Anyone familiar with the work of Toni Morrison knew it was a force, as was the woman who wrote it. The visions Morrison rendered were both unflinching and tender, exposing the sometimes shameful truths of our natures and whispering them back to us like a lover’s secret.
The same could be said of the work of acclaimed artist Kara Walker, who has reckoned with our difficult history in various mediums for decades. First known for her evocative and often sprawling silhouettes depicting graphic scenes of antebellum life, in 2014, Walker’s sphinx-like, 35-foot tall, sugar-coated sculpture of a mammy-like figure, “A Subtlety,” dominated both the art world and heated debate when it debuted at what was once the Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Walker took on a reckoning of a different sort this week when the New Yorker commissioned her to create a cover in honor of Morrison, who died in New York City on Monday from complications from pneumonia at the age of 88.
“We had for this week planned a very nice summer cover,” Françoise Mouly, longtime art editor of the New Yorker, told Artnet. “We seldom do covers for writers, but Toni holds a special place in our culture. She’s really a beacon, and by her words and by her deeds was very much a force for good. It seemed right to memorialize her.”
But how to memorialize her? Grieving the writer’s death herself, Walker, who reviewed Morrison’s God Help the Child for the New York Times in 2015, wasn’t sure which of her many mediums to employ in evoking Morrison, as she told the New Yorker.
I wasn’t sure what to do, really. Like many artists, I looked up to Ms. Morrison for some kind of approval and validation that I usually didn’t seek in life. Through her work and words, she became something like a muse, teacher, mother, clairvoyant, and judge. Always a presence urging me on. After a number of false starts—pastel, clay, I even considered watercolor—I decided to keep it familiar, to use the cutout. It’s the work I do. I’m no portraitist, but I am a shadow maker.
The New Yorker graciously grants us a peek at several drafts in Walker’s process. While she warned Mouly to have a backup ready, once her medium was determined, Walker worked tirelessly to execute her vision of Morrison’s image, completing it within a day.
The resulting work, titled “Quiet As It’s Kept,” is an evocative expression of both artists’ impact; Morrison’s shadowy profile is partially obscured by layers of white dreadlocks that curl like smoke around her face, their ends seeming to point at the mouth from which so much wisdom sprang forth. The only other feature on Morrison’s visage is her familiarly arched brow.
“I’ve worked with so many artists, but I’ve seldom experienced such an ebullient, rich, and massively productive creative process,” Mouly told Artnet, later adding, “The goal for both of us was not just a resemblance but something that emotionally evokes her person, because Morrison is deeply complex. [The artwork] works in a cathartic way for the artist and the viewer and the reader...I’m very grateful that Kara was willing to put herself through this process.”
Walker’s return to her traditional silhouettes is especially fitting for Morrison. A presence both unapologetic and enigmatic in her lifetime, Morrison’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, explored in the visceral detail the same history and trauma Walker has consistently explored in her own work. For Walker, paying tribute to one of her personal heroes was visceral, as well.
As Mouly told Artnet, when Walker was contacted about creating the cover, “[s]he actually was in the midst of holding a private vigil, dealing with personally, emotionally, taking in the news [of Morrison’s death].”
“No thoughts. Or, I felt urged on by an absence. Trying to fill a void,” Walker said, in reference to the process.
For us—most especially, black women artists deeply influenced by Morrison’s words and presence—it’s comforting to know our particular grief at losing yet another spiritual mother is shared by one tasked to memorialize her so publicly. While the effect of Morrison’s death transcends demographics, those of us she wrote about, and in many ways for, have struggled to articulate our loss, felt so keenly. That Walker was able to work through her grief to effectively honor our muse is, as Mouly put it, cathartic for us all.
“It’s an ode,” said Mouly, “to the spirit of two very strong women who are very inspiring each in their own way.”
“As Quiet As It’s Kept” will be featured on the Aug. 19, 2019, issue of the New Yorker.