s pages are uncut, so the “book” size of 12″ x 18″ unfolds by half to become 24″ x 18″ and ultimately by half again to be an incredible 2′ x 3′.

J. Michael chose his pages and found his people.

“I was given permission to photograph the first Bahiana I met, an elderly woman named Viulma. When I returned to my studio, I uploaded Viulmas’s photos, unfolded a large folio from my torn copy of O Brasil, and created my first drawing in Bahia. The next morning…by the light of day, I began to see how these pages of Brazil’s colonial history were a perfect format for the Bahianas’ portraits…”

He couldn’t take pictures during the many ceremonies he attended, so he often worked from 10 p.m. until dawn.

Portrait of Viulma:


Portrait of Rosa:


Portrait of Mae Detinha de Xango:




Some of his portraits are depictions of the deities of Candomblé, the dominant force and belief system on the island. Slaves were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism but they brought their religions with them and the people’s devotions have mixed and evolved, as Candomblé evolved the Yoruba religion. The belief is that all human beings possess a fate, a destiny and are expected to eventually become one with the divine creator, the source of all energy. Adherents believe that the thoughts and actions of every single person interact with all living things, including Earth itself. The goal is to achieve transcendence and to find one’s destiny through meditation, spiritual growth, being well-balanced, and through the quest to better one’s character and behavior.

J. Michael writes of this next drawing, “Oxalá, or Obatalá, is the old granddaddy orixá…he embodies the very soul of clarity of True Vision: that of purpose, destiny, and behavior…”

Old Granddaddy Oxalá Saunters Down the Road:


Yemenja is the goddess of the oceans, the essence of motherhood, and a protector of children. J. Michael used the lines on the map, as well as the compass points, to determine the shape and flow of his drawing.

Young Yemenja:


Woman Possessed (By Exu)  (Lord of the Crossroads):

Pae de Santo Incorporating Exu

With only a week to go until the end of his residency, the supplies for the mural finally arrived. There was no time to be lost, but J. Michael chose to trust the orixás that everything would work out; all he had to do was show up. He gathered his photos of local flora and boatmen, having decided to place those elements around his version of Santo Antônio dos Navegantes’ traditional image. The library loaned him a projector and as night fell, the switch was flicked and his vision was projected upon the church wall. The arrival of rain closed down activities and the threat of more rain nearly derailed the whole affair. But, J. Michael was feeling optimistic and convinced everyone to set back up. For whatever reason (thanks be to whom), the rain remained at bay.

Photo by August Albuquerque

Photo by August Albuquerque

As the wall of the church faces east and the temperatures during the day could climb as high as 110 degrees, work was only possible after 2 p.m. Incredibly, J. Michael finished the mural in four days. He attributes his success to the substantial local support, from Raimundo who prepped the wall with base paint to the women who brought him fresh juice and cookies for sustenance.

A celebratory meal was held—”announced in proper Itaparican fashion with fireworks—during which the mural was blessed and several women pointed to their chest, signifying where J. Michael would be etched on their hearts forevermore. On his last evening on the island, twenty church members arrived at the artist retreat and showered him with song and presented him with a hand-etched granite stone, which rests in a place of honor in his studio—right below his current work—as though in blessing.


J. Michael’s studio is down a short drive that’s lined with pots and pots of plants. It’s evident that he’s worked here for some time as there is hardly any room in which to manoeuvre. Two walls of bookshelves are chocker-block full of art books, organized by various movements and eras. In front of the shelved books along one wall are dozens and dozens of sculptures, small paintings, figurines, photos, and marvelous collectibles. A desk to one side still has enough room to hold his laptop, while the floor is mostly covered with finished works, stacks of books, and papers. A small window faces south, some light comes in from the doorway, and several overhead spotlights are directed on his current work.





In this new work, J. Michael wants to show what it felt like to be on the island, he says. “I want to describe pictorially what is indescribable.” He couldn’t see the spirits, but he knows he felt them. He is hindered, he thinks, somewhat by his realistic drawing style, but he is again putting his trust in the spirits, the orixás, to help him translate his experience onto the canvas.

One of J. Michael's collages

One of J. Michael’s collages

He begins by finding images in his photo library on his laptop and through Photoshop he makes collages. He shows me several different ones that have Yemenja, himself, and the Bahian woman with different arm angles, body language, and facial features. Once he finds something he likes, he projects it onto the canvas. He does not adjust the image to scale, so he is always surprised when things seem to fit. He “loves for chance to intercede” and allows for the drawing to lead him.

“Part of the joy is learning how the pieces fit together, but also, what they are.” If he drew everything ahead of time, before reaching the canvas, then why keep going, he asks. Where is the discovery in that? Where is the magic?

“I love to work without a net.”



Finally, reluctantly, saying goodbye, and walking away…







See more works by J. Michael Walker at

Sacatar Foundation, 99 S. Raymond Ave., #403, Pasadena. 626.440.9688.











Flintridge Books

Lyd and Mo Photography

Louis Jane Studios

Homage Pasadena