Richard Guy Walton

Richard Guy Walton arrived in Reno in 1929. He studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and returned to Nevada to join the Federal Arts Project. He eventually set up his home and studio in Virginia City. Walton was a prolific painter and photographer. His subjects ranged widely: the stark Nevada desert, his Comstock neighbors, Twain's Tom Sawyer, the Vegas Strip, ineffectual politicians, and studies of spatial issues that usually intrigue mathematicians. Walton was honored with three retrospective shows at the Sierra Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, where he died in 2005.

Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.

Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
James W. Hulse

RICHARD GUY WALTON (1914-2005)

"They have abandoned impressionism without having understood it," Walton says, working furiously to correct the error in the Virginia City studio-home where he has spent about thirty of his sixty years in Nevada.

Richard Guy Walton is not a typical Nevada painter, in spite of his longevity on the local scene. Having arrived in Reno in 1929 at fifteen years of age with his mother, who was seeking a divorce, he became fascinated with the place immediately. He continues to be enchanted by it, despite a growing resentment over the commercialism that drove him into semi-isolation on the Comstock. He began his experiments in painting in the tradition of the American Scene School of the 1930s and formed his aesthetic theories on the varied landscapes of the desert, and these set the conditions for his life's work—and his iconoclasm.

In 1934, when he was twenty, Walton went for a walk with the painter James Swinnerton on the outskirts of Las Vegas—in the region later known as the Strip—taking perceptual and intellectual notice of light and shadow beneath the scrub brush. A San Franciscan by birth, he had already been perplexed by the possibilities of light/shadow and landscape, and the desert offered new puzzles to his senses and intellect. But he was not content with yuccas, pinions, or the traditional cowboys, horses, and ghost towns as his subjects.

Walton's professional life has been a series of reachings-out and comingshome. At Swinnerton's urging, he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where his native talents found encouragement from several leading artists of the era. Back in Reno in 1936 under the sponsorship of the Federal Arts Project, he embraced the tradition of American scene painting in a manner that was more iconographic than representational. Enchanted by the Mark Twain stories, he painted four large studies, including Tom, Huck, and the Dead Cat and Aunt Polly's Sid. They were intended for the Washoe County Library, but like so much of the painting of that era, they were shuffled aside and placed in storage during the war years. Neglected and damaged while in the custody of the federal government, two of them eventually were partially recovered and the segments transferred to the National Museum of American Art in Washington, where they have occasionally been shown.

During his youthful years, Walton had shows at the University of Chicago, at San Francisco's DeYoung Museum and Museum of Art, and in New York galleries. Despite invitations and temptations to establish residence near such institutions, he repeatedly returned to Nevada, where his aesthetic demon seemed to serve his talent best.

Nevada provided much scope for his restless spirit. He has explored the world of the Basque sheepherder and the Las Vegas Strip and distilled visual matter from them for his paintings. (Works of this genre, among others, were exhibited at the Reed Whipple Cultural Center in Las Vegas in 1982.) He produced murals for one of the Fremont Street casinos in Las Vegas in 1956, and one for the vestibule of the Federal Court House in Reno in 1968.

Cultivating a fondness for the camera over the years, Walton has made an extensive collection of his own photographic studies of Virginia City, where he built a house in the 1950s and where he and his wife, Vivian, continue to reside.

But he needed more scope for his work than Nevada provided. An aggressive curiosity about world and national events has persistently challenged him. During World War II he executed a chilling Self-portrait of Hitler, with a tyrannical eye and mustache, peering through a swastika. Frustration with the American political scene evoked cynical representations of Senator Humph (Hubert Humphrey) and Arizona Patriot (an impression of Senator Barry Goldwater as a candidate for president in 1964).

The explorations of his recent years have taken him far from the Nevada base at times. He has sought various locales for experiencing the interaction of light, water, and space—the Caribbean, Holland, Tahiti, and Hawaii. In his Greek Series he rendered Odysseus Rex and Heracles in His Lion's Hood. He has wrestled with the non-Euclidian geometry of the German mathematician George Riemann and with the reasonings of modern physicists (the Lorenz Transformation) and rendered them in paint.

The restlessness of his nature, the yearning to account in a two dimensional format for the fourth dimension as well as the third, provide a basic clue to his work. In several paintings that flow from darkness into light (or is it in the opposite direction?) we are invited to contemplate the space behind us that we can never see, unless we turn, whereupon we create another void at our backs.

Walton has a skill with words as well as with paint. He writes often, long, and intensely, sometimes following the stream-of-consciousness technique. "I am part scribe, part illustrator," he says. "We artists, in the past, were the current television. Now we have been displaced by celebrities . . . I am essentially a documenter . . . I am part shaman."

As he spoke these lines (at the end of 1989), Walton was preparing for his second show in the Bay Area in recent years, and contemplating the role and responsibility of art in the twenty-first century:

Faced with the impossibility of reproducing nature in paint, artists of the new century will respond to the call of science in ways we cannot imagine, the era's media not yet invented. New masters in the arts will confront possibilities that will boggle the human mind.

In a twenty-first century of re-born thinking, the artist-type might not be the freaked-out oddball of recent days. Artists responding to the scientist level may experience a new spectrum of creative work. Will the artist of the twenty-first century be limited to eye-scope? How will that artist respond to inner-space and to the projections of outer-space? At either extreme lies a gamut of inspiration outpacing the bravest dreams. From an experience of disappointment as well as joy spanning three-quarters of a century, I face gridlock in the arts as well as an explosion of wonderment.

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