Activist – Artist – Icon
Frank X Walker is this year’s model
By Phyllis Sargent
Usually a person with a finger in every pie might be called “overextended”- but around here, he’s this year’s Model (Citizen).
Frank X Walker has been in on the inception of so many Lexington cultural institutions, grassroots efforts, and community mainstays that it’s easy to lose track of his many contributions over the past decades.
Walker deflects this credit. “I was kind of like a farmer. There are a lot of things that I was a part of at the genesis. I’m not claiming to be a catalyst… every time something is being born, I seem to be around… like a midwife.”
Although he did a major stint in Lexington connected to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Cultural Center at the University of Kentucky, Walker has been linked to many long-standing organizations and events. These include the Roots and Heritage Festival, The Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium, The Living Arts and Science Center, the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, Message Theater, The Carnegie Center, and the Affrilachian Poets.
Some would argue that a man of the year should be someone everyone knows and likes, a person who gets along with everybody.
Most people who know Frank X Walker like him, but there is a whole segment of the community – black and white – who have never heard his name. A dynamic leader of the African-American community here in Lexington (Walker now heads up the Governor’s School for the Arts), why should the uninitiated take the time to get to know Walker?
Because he is a rare commodity in any community – a genuine renaissance man who walks his talk. As artist and activist, he truly stands head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. Although he is well known in both areas, it is the artist side of him that is closest to his heart.
Walker remembers, “The artist person started first. I can remember as far back as kindergarten being consumed by visual art. I have this very fond memory of this thing we did where we shaved crayons, put them between wax paper, ironed it, and then opened it up. There’s this double image; that seemed like magic to me.”
As an activist, he chooses a more indirect path to get his point across, using tools like art, teaching, and history. “I think I learned very early that you could accomplish more behind the scenes,” Walker admits.
“The point I’m trying to make is, that what I choose to talk about as an artist, and what I represent, is as important to people who don’t look like me as to those who do. It challenges stereotypes; it offers another image that’s not out there.”
Warming to his topic, he begins to lose his shyness and becomes passionate: “I’m still figuring it out, but …I know that no matter what the question is, that Art is part of the solution. It’s the perfect thing to learn to appreciate different cultures, to bring people together who wouldn’t normally socialize together. They might all come to the same exhibit, or reading, or pick up the same book. I think it’s that powerful.”
He continues, “That’s just on a physical level. On a spiritual level, I really believe that Art has the capacity to induce healing. Think about it. The birthing wings of hospitals are painted a certain color, they have certain kinds of art on purpose. I tend to credit Art with having this kind of power. If I could fix or change anything, I would mandate that not only would Art have to be accessible or taught at every school at every level, but there would be mandatory adult classes, mandatory visits to gallery spaces.”
If there is a theme that ties both the artist and activist together, it would be family. No matter what the question, the word crops up over and over again. Walker was born in the small community of Danville in 1961 to Faith and Frank Walker, Sr. The oldest son, Walker was part of a large extended family. In response to a comment about his childhood environment promoting creativity, Frank says, “My mom, and all the adults who participated in raising us, they wanted us to be happy. That was the focus, I think. You know, I was one of seven kids. My house was always full of people. Part of my challenge was finding a quiet place, since I was an avid reader from the very beginning.”
Walker’s parents divorced before he was six, and the Walker family moved to the “projects.” Frank asserts, “We never thought of ourselves as poor, we were always clean and our clothes fit. We didn’t have a lot of toys as kids, so we had the opportunity to use our creativity. I remember my younger sisters and I, after they would cut the grass in front of our apartment. We would take all the grass clippings and build these little walls in big houses that were defined by these mounds of grass. In a way we were pretending to be architects, even though we’d never heard the word. And it was really a sin to step over somebody’s wall . . .we’d say, ‘You know you can’t do that, the door is over there!'”
Though home to some of his fondest memories, Walker and Lexington got off to a rocky start. He was the first in his family to go away to college (at the University of Kentucky). “That first semester just changed my whole world. There were a lot of racial incidents that very first semester in 1979. This guy burned a cross in the rug right outside the door of my room. I’m sure I’d heard the ‘N-word’ before UK, but never with as much venom, never did it have any fear attached to it until that year.” In self-defense, Walker and some other young black men in his dorm started to come together.
That “chaos” led to the creation of Third North, a group of young black men living in a wing of the freshman dorm. Walker says, “So we were all living together, we would eat together, play basketball together. We became such a group that we formed an organization, and then most of that group ended up starting a new fraternity on campus.” That fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma (Walker is currently president of the graduate chapter in Louisville), symbolizes quite a bit of Walker’s thinking. “It almost sounds cliché, but the fraternity’s focus is Brotherhood, Scholarship, and Service. And the reason that I joined is because those things made so much sense to me. A group that focuses on scholarship, which is why we were all in school in the first place, we needed that discipline. “Brotherhood because I needed an extended family. I’d always had one, and I can’t imagine not having a family. I’ve always been led to either be a part of a group, or to form a group around an idea. And then service, that would be consistent with my growing up in Danville and helping the older people.” Walker recalls his “boy on a bike” service, and speaks about his the influence his mother’s teaching would have on him. “She would always tell me not to take any money. As a kid, I would wonder why, but I’m sure it was intentional, so I could learn how to give and make it feel natural. Those kinds of things were extended through the fraternity.”
There were still bumps in the road. On an engineering scholarship, academic and health problems made him decide not to return after that first year. Three months working in a factory changed his mind (although he does not regret the experience), and he returned to UK. After tries at Journalism, and Studio Art, Walker took a class with Gurney Norman, a professor and writer at the college (Norman now runs Old Cove Press with his wife, Nyoka Hawkins). That class changed his direction (and his major). “More than any one person, he [Norman] is the reason I’m a writer. It was because of his class that I changed my major to English and decided to take every creative art class I could get ahold of. It was because of him that I never stopped writing.”
That writing eventually led to the publication of his first book, Affrilachia, a collection of Walker’s poetry. The recent debut release of Old Cove Press, the book is a culmination of years of work. “I go through all these emotions connected to this whole book project, and I call it a project because so many other people are involved in it. But the thing I’m trying to adjust to is that very little of this poetry is new. Some of this poetry is seven to ten years old, and I’ve been reading it publicly for years. I was never writing to produce a book, I was writing because that’s what I do. It’s another extension of this very natural thing, like playing basketball or ultimate frisbee.”
The word “Affrilachia” has intrigue
The word “Affrilachia” has intrigued many people. “There’s a man who challenged me at the Kentucky Book Fair, he said, ‘Just where on the map is this Affrilachia?’ Another guy came up and said the same thing. So I asked him, ‘What kind of map are using. You’re probably using those old maps, the black and white ones. You need to get you one of the new color maps, and you’ll see Affrilachia.’ And he thought, ‘ahhh, I see.'”
Back in college, it was Walker’s years as Program Coordinator for the MLK Cultural Center in the early nineties that bring out the most memories. Chester Grundy, Director of the Office of African-American Student Affairs at UK speaks thoughtfully of Walker. “Frank was not one ever to seek the limelight. He always had a quiet presence, but people, I think, quickly recognize his sound intellect and strong creative experience. Most of what he does is rooted in a principle of trying to make things better.” Grundy also recalls Walker as a member of the Black Student Union, and his work on the African-American student newspaper, the Communicator. An alternative to the Kernel, Walker served as editor and cartoonist.
Walker remembers, “One of the most important parts of my personal education happened because of the Cultural Center. The Cultural Center being there, period, was really important in the Lexington community, a center on campus that was committed to celebrating African-American culture. I think about all the kids that came through the Cultural Center on field trips that might have a chance to share something, a video, or an exhibit, or to just answer their questions.” Grundy remembers “twenty question Frank” as a poet, cartoonist, facilitator, and programmer. “He’s doing the same thing now, just doing it at an increasingly higher level. The book is a plateau. It is really good art because it draws mainly on his personal life. When something can be particular but universal, that brings beauty.”
Several organizations sprang from the work at the Cultural Center. Frank recalls, “There was a group of us, maybe four or five, writing poetry and sharing it. But it really wasn’t a popular thing to be a guy poet, so we were very private about it. Somewhere along the line we became more serious about it and other people wanted to join. We were meeting once a week to share our work, but then almost every day somebody wanted to have a reading. We called them “Poetry Moments. So it mushroomed and became the genesis of the Affrilachian Poets.” Now a formal organization with rules, and a statement of purpose, the Affrilachian Poets have grown to include workshops and touring as well as the ubiquitous readings around Kentucky.
Walker explains some of the background of the word “Affrilachia”: “What I chose to write about, and the things that we, collectively decided was important, seemed to always center around identity and place. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, my parents were born in Kentucky, both sets of my grandparents were born in Kentucky, my great-grandparents were born in Kentucky. Not just me, but there are a lot of people of color who belong to Kentucky, and who Kentucky belongs to. But in the written history of Kentucky, we are absent. However intentional or unintentional, we have literally tried to write ourselves into the history of this region. Through our poetry, through plays, and just by being visible.”
Another outgrowth was the Message Theater. “It didn’t start out to be an organization. I was helping out a friend who was a Theater major; he wanted a black play and couldn’t find one. So I wrote one called “Post Time” (about college stereotypes). It got attention, and we started attracting a lot of other gifted people who wanted to act. We probably played at every major college in Kentucky.”
While still working at the Cultural Center on a graduate level, Walker started to branch out into the Lexington community with the beginning of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium, which featured art and art classes. “This was a whole arts based, community initiative, that was specifically for the black community, and not for UK. [Mayor] Pam Miller’s office gave us a space right on Main Street.”
But the demands of the Center and the group put a strain on him. t was also around this time that Walker became a father for the first time. (He has two children, Nikki and DVAN.) He remembers, “I couldn’t do both, so I resigned. What I hadn’t thought about was that I was getting paid at the Cultural Center. So now I had to discover fundraising in Lexington for a Black arts organization, which was a disaster.” Walker is upfront in discussing his feelings about the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council at the time. “I felt like it was the perfect organization for the LACC to get behind and fund at the same level as the Ballet and Orchestra. But it did not happen, to say the least.” Grants from Frankfort kept the organization going until Walker left to take a job out of state.
His time away in a small town in Alabama left him with a different appreciation for Lexington, and when he came back he worked at the Cultural Center once again. Besides teaching creative arts classes in the early days of the Carnegie Center, Walker has a long history of working with kids.
“My association with the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center started with the Grundy’s, Lexington directors of the NIA Summer Day Camp. I first started as a counselor, then art instructor, and had been doing it so long they added another one [camp] at the Center and I started to direct. Mrs. Bell’s (Carolyn Bell, Executive Director of the Williams Center) camp stayed traditional. The one with the Grundys turned into a road trip. We took a Greyhound Bus full of kids to Canada. We retraced the Underground Railroad into Canada and stopped in Detroit at the African-American museum, visited Josiah Henson’s homestead, and met his family. We studied the Underground Railroad prior to making that trip. The program at Ms. Bell’s was smaller; we’d take the kids to Maysville and Ripley, OH. It was a whole different budget, but we were able to do it because my friends would be the counselors.”
Bell talks about Walker’s charisma, “He’s easy to work with and easy to be with. He has a wisdom beyond his years, and is very generous of himself. That willingness to give is an invitation to others to give of themselves.” Walker still teaches Visual Arts classes to children at the Williams Center, and has earned a place in its history. He and friend Ricardo Colon (and many kids) painted a huge mural in the hallway, depicting Africa, the Middle Passage, and the heroes of the New World. “But the kids would come everyday and they would stand there and they wanted to know who everybody was. They were telling other kids. Those kids could tell everybody, you know, George Washington Carver, the peanut man, and Mary Mcleod Bethune”
Other murals include a piece at Bluegrass-Aspendale Housing (with Lavon Van Williams), the Teen Center, Russell School gym, and a fifty yard long, six feet tall African-American History mural next to the Dunbar Center.
Starting to make a real name for himself in the community, Walker branched out again. “When I was looking for these ways to make art pay my rent, Marty Henton at the Living Arts and Science Center hired me to teach in non-traditional ways. So she got me to teach at the Williams Center, then she paid me to teach in after school programs, and to do the mural at the Detention Center on Cisco Road. They would unlock these kids, we would paint for two hours, and then they’d lock them back up, and I’d come back the next week.” This was another time for growth, “The art, the teaching, and the activism was starting to gel because all the art was didactic. I was not making art for art’s sake.”
The growing connections in the art world would lead to the next project that would impact Lexington.
Walker recollects, “It occurred to me that there were all these wonderful things happening on UK’s campus, and there were all these black people in Lexington who never came to UK, for whatever reason. This stuff was so good, that if they weren’t going to come here then somebody had to do something to take it there. And I think the Roots and Heritage Festival answered that; even though it only happened once a year, people responded to it. They recognized immediately that this was about them.”
Although not a big “name” at the Festival, Walker was once again the “art guy” involving the kids in art activities, and designing official T-shirts.
Catherine Warner (coordinator of the Festival for the city), who works with the Mayor’s Office, has high praise for Walker, “His contributions to Lexington and the University have been tremendous. Frank gave us a new way of viewing art and writing. He opens doors for a lot of people to explore their gifts and opportunities (especially African-Americans).” On a personal level, Walker says, “When I think about Lexington, some of my fondest memories are because of the Festival. I look forward to it every year because that’s the one time you really get to see all the color in Lexington and surrounding areas. This is also one of the few things designed for family.”
The art and the activism all spring from one source, “This idea of family, and place, and identity, and social justice … these very simple ideas don’t belong to one body or person or people. I wasn’t really trying to get anywhere, just trying to give something back. To be a good son, that’s really been my goal. If my mom is happy, then the whole world could be against me, I would be OK. Now that has expanded to being a good father.”
Presently, Walker’s duties as Director of the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts occupy much of his attention. The school focuses on “creating advanced art opportunities for high school students.” According to Walker, “We have a three week summer residential program. We have these things called Art Shops, where we kind of take our school on the road. Also, taking professors, artists, and teachers to talk to kids. We are moving the program from Louisville to Lexington for the first time. It will be at Transylvania University.”
Ultimately, however, it is family that matters for Frank X Walker. He speaks candidly of his beloved son DVAN and daughter Nikki, but it is his mother who shaped his life: “She’s my hero. I never really felt like I was doing anything amazing or outstanding because I would always think about my mom. Two jobs? That’s nothing, my mom was juggling all kinds of stuff. Two kids? She had seven. As my barometer, it has always been easy to be modest, because I have her as an example.”
On December 28, 1999 at 7:00 p.m. there will be a Kwanzaa reading at the Carnegie Center with the Affrilachian Poets. This is a fundraiser for the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center summer Kuumba children’s camp. Admission will be donations or an art supply.
On January 15, 2000 Walker will be the featured poet at the Brown Theater in Louisville. This is a poetry/jazz evening produced and sponsored by Phi Beta Sigma.
Walker is a native of Danville, KY. Following his graduation from the University of Kentucky he worked in number of capacities in Lexington:
Program Coordinator for the University of Kentucky Martin Luther King Cultural Center
Former Founder and Director of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium
Creative Writing Instructor at the Carnegie Learning Center
Teacher at the Living Arts and Science Center
Founding member of the Message Theater
Former Director NIA Institute Summer Day Camps
Former Assistant Director Purdue University Black Cultural Center
Co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets
President of the graduate chapter of Phi Beta Sigma
Arts Director at the Roots and Heritage Festival
Visual Arts teacher at the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center
He is presently Director of the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts.
Board of Directors, Louisville Art Council
Board of Directors, Kentucy Writers’ Coalition
Board of Trustees, Robert H. Williams Cultural Center
Grant Review Panel and Civil Rights Advisory Committee, Kentucky Arts Council
Kentucky African-Americans Against Cancer, Volunteer
More information concerning Walker can be found at www.mwg.org/openstudio/walker.
Walker is the author of several chapbooks In the past ten years, his work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Spirit and Flame (Syracuse University Press), My Brother’s Keeper, The Shooting Star Review, The Java house Anthology, Appalachian Journal, and Limestone. His first book, Affrilachia, is published by Old Cove Press in Lexington.
On the Agenda
Walker has no intention of slowing down. He continues to travel, promoting his book, conducting readings, and doing benefits. He mentions, “Two projects funded by KET grants are in the works. In cooperation with northern Kentucky filmmakers, Media Working Group, I am co-producing a documentary and companion CD about the Affrilachian Poets called Coal Black Voices. Filming has already begun, and we expect it to air in the fall of 2000. I am currently one of the writers on a second film documentary about Louisville sculptor Ed Hamilton. Joan Brannon is the filmmaker, and it is scheduled for a fall 2000 screening.”
Long term plans involve teaching. “After administration exhausts me and hopefully before it consumes me, I hope to get back into the classroom. Ideally at the college level, so that I might have time to write and travel more.” Walker states, “Beyond that, I am seeking opportunities that will allow me to further develop my love affair with the Caribbean, particularly those islands like Jamaica that have significant mountain cultures.”