A New Type of Canvas

Sir Walt Andrade’s hard-fought journey is one paved with mud, sweat and tears

 

Story by Joshua Cannon
Photos by Nate Packard

 

Arts & Culture | Art | November 2013

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It’s a muggy Memphis afternoon on the corner of Tutwiler Avenue and Merton Street. From behind his front door, the sound of two yelping poodles “Chewy” and “Baby Boy” pull Walter Andrade, or “Sir Walt,” from the front porch of his yellow and white studio, an archaic house in an aging neighborhood, into his home.
Standing in the center of his living-room-turned-art-studio, Andrade immerses himself in a world of his own creation known as “Mudworkz,” a series of three-dimensional graphic art pieces constructed from salvaged sheetrock, mud, wood and paint that would have typically found their way to a landfill. Andrade affixes the discarded materials to a canvas through glue, cement or whatever else the artist finds handy. He paints his new, makeshift canvas in rich, earthy tones from a mixture of discarded house paint and mud. The result is a result is a rich, textured work of art that can only be described as an Andrade original.
At 53 years old, his grey dreadlocks hang like wilted wildflowers and flow down the center of his back. His hands bear the unique roughness of a man that has spent years creating and laboring with them. Andrade’s art, as well as his entire life, are led by inspiration and positivity. A large Ankh, an Egyptian symbol representing eternal life, hangs from his neck, reminding him to maintain positivity and not “carry his problems into tomorrow.”
The room smells similar to a construction site – but for Andrade, this room is sacred. Its purpose is to fulfill a different kind of construction. Here, Sir Walt’s passion comes to life. In this room, his salvaged supplies from construction jobs transform into Mudworkz. Pieces of his art surround him in every direction, nearly covering the entirety of his walls. Various portraits of famous Memphians such as Mayor AC Wharton and B.B. King lay stacked upright on the floor against dozens of his other previous and current works. “Mudworkz is inspired from greatness,” he says.
And with his materials in tow, Mudworkz has taken Andrade to places he had only dreamed of. One of his most recent exhibits, “Mudworkz With Memphis,” depicts a collection of his Memphian muses in the form of paintings of icons like Isaac Hayes and slain police officer Martoiya Lang. With a series of more than 20 paintings of prominent locals and renowned celebrities, Andrade’s work is a celebration of life in the city and emphasizes the beauty that can come from unexpected avenues.
“My inspiration is people, places and organizations that are pushing the envelope and are at the top of the game. Doing negative images can’t inspire me,” he says.
When Andrade was 12 years old, he sat with his best friend at his mother’s kitchen table in Bridgeport, CT., competing to see who could sketch the best picture of their favorite comic book superhero. At that moment, an artistic spark ignited in him that would inspire his entire life. Growing up, Andrade wasn’t motivated to pursue his passion for art. He’s never had any formal teaching and never attended art school. According to him, his parents’ priority was being able to see their son support himself rather than becoming a starving artist. “My parents always thought that being a doctor or lawyer – you know, these high-end jobs – were the way to go,” he says. “But there are groups of people that have to do creative stuff. We can’t go to school for certain things we aren’t going to be happy with. I got a job to just pay the bills, not realizing that art is the basis of everything in existence.”
In an effort to still use his hands and be able to create something, Andrade began finishing drywall to support himself. Eventually, this led to what would become a 30-year career in the construction field as a self-managed interior designer. Working construction, he began to see that nearly everything aside from the plants and trees started as an idea in someone’s mind. While art had always just been a hobby for Andrade, it was slowly taking over his entire outlook on life.
While he now focuses his sights on positive energy, it was destroying the demons plaguing his journey that brought him to where he is today. After overcoming a battle with alcoholism, the artist began to truly harness his talents – transforming them from a occasional pastime into an active part of his everyday life. “Nothing was coming out of me,” he says. “I was paying the bills, but I wasn’t being productive. When I stopped drinking beer, I lost seven pounds. My mind started shifting to positive things. I started sitting down at my sketch table. I started putting things out instead of taking things in.”
At 40 years old, Andrade finally decided to take his passion for art to a level he hadn’t previously imagined. He enrolled at Bauder College in Atlanta, GA, and received his Associate’s degree in graphic design. Conquering programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Andrade learned how to take his visions into uncharted territory. He wasn’t set on using his degree to get him a good job. In fact, he despised the idea. He didn’t want to work for Hallmark creating greeting cards, and he didn’t want to sit behind a desk following the orders of someone else. He also didn’t want to sell prints of computer art on T-shirts. In his mind, that had been overdone far too many times. In 2004, He moved to Detroit, MI, and after having trouble finding steady construction work, he began brainstorming for a fresh idea. Looking around at the collected scraps from his job sites, he experienced an epiphany. “I had been working with mud and textures for the last 30 years,” he says. “That’s when it came to me: Mud works. That’s how I came up with the name for my company, too.”
In 2009, he began his very first Mudworkz project: a series that would continue to evolve and gain much attention once he found himself in the city of Memphis – a city where he had “roots,” due to visiting his grandparents as a child, who once lived here.
Stepping through Andrade’s backdoor is a bit like walking through a closet and entering Narnia. On his tiny back porch, a towering Mudworkz of Isaac Hayes’ “Black Moses” stands glorified on a tall cross, overlooking a backyard that feels otherworldly when compared to the disparate North Memphis neighborhood trappings surrounding it. Pebbled rocks cover the ground and scatter their way to the front door of a three-story building that looks more like a work of fiction than anything else. “Mississippi Cain” grows along the entirety of the fence, making it impossible to see into the yard from the other side. A giant tree canopies over the yard, and makes its way through a wooden balcony that extends from the doors of a third floor room belonging to an elderly man, Alex Jankowski, who yells a loud “Hey Walt, come here!” as he pokes his head from the front door of the building. Once again, Andrade finds himself engulfed in another world as he steps into Jankowski’s dwelling. Roaring jazz blares at high volume, bouncing off of the walls where Jankowski’s art hangs.
“This place has served as a home for starving artists since 1987,” Jankowski says with a cigarette perched between his lips. From studying ballet to working as a set designer on films and to traveling through Northern Italy, Jankowski has done a little bit of everything. Andrade is not shy to admit that Jankowski is the mentor he never had. Neither of them have a vast amount of wealth to their name, but in a generation dominated by technology and computers, they are breathing proof that the human brain and the hand are still incomparable roles in the artistic process.
 “There’s one thing no one can ever take away from you, and that’s your knowledge and imagination,” Andrade says. “Sheetrock and mud, you know, that may not be considered fine art. I may never get into the Brooks Museum, but that doesn’t bother me. Obviously, I would like to make money and for Mudworkz to be marketable, but my main drive is just to show people that you can make something out of anything.”
For Andrade, there is no longer any separation between his construction work and his artwork – it all runs together as one. While he’s had no formal artistic teaching, everything he does in his “Mudworkz” comes from what he has learned to do in people’s homes over the years. His art is the product of a lifetime of learning from the construction business. “I’m happier now than I’ve ever been,” Andrade says as a crooked smile spreads across his face. “Follow your passion, It took me 40 years to find mine and bring it out, and now I’m thinking about a new project every day. We’ve all got something to offer.”

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